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July 27, 2006

Community service levies climb since cap lifted

Five years after state legislators released them from state-imposed revenue caps, school districts' community service tax levies have nearly tripled, reaching $49 million this year.

The rampant growth in these property taxes - earmarked for community-based activities - took place as the total levies for schools statewide rose by 22.7%.

That has raised concerns about school districts skating around revenue limits and has prompted one lawmaker to request an audit of the program.

State Rep. Debi Towns (R-Janesville) said she is curious why property taxes that pay for recreational and community activities offered by school districts have grown so much since the 2000-'01 school year. In that time, the number of school districts raising taxes for such services has doubled to 240.

"I'm not saying anyone's misspending. I'm just saying the fund has grown tremendously, and the purpose never changed," said Towns, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. In November, Towns called for the Legislative Audit Bureau to study how select school districts use their community service levies.

"So that, of course, leads to a natural questioning of what are they doing differently now than they were doing before," she said.

The growth in the community service levies is expected to continue next year.

Arts, police, pools

Already, Milwaukee Public Schools has launched a arts education program through its recreation centers that it expects to fund with $1 million in community service funds. The Mukwonago School District plans to keep a police officer in its high school, despite the recent loss of a grant, with a $60,000 boost in property taxes from its community service levy.

The Menomonee Falls School District, which has not raised its levy for recreation and community activities in more than a decade, is counting on a $180,000, or 63%, increase next school year to continue operating one of its two pools.

School administrators say they have a simple explanation for why they are turning to their community service levies more now than they did when they were capped - it didn't matter before. Because both the general and community service funds were restricted by revenue caps and eligible for state aid, it was simply an accounting preference whether a district paid for it from one fund or the other.
Athletics or academics?

But once the Legislature removed the caps on the community service levies for the 2000-'01 school year and gave school districts an opportunity to keep their recreational activities from conflicting with educational programs, more took advantage of it.

"I think - when you look at districts across the state - that's really what caused the jump," said Art Rainwater, superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, which in 2005-'06 had the largest community service levy in the state.

Like some of the bigger community service funds, Madison's supports a full recreation department with adult and youth programming. But it also helps pay for television production activities, after-school activities, a gay and lesbian community program coordinator and part of a social worker's time to work with low-income families, Rainwater said.

The School District's community service levy is expected to grow to $10.5 million in the coming school year. In contrast, the same levy for Milwaukee Public Schools - which serves nearly four times as many children in its educational programs - is expected to reach $9.3 million, said Michelle Nate, the district's director of finance.

Although the state Department of Public Instruction has issued guidelines to school districts on how they should use their community service levies, it leaves it up to local residents to decide whether their school boards do so wisely and legally.

In the Greendale School District, which at $990,000 had the sixth-largest community service levy in the state last school year, business manager Erin Gauthier-Green acknowledges that her school system has gotten good use out of the fund.

But she also said the School District plans to reduce the property taxes it levies for community services by $300,000 next year now that it has completed some repair projects and before taxpayers complain.

"We know it can be a hot-button issue," Gauthier-Green said.

July 22, 2006

Posted by Ruth Robarts at July 27, 2006 2:31 PM
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