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State education commissioner backs complaint by three board members

Three Holland School Board members who filed a complaint against the actions of their fellow board members last year learned that the state education commissioner agrees with them.

Stephen Welk, Fred Thurnherr and Larry Krzeminski petitioned the commissioner, saying that the district should not have retained $521,000 in unreserved funds after the 2009-10 school year. Doing so would have meant the district's reserves would exceed the 4 percent allowed by state education law.

They cast the dissenting votes at an Aug. 23 meeting during which the board debated what to do with the excess funds, insisting the money should be returned to taxpayers by lowering the tax levy.

The three board members called the ruling by the commissioner a "vindication" and precedent-setting, although a number of school districts statewide have been cited by the education commissioner for similar infractions.

"Four percent is the law," Welk said. "You don't keep all you can get."

School Board President Steve Marom, one of the board members who voted to retain the funds, defended the board's actions Monday. He said the fiscal atmosphere last year fostered uncertainty, including rumors of state aid cuts, making the board more cautious.

"We took actions at the time that were in the best interest of the district," he said. "They can spin this however they want -- but the only thing that happened to us was a slap on the wrist. We've already applied the $521,000 to the 2011-12 budget to lower the tax levy. My view is that the district could have saved thousands of dollars in legal fees without this."

Welk, Thurnherr and Krzeminski originally petitioned the commissioner on behalf of "residents of the Holland School District," but their request for class status was denied, as was their request that the money be returned to the taxpayers without delay. The commissioner stated that, once tax bills are mailed, there is no mechanism by which that can be done.

Superintendent Dennis Johnson noted that school districts are allowed to retain funds in excess of 4 percent if they are placed in an appropriate reserve account such as the employee retirement system account, something he said the board might consider this year.