Metro-East News

Will Madison County voters decide on a new sales tax for school construction?

School districts are voting whether to support a Madison County referendum to create a new 1 percent sales tax to fund construction and renovation projects in schools.

The sales tax was last proposed in 2011, when it was rejected by voters and by at least four of the school districts that the tax would benefit. But increasing cuts in state aid may have changed some of those opinions. For example: The Roxana school district board did not support it in 2011, but has voted this year in favor of the tax.

“Over the last five to six years since that measure failed, there has been a lot of concern about school buildings and maintenance,” said Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton, whose district has supported it.

There are 18 districts with a population of 40,000 students in Madison County. The 1-percent sales tax would be disbursed back to the districts on a per-student basis, and is only charged on small consumer goods and gas, not cars, groceries, medicine, etc.

The funds would be limited only to construction and renovation projects and their bonds, not salaries, operations, textbooks, etc. The law allowing this tax went into effect in 2007 and was amended in 2011, so that the county boards no longer are required to approve the tax, which is capped at 1 percent.

However, Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber said he has told the districts it must be a district-led proposal, not something proposed by his office.

“They need to show need, and take ownership in this,” he said.

Each school board will vote whether to support the referendum, and if boards representing at least 51 percent of the student population in Madison County approve, it will go to the voters in April.

Daiber said as of Friday, he has certified support from the Alton, Triad, Bethalto and Roxana school districts. While Highland voted to approve it, Daiber said he has not yet received their resolution.

The superintendents will meet again on Jan. 11, and Daiber has until Jan. 18 to submit it to the county clerk’s office for verification by Jan. 26.

The tax is estimated to raise $22.7 million per year countywide, which would be about $538 per student. The money would be distributed according to the student’s address, including five school districts based in Clinton or Monroe counties that have students or schools over the county line.

Daiber said he believes the sales tax solution is becoming more accepted in Illinois as an alternative to raising property taxes. He said it can help districts pay down construction bonds or used directly to improve facilities, which reduces the district’s need to levy or borrow.

“We have a revenue problem for education,” he said. “There’s a variety of opinions on this, but this has passed in 47 counties in Illinois, and it’s becoming more acceptable than it was in 2011 when we were one of the earliest ones to see this as an opportunity for better facilities for our students.”

Daiber said an estimated 40 percent of sales taxes in Madison County are generated by people outside the county, thanks to the interstate system that brings a lot of travelers and commuters through the county. He also pointed out that the 1 percent tax is estimated at $1.5 million more per year than it was in 2011, indicating growth in commerce in the past five years.

“If we are ever going to lower property taxes, we can’t just do with less revenue, because there are operational costs and these districts have debt,” he said. “We have to find a way that we can manage the school operations without increasing property taxes.”

Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald said his board will discuss it on Jan. 10.

“It would be millions of dollars for the schools, and I think it would be fantastic,” he said. “If someone from Hazelwood eats in a Granite City restaurant, that money follows the students. We feel this is a good, legitimate, seamless way to generate more income.”

Greenwald said while Granite City District 9 aims to be conservative fiscally, including building projects, there are many maintenance and renovation projects that would be helped by the extra funds.

“Buildings need new doors and windows over time,” he said. “it would be good to have the funds for those things.”

The biggest winner would be Edwardsville District 7, which has the largest student population and the largest physical area in Madison County. District 7 stands to gain more than $4 million per year from the new tax. However, in 2011 District 7 opposed the measure, and it did not appear on the December agenda.

The agenda for January has not yet been posted, and district leaders could not be immediately reached for comment. Edwardsville recently suffered a narrow defeat of a property tax referendum to fund schools, and has not publicly declared whether it would try again in April.

If approved, the referendum would go to Madison County voters in the April 2017 election.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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