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Madison School Board conflicted over 7 percent tax increase

By Theo Keith, tkeith@wisctv.com
Published On: Apr 22 2013 08:43:40 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 23 2013 07:05:12 PM CDT
MADISON, Wis. -

The majority of Madison school board members on Monday rejected a proposal to increase property taxes 7.4 percent, which the district's superintendent called the most "for quite some time."

It wasn't an official vote, but it came in response to a question posed by Superintendent Jen Cheatham. Cheatham hadn't arrived in Madison when district staff wrote the draft budget [PDF], and said she wanted input on how to improve it.

"I know how I feel, and I share the concerns of quite a few of the board members about raising taxes to that extent," Cheatham said.

Board president James Howard and members Arlene Silveira and Mary Burke said they wouldn't support a property tax increase near the 7.4 percent mark.

The typical Madison homeowner pays about $2,500 in property taxes annually toward the school district, and the proposed hike would mean nearly an average of $185 extra.

"Homeowners and consumers are still in a depressed state, and I don't think we're at a point where we can raise taxes that high," Howard said.

Burke said the district could lose the support of the community after a significant tax increase.

But members Dean Loumos and T.J. Mertz, who were both backed by Madison Teachers, Inc., on their way to election victories earlier in April, said they would support a tax increase to the maximum amount allowed.

“I believe we should invest in our children and in our students to the fullest authority allowed by law,” Mertz said at Monday’s meeting.

Board members Marj Passman and Ed Hughes said their views fell somewhere in the middle.

"Do I think we have to increase taxes? Yes," Passman said. "We'll have to decide how much our taxpayers will take."

The draft budget included a 2.5 percent raise for district staff. One percent is mandated by the union contract, with 1.5 percent additional.

Despite her opposition to the larger tax increase, Cheatham said she supported the raises "if we can make it happen."

Cheatham will make her own budget recommendations in July, and the board will make a final decision on the budget by October.

She said taking the superintendent's job in the middle of the budget process has made for additional challenges, and said she wanted a better line-by-line analysis of the district's costs for next year's budget.

"My instinct is telling me that we are going to find savings there," Cheatham said.

But Howard said cost savings would be hard to find.

"There's absolutely no fat. We know that for certain," he said. "We've been cutting for years."

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