Editor’s note: On April 4, St. Clair County voters will decide whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for school facilities and whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for public safety. Madison County also will be considering the school facilities sales tax. This is the second story in a series of five. Coming next: A look at why St. Clair County wants to use public safety sales tax revenue to upgrade and expand the county jail.
In Smithton, some students take their classes in a trailer that has no running water or bathrooms.
Superintendent Susan Homes said that’s because Smithton School District 130 has added more than 150 students since it last expanded its building 15 years ago.
The district came up with a temporary solution to its space problem in 2012: it started leasing the trailer to house three fifth-grade classrooms and a shared office for a school social worker and part-time psychologist.
Because the trailer doesn’t have running water, Homes said students and faculty members who need to use the bathroom have to go inside the main building. They walk between the trailer and the school through a public alleyway that’s blocked off by a metal barricade during school hours.
Students are given a whistle and an electronic key to get into the school and return to the trailer. Homes says “it’s a bit of a hike” to get to the nearest bathroom once they’re inside the school.
“I would say it’s definitely a loss of instructional time because they have to do that,” she said.
The trailer has also created problems for the social worker and psychologist because of its thin walls.
“You can hear the voices, so there’s not a lot of confidentiality,” Homes said.
We just don’t have any extra space. I mean, there is zero.
Susan Homes, superintendent, on Smithton School District 130
Smithton would use money from a proposed 1 percent sales tax hike in St. Clair County to address its space and safety concerns, according to Homes.
Voters in both St. Clair and Madison counties will decide in the April 4 election whether they want to impose the countywide increases to generate new revenue for schools to use toward their facilities.
At the same time, voters in St. Clair County will be asked whether they support a separate 1 percent sales tax increase that would benefit public safety agencies, like police and fire departments. In Madison County, voters who live in Edwardsville School District 7 will again see a referendum to increase the property tax rate by 55 cents in April.
That means St. Clair County could see its sales tax rates on general merchandise increase 2 percentage points if both sales tax increase referendums are approved by voters. Those rates currently range from 6.6 to 9.85 percent. Madison County could see a 1 percent sales tax increase from its current range of 6.6 to 9.35 percent in southern areas.
Purchases like medications, groceries, services and vehicles would be exempt from the proposed sales tax increases.
By law, schools could only use the new tax revenue for specific infrastructure costs, like construction, renovation, maintenance and debt from previous work on their facilities. Advocates say using the sales tax revenue to repay debt would save taxpayers money because the districts wouldn’t need to tap into property taxes to cover that cost.
The new revenue also wouldn’t go through the Illinois General Assembly’s budget process, which means it wouldn’t be subject to state cuts. Instead, school districts would receive a portion of the money from their regional office of education based on student enrollment.
Read Part 1 of the Belleville News-Democrat sales tax series: How much would the proposed sales tax increases cost you?
Smithton would receive an estimated $276,000 each year.
Homes said the district plans to use 59 percent, about $164,000, to pay off debt. The owner of a $100,000 home would see a property tax savings of about $79, along with the planned tax relief from Freeburg School District 77, which is Smithton residents’ high school district.
Beyond property tax relief, Homes said the goal is to get rid of the trailer and fund a building expansion with the new tax revenue if voters pass the referendum in April.
Smithton’s main school building has difficulties of its own. Occupational and physical therapy for students takes place in a hallway. Students sit outside classrooms when they need extra help from their teachers. The school nurse is limited to helping one child at a time because of the size of her office.
“We just don’t have any extra space. I mean, there is zero,” Homes said.
Smithton already has two expansion plans drawn up: One that would cost an estimated $1.5 million and another that would cost about $2.7 million.
Homes said the $1.5 million plan would address the district’s current needs, but it “doesn’t account for any future enrollment.” The number of students has been steadily increasing in Smithton, from 377 in 2002 to 530 today. Homes said it’s unlikely that it would see a decline in the future.
“Even if it stays flat, we still don’t have enough room for the kids we already have,” she said.
There’s work that has to be done.
Matt Klosterman, superintendent, on Belleville School District 118
In Belleville, school districts plan to use most of the new revenue for property tax relief in the first year if the sales tax increase is approved. The estimated savings for the owner of a $100,000 home would be about $193.
Belleville District 118 would use 70 percent of its portion of the new revenue toward property tax relief and the other 30 percent toward building improvements, according to Superintendent Matt Klosterman.
“There’s work that has to be done, so if we don’t keep some of that — as opposed to 100 percent of the sales tax going to property tax relief — we either don’t do that stuff, and at some point then it becomes a significant problem, or we have to get another revenue stream,” he said. That revenue would likely come from selling bonds, Klosterman said, which would create new debt for the district.
Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike said district officials hope to upgrade and add security cameras, replace windows, doors and repair parking lots and roofs throughout District 118, which has 11 schools.
“We would target those projects that would either improve efficiency or enhance security first,” Boike said.
District 118 expects to receive about $2 million every year from the school facilities tax, if approved. With $1.4 million slated to pay off debt, the district would have about $616,000 for its projects the first year.
Klosterman said the district wouldn’t be able to tackle its entire list at once.
“One job in and of itself could be close to $500,000, so it’s not like we would be able to address all of these needs right away from one year’s worth of sales tax revenue,” he said. “We would have to do a planning process of priority.”
We’re lucky to have great facilities. We need to maintain them.
Jeff Dosier, superintendent, on Belleville School District 201
In Belleville District 201, Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the plan is to use most of its share to provide property tax relief by paying off debt from constructing Belleville West High School and renovating Belleville East High School. Some of the money would also be used to start a “preventative maintenance program,” Dosier said.
District 201 expects to receive about $2.5 million each year from the school facilities tax. Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer said 91 percent, or $2.3 million, would be used toward property tax relief the first year.
The rest of the district’s share — about $229,000 — would pay for infrastructure maintenance, like heating and air conditioning work, improvements to security and controlled access to school buildings and roof repairs.
“We’re lucky to have great facilities,” Dosier said. “We need to maintain them.”
Madison County schools
Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald stood on the 18-year-old roof of Prather Elementary School, which needs a complete replacement as does the roofs at several other schools in District 9. The roof at Prather is made of corrugated metal with insulation, tar and gravel on top.
The roof has to be replaced every 20 years, and at 18 years, Prather is already seeing leaks in places.
That’s a price tag of $750,000, on top of the need to reseal or repave the parking lots at most of the schools, replace the refrigerators and freezers at Grigsby Elementary, renovate or expand the cafeterias at Coolidge Middle and Frohardt Elementary and add new tables at Wilson Elementary.
“This would be a welcome pool of money to procure for those things,” Greenwald said.
Another problem the district faces is a snarl of traffic every day at Grigsby Elementary, with cars jammed up into the streets. District 9 has plans to reconfigure the driveways and build a thoroughfare for a safer traffic system that would move more easily. “But unless there’s money, there’s not really any way to fix it,” Greenwald said.
Daryl Munger, director of buildings and grounds for District 9, said new doors are needed at most of the schools, including the handicapped-accessible automatic entrances. School doors, including the various locks and framework, cost between $6,000 and $8,000 each.
27 Public school districts in St. Clair County
13 Public school districts in Madison County
The school district recently received a $100,000 grant from U.S. Steel, which gets them about 10 doors — or about half of what they need, he said. The automatic opener panels cost at least $600 each, he said.
Granite City attempted a property tax referendum a few years ago to address some of the problems with its aging infrastructure, but the voters turned it down. Greenwald said they think this proposal might end up being a tax savings for residents because of how much people outside the county would contribute to the revenue.
Greenwald said Granite City intends to take the entire $3.2 million it anticipates receiving from the sales tax hike and applying it to construction debt, which frees up funds for the projects it needs to do.
Meanwhile, Alton needs new roofs at just about every school. “You try to stay on cycle to pay for these,” said Superintendent Mark Cappel. “Roofs are typically good for 20 years. But we have some that are 25 or 30 years old. ... The longer you wait, the more it will cost to get it done.”
Chris Norman, the Alton director of finance, said the technology in the schools is due for an upgrade and wiring issues need to be addressed. Alton Middle School was originally built in 1928.
“A lot of the original Internet wiring was put together on the fly,” he said. “There are things like that, that we will definitely take a look at.”
When’s the last time you heard that a tax increase could help taxpayers?
Mark Cappel, superintendent, on Alton School District 11
Part of the problem, Cappel said, is that maintenance gets deferred when the state cuts payments in what they call “categoricals” — payments to offset the costs of special education, bus transportation, etc.
“When we’re cut short in other areas, like our categoricals, something has to be put on hold,” Cappel said.
The Alton school board has stated that if passed, 50 percent of its sales tax revenue would go toward debt reduction.
Overall, Cappel said, they anticipate being able to lower their property tax rate enough to reduce the tax bill for a $100,000 home by $86 if the sales tax comes through.
In part, that’s because some of the sales tax revenue is expected to come from people who live outside of Madison County but are visiting, working or traveling in the county, according to Cappel.
“That’s where the trust factor comes in,” he said. “Our taxpayers have to trust that we’ll do this, and our board is committed. When’s the last time you heard that a tax increase could help taxpayers?”