In 2014, when state Senate candidate Christopher Belt was on the Cahokia District 187 School Board, he attended three board meetings. He was listed as absent for 11 board meetings.
His attendance improved in subsequent years, but overall, during his five-year stint on the board, he missed almost a third of the school board’s meetings.
Belt, a Democrat running for the state Senate, ultimately resigned from the Cahokia school board earlier this year in order to concentrate on his campaign.
From 2013 to 2015, Belt worked for the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice Aftercare Services program, as the central and southern region’s administrator. He previously worked for St. Clair County’s Probation Department.
Belt said he left the state job to be closer to his mother, who was terminally ill.
When Belt worked for the state, his office was in Springfield, and the job required that he spend time there as well as in Chicago. However when he missed a meeting, he said, he remained engaged in the school board’s business.
“To that end, I was unable to physically be present at school board meetings, although I was aware of the issues and business of the district,” Belt said. “Whenever I was absent from a board meeting, I gave the superintendent of the district and vice president of the board my thoughts relative to the agenda items for the school board meetings.”
Hildenbrand criticized Belt’s overall attendance record.
“Southern Illinois needs a state (senator) who will be present ... to cast votes and fight on our behalf,” Hildenbrand said. “If Mr. Belt’s past record is an indication of future performance, we will not have a strong, consistent voice in Springfield if he’s elected.”
Belt said his fellow board members were familiar with his job circumstances, and he still became the board president in 2015 despite his attendance record the previous year.
“The board members liked my passion for our students, my vision for our schools, and my devout commitment to bettering public education for all of our children,” Belt said.
Belt has yet to receive the backing of a teacher union that predominantly supports Democratic candidates.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers released its general election endorsement list on Wednesday, but did not endorse a candidate in the 57th District state Senate race. It has only met with Hildenbrand so far.
“The IFT has not made an endorsement in this race yet, but we’re hopeful that Mr. Belt will have an opportunity to meet with our members in the region soon,” said Aviva Bowen, the IFT director of communications.
Belt said he has been in contact with the union and hopes to earn its endorsement.
“Education is one of the cornerstones of my platform,” Belt said.
The 57th state Senate District seat has been held by a black Democrat since the 1970s.
Belt has a money lead in the race. According to State Board of Elections records, Belt had more than $42,000 available in his campaign account at the end of the second quarter of this year. Hildenbrand had $1,200.
During Belt’s tenure on the school board, the district increased the amount it received in property taxes. Belt voted in favor of the tax levy every year he was on the board.
According to St. Clair County Clerk records, the certified tax rate for the Cahokia School District increased from $11.0436 per $100 of equalized assessed property value for the 2013 tax year to $12.7604 for the 2017 tax year.
For the 2016 tax year, the rate was 13.0828 per $100 of equalized assessed property value.
Belt said the votes to increase the tax levy were done to prepare against possible tax caps discussed by the legislature. Those caps never came.
“By voting in the affirmative, the district was afforded the much-needed flexibility to generate potential emergency revenue to offset the potential effect of a cap on (debt service payments),” Belt said.
He added that the district increased the amount it paid toward its debt in the 2017-18 fiscal year, and then rolled back the levy for debt the following year.
Hildenbrand also questioned the need for increasing property taxes in the Cahokia school district and pointed to the creation of four jobs in the district even though state money was lacking.
“In 2016, instead of looking at streamlining operations and how to provide the best education for the children of Cahokia, there was a hiring spree and a tax hike,” Hildenbrand said. “We need a state senator who can think outside the box and bring innovative ideas to turn Illinois around versus the failed tax-and-spend policies of the last 20-plus years.”
Belt said he is in favor of a progressive income tax system in the state, and looking at spending to see where the state could maximize efficiencies. He added he is in favor of legalizing marijuana.
“We need to look at additional revenue streams to bring in more money,” Belt said. “I do not believe the answers to our financial problems are to just keep raising taxes on middle-class Illinoisans.”
Illinois’ 57th Senate District covers most of St. Clair County including Belleville, East St. Louis, Swansea, and parts of O’Fallon and Fairview Heights and includes Granite City in Madison County.