Grassroots parent groups are mobilized in two Madison County school districts hoping to increase their tax rates in the coming election.
Triad and Granite City school districts both have a referendum on the ballot to increase their property tax rates. Each district cited the state’s practice of pro-rating the property taxes due the schools as a major reason for financial problems — shorting schools by 11 percent for four years. And each district has a group organized by parents working to educate the voters and promote a yes vote on the referendum.
In Triad, the education fund tax rate is $1.84 per $100 of equalized assessed value, with a district total tax rate of $4.58. Currently the state has reduced Triad’s payments by $3.1 million over four years, as well as decreases in funds for special education and transportation.
Triad is asking for a 50 cent increase in the education fund to $2.34, which is estimated to increase taxes by $170 a year for a home valued at $120,000. With a planned refinancing of existing debt, the district hopes to lower that bill to $156.40. The increase would generate an additional $2.158 million per year for the district.
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Yes 2 Triad coordinator Karen James said they have been organizing community outreach meetings, civic organizations, canvassing door to door, a website and a Facebook page to inform voters about the referendum. Overall, she said, reaction has been positive. “People want to know why the district is asking for more money, but once they hear the story, they understand,” she said. “Once they hear what the costs will be... it’s been very positive.”
James said Yes 2 Triad ordered 300 yard signs encouraging people to approve the referendum. Then they had to order another 100 signs, and still they ran out. “I could have ordered another hundred,” James said.
Still, she said, there have been a handful of people that have been resolute “no” votes. “I’m trying to think positive,” James said. “I think it’s going to be close, and everyone needs to go vote. I think our message is compelling, and I strongly encourage everyone to vote and let their voice be heard.”
In Granite City, the education fund tax rate is $2.55, with a district total tax rate of $4.33. District 9 is asking for an 80-cent increase, which is estimated to increase taxes by $267 a year for the owner of a home valued at $100,000. The increase would generate an additional $3.8 million per year for the district.
Parent Eric Mitchell leads a grassroots group called Save Our Schools, which has held informational meetings and distributed pamphlets about the referendum at local businesses. Superintendent Jim Greenwald said all the signs, pamphlets and other expenses have been paid for with private donations, with no expenditure of district funds.
Mitchell said he hears mostly positive responses from residents. “We’re trying to get the word out so people can make an informed decision, to make sure they have a good understanding and to deal with any myths or rumors,” Mitchell said.
Last month, the Granite City teachers’ union came out in support of the referendum, stating that the success of the city is directly related to the quality of its schools. The union is currently sparring with the district over audits of past financial practices, but organizers said they are setting aside their differences on this issue.
“Students are our first concern, and this referendum is necessary to help maintain the quality of education in Granite City while we continue to push the district into more transparent financial practices,” said union president Steve Knogl. “We urge any person concerned with the success of Granite City’s students, the success of the district and the maintaining of property values to support the referendum as well.
Granite City was dealt another blow last week with the announcement of a temporary closure at U.S. Steel, the city’s largest business. A portion of the plant is located in a tax increment financing district, and thus a permanent closure would only partially affect schools, according to Superintendent Jim Greenwald. The total tax bill for the plant and its now-closed coke plant is $4.26 million.
Mitchell said he is hopeful it won’t impact voters’ decisions. “It is another blow, but we’re hoping people look long-term, and the community rallies together for the schools and for the community as a whole,” he said. “We want to keep moving forward.”
Mitchell said schools can’t wait for the state to get its financial house in order. “If anyone is going to care about Granite City, it’s going to be the people who live here,” he said. “So I’m trying to be optimistic and hope for the best.”
Also on the April ballot: A measure to consolidate three school districts into one. The proposal would consolidate East Alton School District 13, East Alton-Wood River Community High School District 14 and the Wood River-Hartford School District 15 into one unit district. The combined tax rate would be $3.50 of equalized assessed value, which school officials have said would be less than half the total school property taxes some residents are paying to multiple districts. For the owner of a $100,000 home in East Alton, which pays to district 13 and 14, property taxes would drop from roughly $2,333 to $1,166 per year.
Proponents have said a unit district would allow for better curriculum alignment, consistent policies and a more efficient and effective school district; opponents have said they have reservations about turning smaller districts into one large district, for fear younger students may get lost in the shuffle. If approved, the districts will enter a transitional period and the new school board for the new district will be elected in March 2016.