For middle school students in St. Jacob, lunch starts as early as 10:25 a.m. so they have enough time and room to eat because their cafeteria has become more crowded in recent years.
Outside their building and another one in Granite City, parents’ cars, school buses and other commuters are backed up near school parking lots on a daily basis.
School leaders say they put off projects like building expansions to create more space for students or traffic flow improvements between their parking lots and busy roads because they haven’t had the money.
They decided to ask voters for a third time about increasing the sales tax rates in Madison County to pay for school construction and renovations.
Collinsville Unit 10 was the only school district that didn’t ask for the sales tax question to come back in another election.
The sales tax rates in Madison County today range from 6.6 to 9.35 percent on general merchandise, which doesn’t include groceries, medicine, services, cars, boats or farming equipment.
The proposal is to increase the rates across the county by 1 percentage point, or an extra penny per dollar, to bring in an estimated $23.4 million each year for schools.
The measure’s opponents call it a “terrible deal” for taxpayers, noting that Madison County’s highest sales tax rate would become higher than Chicago’s Cook County if the increase passes.
Cook County’s tax rate is 10.25 percent. The tax rate in Granite City’s Bellemore Village Business District would become 10.35 percent.
The tax rate in another Granite City business district and in the seven business districts in Collinsville would become 10.10 percent. The cities themselves have separate sales tax rates.
Supporters argue that the sales tax increase would help schools rely less on property taxes. Most of the school boards have said they expect to reduce the amount of money residents pay to school districts through their property taxes if the measure passes, including in:
- Alton 11
- Bethalto 8
- Edwardsville 7
- Granite City 9
- Highland 5
- Roxana 1
- Triad 2
- Wood River-Hartford 15
With voter approval, the eight school boards plan to use some of their sales tax money to pay down debt from previous construction projects instead of using property tax money.
The estimated savings for the owner of a $100,000 home ranges from $39 per year in Roxana District 1 to $123 per year in Bethalto District 8, according to onecentmakessense.org, a website advocating for the sales tax increase.
“It’s a win-win for taxpayers,” said Mark Cappel, superintendent of Alton District 11.
The committee campaigning against the sales tax increase says those plans to provide property tax relief are “nonbinding.”
“The next board can come in and change that,” said Nancy Moss, the spokesperson for the Madison County Citizens for Sustainable Education group. She previously served on the Collinsville City Council.
Cappel said residents can hold their school boards to their promises by calling and talking to them.
“These are elected officials,” he said.
If the sales tax increase fails again, school leaders say they would have to take on debt to complete the needed building repairs, and property tax money would be used to repay it. Moss said that could also happen if the sales tax increase is successful.
According to the opposition group, if the school boards were to take on debt for new construction projects, and the sales tax money they received didn’t cover the cost to pay it back, the districts would still need to tap into property tax money.
The proponents refer to the sales tax as a “shared tax” because people from outside the county who eat and shop in Madison County also pay it and would be contributing to local schools if the measure passes.
Moss said the Madison County Citizens for Sustainable Education group believes it’s mostly residents who pay the sales taxes in the county.
“It’s going to be pulled out of the county economy in the areas where people are already struggling,” Moss said. “... This is not Branson. People don’t come from all over the country or all over the Midwest to shop here.”
School districts would receive a share of sales tax revenue each year based on how many students they teach.
Edwardsville District 7, the largest in Madison County with more than 7,500 students, would get the most money: an estimated $4.4 million.
Venice District 3 would get the smallest portion — an estimated $34,494 — because it has fewer than 60 students.
Most school districts, including Edwardsville, Venice and seven others, plan to use the money toward repairs to parking lots, sidewalks and roofs if the increase takes effect.
Superintendent Cappel said districts like Alton have delayed that kind of work for years due to a lack of funding for Illinois schools. He called the proposed sales tax increase “absolutely crucial.”
“Our kids in Alton, all kids throughout Madison County, they deserve to have the safest and finest facilities,” Cappel said.
Other planned projects for the schools include safety efforts like updating video surveillance cameras and securing entrances.
Several districts are planning to improve their athletic facilities with the money from the proposed sales tax increase, including Madison Unit 12. Superintendent Warletta Brookins said the district wants add a new outdoor track for Madison Junior High School and Madison Senior High School students.
Triad Unit 2 is considering possible building expansions, including at Triad Middle School, where students are outgrowing the cafeteria and eating lunch at 10:25 a.m. because of it.
While Triad has been adding more students, enrollment in Highland District 5 has decreased in the last five years, according to Superintendent Mike Sutton. He thinks improving the facilities could help.
“Many families moving to the area shop around for the best schools when making decisions,” Sutton said.
There are also projects planned at Triad Middle School and Grigsby Intermediate School in Granite City to address the daily congestion in the parking lots that extend into the streets.
Visit onecentmakessense.org for more details about Madison County school districts’ plans for the sales tax money. Follow the opposition’s effort on Facebook by searching for Madison County Citizens for Sustainable Education.
Reporter Megan Braa contributed to this report.
Granite City District 9 will offer information about the proposed sales tax increase to the community at 6:30 p.m. March 13 at Maryville Elementary School, 4651 Maryville Road in Granite City.