Senator Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) has asked the Legislative Audit Bureau to audit the Waukesha School District’s use of “community service funds” (called “Fund 80” by Madison Metropolitan School District) to finance high school pool project.
The following article from the April 15 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel includes a larger discussion about how funds are being used in other Milwaukee-area communities and whether those uses conform to state law.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 15, 2005
Senator requests audit of Waukesha schools
He questions use of funds related to pool project
By AMY HETZNER
Posted: April 14, 2005
One of the fastest growing, and perhaps least regulated, of school district expenditures could get increased scrutiny because of questions over the financing of a Waukesha high school pool expansion.
State Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) has asked the state Legislative Audit Bureau to audit the Waukesha School District’s use of April 2001 referendum funds, particularly as they relate to the pool.
An audit is far from certain because the bureau usually confines its work to state operations, Kanavas concedes. But Chris Kliesmet, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Government, said he hopes the situation will prompt the state’s attorney general and lawmakers to take a stronger hand in enforcing a law that allows school districts to raise tax levies to pay for “community services” outside of the revenue caps that restrict their operating funds.
“They went and, we feel, violated if not the letter of the law, the spirit of the law,” Kliesmet said of Waukesha school officials’ use of the district’s community service levy to pay for the pool project. “I guess that’s for a court to decide.”
Waukesha School Board members say they have done nothing wrong and have even consulted with an attorney and the state Department of Public Instruction for verification.
“We wouldn’t have done what we did if we felt there were any issues,” School Board member Daniel Warren said. “From day one, we felt it was and still feel it is an appropriate use of those funds.”
Service levies up 170%
Taxes levied statewide for schools’ community service funds have exploded 170%, to $45.9 million this school year, since 2000-’01 when the state first removed them from the restrictions of revenue caps, Department of Public Instruction records show. That compares with a 23% increase in the total amount levied by school districts over the same five-year period.
The community service money has paid for everything from clerical and custodial salaries related to community use of school facilities to playgrounds and anti-drug programming. And, while the Department of Public Instruction offers some guidance, districts have been largely on their own in determining what might qualify for community service funds.
But in Waukesha, a group of taxpayers is challenging their district’s use of community service funds – $800,000 this school year – to help pay for an enlarged competition pool at South High School.
Voters had approved spending about $1 million in a 2001 referendum to repair the pool. That amount, as well as the pool, expanded after the Waukesha Express Swim Team offered to contribute toward a larger pool.
Critics of the pool project contend that state law allows community service money to go only toward programming, not toward buildings.
And they also contest whether the district’s use of the funds is really for a community service, given that a contract to help secure more funding for the pool gives special access to the swim team.
“I had probably a dozen, roughly a dozen, constituents who asked, ‘Is this kosher, the way that they’re spending the money?’ ” Kanavas said. “I said, ‘I think it is. But I’m not sure, so we can check.’ ”
Use of funds defended
Waukesha school officials, like those elsewhere, defend their use of community service funds.
Some school districts run the recreation departments for their communities.
In some of those cases, school officials say, the rapid growth in their community service funds just represents a recent move to account for such costs in their proper place, something that has grown in importance with the restrictions revenue caps put on their everyday budgets.
David Ewald, superintendent of the South Milwaukee School District, said he can see where there would be a “real temptation” to increase community service funds “because we’re all so tight with money that we have to use whatever resources we could use.”
But he said, at least in his district, that is not why the community service levy increased more than $200,000 last year, to nearly a half-million dollars. The new cash infusion is going to pay personnel and new equipment costs related to the addition of a performing arts center and fitness center at the high school, he said.
“Even though there’s a commitment to having them self-funded after two years, there are start-up costs involved in those,” Ewald said.
At the Hartland-Lakeside School District in Waukesha County, its $230,000 community service fund went toward adding playground equipment at Hartland North Elementary School as well as helping to expand adult education classes available to the community, according to district Business Manager Peter Balzer. The district hired a part-time community education director whose salary is paid out of the fund, he said.
Such programming would not be available if the district could not raise funds through its community service levy, Balzer said.
“We would not provide programs to those beyond Hartland-Lakeside . . . if we had to cut programs for our students,” he said.