Round two was the winner for Edwardsville District 7, and administrators are now setting the course after successfully passing a property tax increase to fund the schools.
Superintendent Lynda Andre isn’t very superstitious. But as she and more than 100 others gathered on Election Night to watch the returns, she wouldn’t let the celebrations commence until every last precinct was counted.
Those last couple of districts took at least an hour it seemed. Even then some people said they thought mathematically the referendum had to pass. “But I said no, not until the last district is in!” Andre said, laughing.
In the end, of course, the voters approved Proposition E and District 7 raised its education fund tax rate for the first time since 1978. A previous attempt in November had failed by a very narrow margin. The 55-cent increase will bring in about $6.9 million more per year, costing the owner of a $100,000 home about $183 a year.
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Andre said the extra time to better educate the voters made the difference for them.
“The kids got behind it, the senior citizens got behind it,” she said. “It was people working with grandparents, families with young kids, neighbors ... That’s what it took to get everybody informed.”
The committee was larger, with more neighbors, families and friends talking to other neighbors, families and friends, she said. They focused not only on the impact of ongoing budget problems for the children in District 7 schools, but the impact it would have on the entire community, including property values, she said.
“To me it was a complex, multilayered effort of people talking to everyone they knew,” she said. “This impact was on everyone, not just the children.”
Another big help, Andre said, was the “referendum list,” a list of budget cuts approved by the school board that would take place if the referendum did not pass.
That list included eliminating all freshman and middle school sports, orchestra in the fourth and fifth grades, eliminating earlybird and late activity buses from the high school, all field trips, afterschool tutoring and summer school, among others.
The referendum list was only the first of three rounds of cuts that would have to take place in order to keep the district from takeover by the state, Andre said. But that list caught the attention of District 7 voters all by itself, she said.
“For some people it drove home the difficulty we were in in a very real way, because it was starting to encroach on programs and services,” she said. “To me and to a lot of people, it signaled that this was not going to get better.”
If they had not increased revenue, Andre said, they had to balance the budget to prevent the state taking over the school district after all the years they have been on the state financial watch list. The cuts necessary to do so would have been very deep, she said.
The district had tried in 2001 and 2002 to raise the education fund rate, with no success. In 2001, the voters approved nearly $20 million to build new schools to cope with Edwardsville’s then-ballooning population, but in the same election, turned down the education fund tax rate to staff and equip those schools.
Now that the referendum has passed, the cuts are off the table and the programs stay, she said. That doesn’t make all their problems go away, but now there is a plan to move forward.
“Passing the referendum is certainly going to give us the resources, but it’s being very vigilant with expenses, as we have been, and spending very wisely that will remove us from that list,” she said. “This is huge; this allows us to retain what we want for our children ... all the things our children benefit from, we can retain all that. But along with that we will have very careful spending and paying down that $6.7 million debt.”
Going forward, the district will still have to cope with reduced support from state funds. District 7 funding has dropped from $16.7 million a year in 2008 to $9.5 million last year.
School districts have been told to prepare for at least half their payments being withheld this year, to say nothing of “categoricals” like state funds for transportation and special education.
The uncertainty of state funding has in part contributed to the problems, such as District 7’s tax anticipation warrants — essentially, loans against future property tax income. This was the first year District 7 has had to obtain such funding, Andre said, and it was solely to pay for transportation costs after the state has failed to make any transportation payments this year.
“Part of our vigilance with the budget will be to shore ourselves up to weather what we see coming in terms of reduced state participation,” Andre said.
As the work continues, Andre said she intends to continue her series of resident education videos and statements. She said it is important that voters know where their money is going, and she will inform them of the use of the new funds in academics, technology, school security and financial management. “We want them to be well aware of their tax dollars at work, eliminating the debt and reestablishing our reserves,” Andre said.