Burlington Area School District Ignores Wishes of Residents, Votes to Tax to the Max

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

The Burlington Board of Education met Thursday night as a Committee of the Whole to discuss proposing a tax levy to be passed at their September 12 meeting. Board of Education President Dr. David Thompson said that September 12t was the deadline for the district to refinance their obligations and that it would be impossible under Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law for Burlington residents to meet in time to approve a different levy.

According to Thompson, Burlington residents should have approved a different tax levy amount at last Monday’s meeting when the voters rejected the proposed 3.69% increase in the tax levy. Because no tax levy amount was passed at the last meeting, the responsibility again belonged to the Board. Making matters more interesting in Burlington, the Board could also adjust the levy as needed throughout the school year.

Burlington residents are nicer than their school board president gave them credit for being. At the beginning of Thursday night’s meeting, Thompson told the audience who almost filled the high school auditorium that because Burlington was a civilized community, he expected the community to behave in a civilized manner during the public comment portion of the meeting.

At least one resident took exception to the admonishment, pointing out that nobody was banging on drums trying to intimidate the school board. Another resident said, “I’m probably one of those Klansmen I heard about on the radio.” He was referring to a report from WISN-AM’s Mark Belling that when Belling inquired into a possible threat made against a board member, her husband called Belling’s listeners, “Klansmen.”

The public comment portion of the meeting was restricted to 30 minutes, two minutes each, for a total of 15 members of the community allowed to speak. The members of the public that wished to speak lined up in an orderly fashion near the stage and each of them took their turns at the microphone.

Two-thirds of the public commenters spoke in opposition to tax increases, many of them offering suggestions of where to cut the budget. One younger resident suggested that if teachers just contributed $40 per week for their health care and if the raises for the administration passed last spring were repealed, that would eliminate the need for a tax increase.

Many of the speakers focused on the increased salaries for the Burlington School District’s administration passed last spring, including the District Superintendent. Others commented how much their property taxes have gone up and the difficulty of paying more in a down economy, asking the board to consider that in their deliberations.

One resident even questioned why the board and the superintendent did not tell them at Monday’s meeting that their vote was not going to count.
There was a particularly odd moment during the public comments when Jennifer Eisenbart of the Burlington Standard Press spoke pointing out different times and articles where the newspaper had covered the budget debate prior to this week and offered to show the audience the articles in question. I asked Eisenbart about speaking during the public comment portion afterwards and she explained that her editor asked her to speak if she thought that there was misinformation about the newspaper’s coverage of the school district budget. Despite speaking at a public meeting, Eisenbart was defensive about being photographed and was reluctant to give her full name.

After the public spoke, District Superintendent Dr. David Moyer said what he considered were the three options in front of the Board of Education.

  1. They could pass a zero increase in the tax levy. This would not only have a “devastating” effect on the district, but would impact the ability of the district to “capture” more revenue in the following years. As each year’s revenue limits are based upon the previous year’s expenditures, not spending money today would hamper the district’s ability to tax more from the district next year.
  2. The district could pass a lower tax levy increase than the one originally recommended. Moyer said this would not please anyone as it would not make those residents happy that are opposed to any tax levy increase, and it would again limit the amount of revenue the district could collect in the future because of the lower baseline.
  3. The district could go for the full tax levy available as originally planned. While this would upset the residents that are opposed to tax increases, it would meet all of the funding goals for this year, allow them to put more money into reserves, allow the district to collect more money next year in tax revenue, and make next year’s budget process easier than it currently portends.

In other words, in those three points Moyer attempted to justify the “tax to the max” strategy of increasing taxes this year in order to maximize the available taxes in future years. Moyer even lamented how, in the years prior to his appointment as superintendent, the district to not tax to the revenue caps and that was limiting the revenue potential now. “The consequences of doing that in a declining enrollment district is that we lost $400,000 that would be potentially available to us that we could not recover.”

“And if we do not approve the levy that was recommended this year then when we go into what I amexpecting will be a more difficult budget year next year, we will again lose money that we will never have an opportunity to recover due to a declining enrollment.”

A confused and perplexed Board of Education debated ways to reduce the increase in the tax levy. Could they avoid contributing $140,000 to reserves to carry over to next year? How much would the end of a TIF district impact the amount of revenue needed? At one point, a member of the administration explained to the board how an equalized property tax increase actually works.

When a motion was finally made for a recommendation to the full board, it was for the full, administration-recommended increase in the tax levy. Board member Larry Anderson, seemingly the most informed of the school board members, moved to approve the increase, and it passed 5-2, despite the overwhelming preference of the residents at two consecutive meetings.

Voting against the increase were board members Rosanne Hahn and Susan Kessler. The rest of the Board of Education will have until the final vote on September 12th to decide if they hear the voices of their constituents, or if the only voices they hear are those of the administration.

Whether or not they understand it, five members of the school district voted to endorse the concept of “tax to the max.” Tax today so they can tax more tomorrow.

On the other hand, many of the Burlington residents opposed to the tax increase are people that were never politically active before. There was no identified leader or group organizing the opposition that I could find. For some of the residents, this was the first time they ever attended a school board meeting. That is how Tea Party movements are born.