Grant School board to voters: Pass referendum, or we're closing

News-DemocratNovember 4, 2013 

The school board at Grant School District 110 in Fairview Heights has taken preliminary steps to place a referendum on the ballot during the March primary, asking voters for a property tax increase.

Without the increase, school officials say District 110 will close.

"We have to have the increase," District 110 Superintendent Matt Stines said. "Without it, we are not going to survive."

Voters must pass this referendum in order for the district to keep operating, according to Stines. If it doesn't pass, he said he'll file paperwork with the St. Clair Regional Office of Education to dissolve the district, which includes Illini Elementary School and Grant Middle School in Fairview Heights.

"If we don't get the revenue, we are going to dissolve," Stines said. "We're going to hit a point where we won't have money to pay the bills. The option is then either somebody bails us out -- the state swoops in and gives us free money -- or we dissolve."

Parent Jeanne Fusselman of Fairview Heights said she doesn't doubt that District 110 will follow through with the closing if the referendum fails. Fusselman said dissolving is "inevitable. It's a little sad, but it's completely unavoidable with the lack of funding."

Fusselman, who is against the referendum, has one child at Grant Middle School and another in high school.

Amy McCann, president of the Grant-Illini Parent Teacher Organization, is hopeful the district stays intact, and said the PTO is supporting the district's referendum.

"I believe with consistent efforts we can pass it this time and make something that will work for our schools and our families," said McCann, who has two sons who attend school in District 110.

Stines described dissolution as a "forced consolidation" where a committee of 10 decides what will have the "least negative impact," with the final decision up to the Regional Board of Trustees.

Stines said all 720 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, at District 110 could be shifted to a single neighboring district if it has the capacity, or the students could be divided between several different districts. School districts that surround District 110 include East St. Louis District 189, Belleville District 118, Wolf Branch District 113 and Pontiac-William Holliday District 105.

"We would not have physical classroom space to absorb 700 students," District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman said. "I'm sure we can absorb some."

St. Clair Regional Office of Education Superintendent Susan Sarfaty said dissolving a school district is "not a simple process" and requires a vote by the local school board or a vote in a regular election by the public. Once a vote for dissolution is approved, Sarfaty said a committee of 10 homeowners in the district comes together to act on behalf of the entire district and file the petition for dissolution and work with the Regional Board of Trustees. "It's up to the Regional Board of Trustees to decide what to do," she said.

It's been at least 50 years since a school district in St. Clair County was dissolved, according to Sarfaty.

Stines is hoping the third time is the charm for the referendum. District 110 has had two previous referendums asking for a tax increase fail. The most recent one in April was defeated by 68 votes. In April 2011, the referendum was strongly rejected by a 2-1 margin with 1,221 votes against it and 579 in favor of it.

The district is asking voters to approve an 85-cent tax rate hike, bringing the rate from $1.42 to $2.27 per $100 of assessed valuation. For the owner of a $100,000 house, Stines said the tax increase would cost approximately $8.25 a month.

"It's a minimal amount of money," he said. "Eight dollars a month is affordable for just about any family."

In contrast to the roughly $99 a year the district says the increase would cost homeowners, Fusselman said it would be close to a $200-a-year jump for her and most other families in the district.

"We simply can't afford it," she said. "It's way too much of an increase to ask for in this poor community."

Stines said the district will be paying off some debt, which would reduce the amount of the increase for taxpayers in the district.

If passed, the referendum would raise $700,000 a year for the district's operations.

Why is it needed?

Stines described the finances of the district as "not good" since it has to borrow against its working cash in order to keep the district operational. He anticipates the district will use up all its working cash by April.

If this happens, Stines said the district will need to secure a line of credit, which he compared to a "payday loan," as the district will be forced to borrow against the revenue generated from next year's taxes. "It's a horrible place to be," he said.

The district's recent audit showed it spent $763,000 more than it took in due to a lack of revenue. Currently, the district is nearly $1.5 million "in the hole," Stines said. "When you don't have the revenue coming in to pay off your debt, your debt just gets bigger; we are kind of on a landslide right now."

District 110 has "already made all the cuts we can," according to Stines. The district cut 17 percent of its budget or $983,000 in 2010. He said the district cut its art, band, chorus and gifted education programs, computer teacher, part-time nurse, school resource officer and four grade-level teachers. "To talk about cuts at this point, would mean class sizes at mid-30s, pushing 40s," Stines said. "Physically that's not possible, and educationally, that's just dumb."

What's next?

District 110 school board will have a final vote on placing a referendum on the March ballot at its meeting Tuesday, Nov. 26. Following that vote, Stines said he will file the necessary paperwork with St. Clair County for the referendum.

"If people vote yes, they can ensure they stay in a quality district, and their kids are well cared for," Stines said. "The school is the most important institution to keeping a community stable. We have to have this (the referendum) to continue our operations."

District 110 serves 720 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, and employs 90 staff members. For more information on the referendum, check out the Facebook page by searching Grant District 110 -- Referendum.

What are other districts doing?

Like Grant District 110, O'Fallon School District 90 also had a property tax increase rejected by voters in April. The district was asking voters for a 49-cent increase, which would have brought the education fund rate from $1.40 to $1.89.

District 90 Superintendent Todd Koehl said the district will not go out for another referendum in March. District 90 has been exploring the option of consolidating.

Smithton School District 130 had a referendum defeated by voters in April as well. The district was seeking $12 million in school building bonds for a new middle school and upgrades to the existing school.

District 130 Superintendent Susan Holmes said the district doesn't currently have plans to go out for another referendum in March as the school board wants to form a growth committee to explore options and gather information about what will be best for the district in the long-term.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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