Metro-East News

Edwardsville District 7 considers Round 2 for school referendum

Edwardsville District 7 school officials are trying to regroup after narrowly losing a referendum on Nov. 8 to increase the school district’s tax rate.

Proposition E would have raised property taxes by 55 cents, bringing the education fund tax rate from $2.15 to $2.70 per $100 of equalized assessed value. That put the total district tax rate at $4.70 per $10. For the owner of a $100,000 home, it would have increased the annual tax bill by $183 and added $6.9 million per year to district revenue.

The proposition failed by 1,080 votes out of nearly 28,000 votes cast. Such a narrow margin gave some hope that a second try might be successful, according to Superintendent Lynda Andre, who said the volunteers watching the returns on election night saw the loss as “a manageable number.”

The citizens group “Committee for Excellence in Education” had put forth a strong grassroots effort to support the referendum. Groups walked in area parades wearing orange shirts, and yard signs reading “Yes on E” covered area lawns. The group actually ran out of yard signs and had to order more, according to leaders.

There was a series of videos on social media with local civic and business leaders, former teachers, residents and even students, including former city administrator Ben Dickmann, WSIE director Steve Jankowski, the mayors of both cities and business owner Rich Grogan, with a coordinated effort online and in person at informational meetings throughout the district.

It’s that same online presence that began calling for another run even as the votes were tallied.

“I was very encouraged by their positive energy and their willingness to step forward and try this again,” Andre said. “It could have been a far greater differential. … They’re positive and enthusiastic, ready to serve.”

The rerun is not without precedent: Edwardsville has had referenda for building projects in the past, most of which did not pass until at least two attempts had been made. Madison County also saw a strong conservative turnout, electing a Republican county board chairman and flipping the balance of power on the county board from Democratic to Republican for the first time in decades.

But that decision will have to be made by the school board, probably in December.

“The District 7 Board of Education will have tough decisions to make in the months ahead in an effort to reduce the borrowing that expected to reach $5 million in the spring as a result of the state’s failure to honor its funding commitment to District 7,” said board president Monica Laurent. “The board of education has taken all available steps since 2008 to try to minimize the impact of its financial crisis on students. That is no longer possible.”

The district had already cut $2 million toward its $4.5 million deficit prior to going for the referendum, and Andre said another $2.5 million deficit cannot be covered through expenditure reductions alone. If it had, she said, they would have had a list of items on the chopping block up for the referendum battle. They will have to borrow in order to meet the bare minimum required, she said.

The new funds would have been dedicated to ensuring a balanced budget by June 2019, eliminating the district’s operating debt: $1 million toward postponed projects like replacing aging textbooks, curriculum improvements, upgrading technology and school security systems, and $1.5 million toward anticipated cost increases for operations.

In the meantime: bad news from the state. Andre said District 7 is still waiting for its fourth-quarter payment from the 2015-16 school year, and has not received its first-quarter payment for this school year. They have now been informed by the state that they may not receive the third and fourth payments this year at all.

So now the plan must also include how to pay the bills without even the reduced amount of money that the state had promised, she said. That doesn’t include the reduced or skipped payments for “categoricals” like special education and transportation.

At the moment, the state owes District 7 $2.5 million for those two missing payments, she said.

“We cannot rely on the state to fulfill its responsibility,” Andre said. That has been the focus of the campaign all along, she said, that the district could live within its means if the state would pay its share.

The filing deadline for the spring municipal election is Jan. 9, so the school board would have to make its decision by then, Andre said.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald