Grant voters to decide school's fate

News-DemocratMarch 15, 2014 

The future of Grant School District 110 in Fairview Heights is unclear.

If voters don't approve the property tax increase Tuesday, Superintendent Matt Stines said the district would be forced to close. However, community members remain split on the issue.

Former Grant student Ashley Zelechowski, 20, who still lives in the district, said she hopes the referendum passes because she wants her future children to attend the same school she, her dad, brothers and cousins attended and where her nieces and nephews currently attend.

"Grant really is an incredible district with individuals who go beyond their job description," she said. "I know giving out more money sucks, but an uneducated world will suck even more."

District 110, which includes Illini Elementary School and Grant Middle School, is asking voters to approve an 85-cent tax rate increase, 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 about $8.25 a month.

Fairview Heights resident Beulah Bohnenstiehl said she can't afford a tax increase and plans to vote against the referendum. "For a senior citizen on a fixed income, it's pretty tough," she said. "We don't have any more to give."

Bohnenstiehl said her taxes would increase $125 for her home and another $100 for taxes on her mother's former house, where a family member lives.

Bohnenstiehl is not a fan of the tactics used by the Save District 110 Committee, which include hand-written postcards from students asking residents to save their school.

"I think it's so terrible that they are using the children. They are scaring them to death that they are going to lose their teachers," she said. "Nobody wants children to do without. I want to be able to keep my homes and be able to pay my bills."

Stines explained the Save District 110 Committee provided the postcards to teachers, and students had the option to complete them during indoor recess time. "If you want to fill it out, you can and the kids chose to," he said, noting the committee paid the postage to mail the postcards.

Bohnenstiehl also questioned why District 110 purchased property on Bunkum Hill Road in Fairview Heights.

Stines said the district bought 35 acres in 2007 for $1.8 million.

"At the time, we were busting at the seams on enrollment," Stines said, and the school board was considering constructing a new building. "It seemed right. We got a good deal on the property. No one saw 2008 and the collapse coming."

Stines said the property is for sale through the Barbara Murphy Group. "I'll take any reasonable offer," he said. However, "I can't take a low-ball offer and lose money for the district."

District 110 also has 8.5 acres of property on Illinois 50 for sale.

Financial picture

District 110 was forced to borrow money to pay outstanding bills, according to Stines. The board recently approved $1.5 million in bonds, a loan from the Bank of Edwardsville.

"We are allowed to do that to pay any debt we are obligated to," Stines said. "Working cash is running out."

The district is averaging $1.1 million in deficit every year and is expected to have $2.5 million total debt at the end of this school year, according to Stines.

"It doesn't take long before your debt is bigger than your budget," he said, "and you can't do business that way."

The Illinois State Board of Education released its financial profiles of public school districts in the state this week. District 110 is not listed in either of the two lowest categories -- financial watch or early warning. District 110 is designated as review, which is the second highest category.

Stines explained the district's financial profile is actually "skewed," because the district borrows money to pay its bills, which "artificially inflates the district's cash-on hand." Cash-on hand is one of the factors used to determine the district's overall financial profile.

If the referendum passes Tuesday, Stines said the additional $700,000 in revenue will begin coming into the district this year.

If it doesn't pass, the district will dissolve, he said.

District 110 school board members approved the first reading of the resolution to dissolve during its meeting last month. It will approve the second and final reading of the resolution during its meeting this month -- if the referendum fails.

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 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.

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

"I feel like the public is much better informed than they were before," Stines said. "Most folks are really understanding how dire it is now. We are finding more people are willing to support it this time."

Stines said Taxes will increase for homeowners in the district no matter what.

"A yes or a no vote -- the taxes are going up," he said. "If it's approved, its the $8 a month on $100,000 home. ... If it's a no vote and we dissolve, you're rolling the dice of what district you go to. No matter which one you go to you're taxes go up. ... One way or the other it's going to happen."

If the referendum fails and the district is forced to dissolve, Stines said District 110 would continue to operate next school year as it moves through the dissolution process. Then after that, the district would no longer exist.

If dissolved, District 110 taxpayers would be required to still pay taxes to the district until its debt is paid off, and Stines said taxpayers would also pay taxes to the new district they reside in.

Community reaction

Fairview Heights resident Pam Keck said she plans to vote against the referendum. "It's just not a well run school," she said. Keck had two sons who attended District 110.

Martin Erwin, of Fairview Heights, described the proposed tax increase as "unfair" for residents who do no have children in school.

"Many, many of us reside in the District 110 area and do not have children attending school and this proposed tax increase is very unfair," he said. "If the parents of children in this district insist on this, they and they alone should foot the bill for this, not all of us who have no children attending."

Grant Middle School parent Rhonda Elmore said adults who do not vote to approve the referendum are "doing the children that attend these schools a great disservice."

"These children are our future," she continued. "If we can not ensure them the education that they deserve, what will the future hold for all of us? I'm hoping that the residents look beyond the slight increase in taxes to look at the bigger picture."

Emily Menn, a teacher and a parent, said she's in favor of the referendum and would hate to see local schools close.

"I simply cannot understand why the members of our community would oppose this vote," Menn said. "I realize we live in a time of drastic financial stress but allowing our children to lose their school when we can do something about it is unimaginable."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

 

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