Falling real estate values, state budget cuts in education money and losses in federal dollars have all created a perfect storm for school districts in Illinois and a Fairview Heights school district hopes voters will pass a tax increase to help it keep educating children.
In April, voters in the district will see a referendum on the ballot asking them to approve a tax increase that will directly pay for the schools.
The district is asking for a tax increase that equals an estimated $99 a year, or about $8.25 a month, for the owner of a $100,000 home to keep Grant Middle and Illini Elementary schools open.
Grant School District 110 in Fairview Heights cut its budget by $983,808 since the 2009-2010 budget year and eliminated many educational programs to keep the district afloat. Falling real estate values means fewer tax dollars and cuts in both state and federal education money forced the district to cut all but the basics.
"We absolutely have to have it," said district Superintendent Matt Stines. "It's a necessity for our district to keep operating. It's important for people as homeowners. It's important for our community for our school district to stay strong. Without a strong school district, we don't have a strong community, and without a strong community, real estate values fall."
The district asked voters to approve a similar tax increase in 2011; the referendum failed. The district implemented nearly $1 million in cuts to keep its doors open after voters failed to approve the educational fund tax increase. Because it is not in the same taxing district, District 110 does not receive any sales tax money from St. Clair Square or retail merchants on retail district end of town. It relies almost exclusively on real estate taxes.
"We cut 17 percent of our education fund," Stines said. "We cut art, music, computer classes, band, chorus and P.E. We don't have them any more. We cut the number of classes where we could but we really don't want to see class sizes over 30 because that's tough on the kids. Cutting all these programs was a direct result of the referendum failing in 2011."
The last time a referendum was passed to increase the education fund tax was in 1985.
Stines added that the district could cut extracurricular activities and sports, but eliminating those would save the district about $38,000 a year, which is not enough to cover the cost of hiring one teacher back.
Jen Knepper, the parent of a third grader at Illini Elementary School and president of the PTO, said she hopes voters see the need of the district and pass the referendum.
"We have no other choice, honestly," she said. "There's nothing else to cut. I hope that when people see that small amount they could figure out a way to budget for it. I'm hoping that $8 a month is not a big amount for people and they see we need it, because we really do."
Grant Middle School parent Karen Meirink supports the referendum and said she hopes the community will put its support behind it.
"Our district has had to make a number of cuts over the past couple of year that really aren't fair to our children and makes our children less able to compete," Meirink said. Her daughter is an eighth grader. "We've lost programs: Computer, music, P.E., art and we have larger class sizes. These kids are all going to Belleville East and they won't be able to compete in those programs like marching band and choir because they won't be prepared for them."
Meirink's daughter was in the gifted program in grade school and the band and chorus. All three were eliminated.
"She was really into art and we lost the art program, we lost the art teacher and the art club and she was really sad to see those go," Meirink said. "She has definitely been impacted."
The proposed education tax rate raises the existing rate from 1.42 percent to 2.27 percent and would go into effect in 2014. If approved by voters, the taxes would give the district a budget of $8,954,351, which is 9 percent more than its current budget of $7,909,382. The current budget includes the 17 percent cut made to programs in the district. That budget includes money from the state and the federal government.
"It's $8 and change a month for an average household in the district," Meirink said. "I just went to Chick-fil-A for lunch and I spent $8.65 for a salad and a Diet Coke. For the cost of a lunch we can keep our school, that's what we are looking at. For me, $8 and change is so worth it and our kids are worth it."
The district spends an average of $9,800 per student per year, which is on par with other districts in the region. The district has about 730 students, pre-K through eighth grade. Out of 32 districts in St. Clair County, District 110 ranks 26th on its education fund. Only five districts have a lower education fund rate.
The district managed to stay operational by borrowing money from its working cash fund, which is similar to a home equity loan, but it is out of borrowing ability.
What happens if the voters don't approve the educational fund tax increase?
"We are operating bare bones right now," Stines said. "If it doesn't pass this time, we don't have enough left to cut to make up for the deficit. If that happens, we die on the vine. If that happens we have to look at dissolution and figure out where all these kids would go. Basically, I'd sell the farm and mortgage everything we've got and keep going until we get absorbed. It would be like maxing out all your credit cards just to pay your bills."
Tiffany Baldwin has a fourth grader and a kindergartner at Illini Elementary. She is also a member of the school board.
"No one likes to pay more money, no one likes more money coming out of their paycheck or their tax bill," Baldwin said. "This is money that goes to education so we are investing in education. Paying that small amount can be hard for some people that are struggling, but there are returns on that investments. Not just for your child if you have a child in the district, but if you increase spending per pupil, especially on the local level, that money is spent more efficiently, locally, and for every dollar spent on education, property values increase. You don't even have to like kids or feel altruistic about education, but, if you own a home in the district, think about the property values in the district increasing because of a good school district."
* More information and discussion about the Grant School District 110 referendum to raise taxes can be found at www.dist110.com/referendum or on Facebook at the Grant District 110-Referendum page. Questions can be directed to the district office at 398-5577 or by emailing email@example.com.
* This is the referendum question proposed to appear on the April ballot: "Shall the maximum tax rate for the tax which Grant Community Consolidated School District No. 110, St. Clair County, Illinois, levies for educational purposes, be increased by 0.85 percent, from the currently authorized rate of 1.42 percent to a rate not to exceed 2.27 percent upon the value of taxable property within the District as equalized or assessed by the Department of Revenue, as authorized by Article 17 of the School Code?"
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2667. About the Grant referendum