Metro-East News

Proposed sales tax increases for school repairs failed. Now what?

Plans for District 118 schools without new tax revenue

St. Clair County IL and Madison County IL voters in the April 4, 2017, election reject proposed sales tax increases on ballots that would have given new revenue to schools based on student population to use on construction, renovation, expansion,
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St. Clair County IL and Madison County IL voters in the April 4, 2017, election reject proposed sales tax increases on ballots that would have given new revenue to schools based on student population to use on construction, renovation, expansion,

Voters decided that they don’t want a sales tax rate as high as 10 percent in some areas of St. Clair and Madison counties to provide money for school repairs.

That leaves Smithton District 130 with few options to address its growing student population in a building it hasn’t expanded in 15 years, according to Superintendent Susan Homes. She said the school board, which will include two new members after the April election, could consider borrowing money to pay for a building expansion with voter approval next year.

School leaders in other districts say they will continue relying on property taxes as the only funding source for construction and renovation costs as they come up, since the sales tax referendum failed April 4.

In St. Clair County, the proposal failed by 5,418 votes of the more than 40,000 cast.

“I think where we go from here is kind of where we were before the sales tax issue hit the ballot,” said Matt Klosterman, Belleville District 118 superintendent.

Belleville schools have been looking for ways to reduce their costs. District 201, for example, recently decided to take over school bus services for area students, which officials say will save between $400,000 to $500,000 annually.

District 118 expects to save about $420,000 each year by partnering with District 201 for transportation services, according to Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike. He said the savings could vary if there are unexpected costs, like additional bus routes because more students enroll.

I think where we go from here is kind of where we were before the sales tax issue hit the ballot.

Matt Klosterman, Belleville District 118 superintendent, on money for school repairs

Superintendent Jeff Dosier said District 201 will also consider possible collaborations with neighboring districts for things like ordering food for their cafeterias or purchasing technology.

“There may be some efficiencies because of buying power in groups,” he said.

Smithton’s board has previously indicated that it would be open to looking into possible savings through consolidation with neighboring districts, according to Homes. The board approved a resolution in November in support of a study. “We’d like to have facts,” Homes said.

It’s not clear whether St. Clair County schools will support putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot again in the future, but Klosterman said he thinks they should.

“We know the funding system in Illinois for schools has some serious problems,” Klosterman said. “Beside the fact that they’re not sending us all the money, just the mechanism they use. There is an unbelievable, high reliance on property taxes, and this would be a mechanism to provide some relief to that.”

Schools are still waiting on reimbursements from the state for things like transportation and special education costs. Klosterman said it has missed three payments so far this school year, which is about $3.1 million for District 118. The state owes Smithton District 130 about $90,000, according to Homes.

If the sales tax referendum had been approved, the Belleville school districts said they would have used the majority of their shares of the money toward existing debt in the first year in place of property tax money. Smithton, too, planned to use a little more than half of its share of the tax increase toward debt.

Tax rates on general merchandise would have gone up by 1 percentage point, which means shoppers would have seen a 25-cent increase on a 100-pack of diapers and a more than $30 increase on a new refrigerator in Fairview Heights, for example.

5,418 Number of votes by which the sales tax increase failed in St. Clair County

Homes said it’s possible voters could see another referendum from Smithton in 2018: a bond referendum that would allow the district to take on new debt for an expansion. She estimates that District 130 would need less than $3 million based on two plans it has from architects.

The estimated cost of one plan is $1.5 million; the other would cost about $2.7 million.

Homes called the $1.5 million plan a “stopgap measure,” which allows the district to get rid of the trailer behind the school where some students take classes now. It was supposed to be a temporary fix for the lack of classroom space when the district started leasing it back in 2012, Homes said.

There’s no running water inside the trailer, so 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.

The trailer houses three fifth-grade classes and a shared office for a school social worker and part-time psychologist.

Another option for the Smithton school board to consider is possibly turning those three classes of about 23 students into two 35-student classes, according to Homes. One of the three teachers could then be laid off next year. Homes said that, too, would be a short-term solution.

“It would be very difficult for me, and I think for the community, to accept a solution of just simply increasing class size,” she said.

The $2.7 million expansion plan would not only add classrooms, but it would also provide space for things like physical therapy, which Homes said currently take place in hallways at the school.

“A more realistic expansion would address those needs as well,” Homes said.

Madison County ‘came so close’

For several Madison County superintendents, there is disappointment that the referendum did not pass, but going forward will be business as usual.

“Repairs and renovations will be paid as they have been in the past, through health-life-safety funds, which taxpayers will pay 100 percent,” said Alton Superintendent Mark Cappel.

Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton said the district leaders in Madison County will have to discuss the next steps to see if another effort is appropriate. Unlike St. Clair County, Madison County’s referendum failed by only 259 votes out of nearly 44,000 cast.

“It was disappointing to see the narrow margin,” Sutton said. “In the meantime, districts will have to use property taxes as their primary source of funding for building and grounds needs.”

259 Number of votes by which the sales tax increase failed in Madison County

Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald said they knew it was going to be an uphill battle, with some predicting they might lose by 80 to 20 percent. “We did lose the vote, but it was a moral victory due to the fact that we came so close,” Greenwald said.

Granite City’s needs range from new doors at many schools to new roofs on nearly all of them. Some of the things Greenwald had hoped to accomplish will have to be put on hold now, he said.

“We don’t want to sell bonds or borrow money; I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “We are going to allot small amounts of budgeted money and try to get things done, try to keep the schools looking nice and keep them operable. But it would have been nice to have that $3.2 million.”

Regional Superintendent Bob Daiber, who is currently running for governor of Illinois, said he definitely thinks the superintendents should consider placing it on the ballot again.

“The schools in Madison County are losing way too much revenue from this not passing,” Daiber said. “It came so close this time.”

We did lose the vote, but it was a moral victory due to the fact that we came so close.

Jim Greenwald, Granite City superintendent

The next time the measure could appear on the ballot would be March 20, 2018 — the primary election. As before, school boards representing at least 51 percent of Madison County’s students would have to pass resolutions in favor of the referendum in order to place it on the ballot.

Daiber acknowledged that primary elections tend to be a bad time to put a tax referendum on a ballot, but said it would be a good idea to keep it in the voters’ view.

“I continue to advocate helping residents understand property tax issues, and this is truly a means by which property taxes can be lowered,” Daiber said.

While many constituents might have been skeptical about the possibility of lower property taxes, Daiber said that schools can only levy for what they need in a specific fund — so if a district dedicates the sales tax revenue to bond and interest on construction bonds, that levy would be required to lower for the lesser amount. In Triad District 2, he said, that would have lowered the rate by 22 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value.

“A lot of times these things fail because people don’t pay attention,” he said. “You need 100 percent commitment from your own group.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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