School district wants to secure federal aid, hires lobbyist to help

Mascoutah superintendent Craig Fiegel
Mascoutah superintendent Craig Fiegel

Mascoutah Unit 19 School District wants to change state legislation so that it doesn’t lose out on $4 million in federal aid every year, according to Superintendent Craig Fiegel.

The school board recently hired Springfield lobbyist Mike Hoffmann to help make that happen for a fee of $20,000. According to the proposal the board considered, he is working with the district on a “strategy for passage” regarding Senate Bill 516, which has been adopted in the Illinois Senate and has moved to the Illinois House floor.

The bill amends the current law so that school districts can have more flexibility in their tax levies — while maintaining the cost to taxpayers — to be eligible for this specific kind of federal aid.

The federal aid is called “heavily impact aid.” It was designed to help districts that lose property tax revenue because of the presence of tax-exempt federal property or have experienced increased expenses because of the enrollment of “federally-connected children,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Mascoutah’s case, more than 35 percent of its students live on a military base — Scott Air Force Base — or have parents who are enlisted or employed by the base but don’t actually live there.

“Impact aid in its simplest form is money to offset the lack of property taxes because we have billions of dollars out there on the base that are not taxed,” Fiegel said.

Only 28 school districts in the United States are eligible for heavily impact aid and Unit 19 is one of them, Fiegel said. But it didn’t receive the $4 million in aid in the 2015-16 school year, and it won’t receive any this year, because its tax levies disqualified it.

One of the U.S. Department of Education’s requirements is that school districts have to maintain levies that are equal to or greater than 95 percent of the average levies in the state. Fiegel said Mascoutah levies at the maximum rates allowed but can’t meet the statewide average because of caps in the law.

Not all school districts have caps, though, which drives up the average, Fiegel said. Mascoutah’s rate for one levy, for example, is capped at $1.84. In a district that does not have caps, that same levy can have a rate of $4, according to information provided by the school district.

The U.S. Department of Education only looks at certain levies to determine a district’s eligibility for heavily impact aid.

If SB 516 were adopted, Mascoutah could set a higher tax rate for one of the capped levies that counts toward getting the aid and reduce the tax rate for another levy that doesn’t count toward the aid by the same amount. Taxpayers wouldn’t pay more than they otherwise would, and the district could meet the 95-percent threshold, Fiegel said.

The tax rates are set in December each year, and apply to the following school year. Mascoutah’s 2012 levies put it below the state average in the 2013-14 school year, but the U.S. Department of Education allows school districts to miss the mark for one year before disqualifying them, Fiegel said. Unit 19’s levies increased slightly in 2013 and 2014, but didn’t reach the requirement each year.

The district believes the levies it set in 2015 will qualify it for heavily impact aid again in the 2017-18 school year. It can’t know for sure because it takes three years after the “tax year” — when it levies the rates — before the state average is available. In the meantime, district officials use projections to plan.

Fiegel said, typically, districts have to be “back in,” or eligible, for a year before they start receiving the money again.

School district officials tried to work with legislators last year to change the law but “couldn’t get through the complexities,” Fiegel said, which is why the school board decided to hire Hoffmann this time around.

“It is a lot of money to the district — $4 million; we need to try to protect that,” Fiegel said. There’s no limit on what the aid can be used for, so Fiegel said it benefits the entire district.

Hoffmann is a Belleville native. He graduated from Althoff Catholic High School and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Fiegel said Unit 19 worked with Hoffmann once before to help resolve a property tax issue with privatized housing at Scott Air Force Base.

The main thing Hoffmann says he has to make legislators understand about SB 516 is that it won’t increase the cost to taxpayers.

Hoffmann also has eight other clients, which are listed on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website, but said the Mascoutah school district will probably be his main focus during the legislature’s veto session in November. He will work for the school district for one year or until legislation that helps Unit 19 passes, Fiegel said.

According to Hoffmann’s proposal to the school board, he will provide the following services:

▪  Advising on the content and drafting of proposed legislation on federal impact aid in order to have a proposal ready for the veto session

▪  Advocating for the passage of the proposed legislation at all levels of state government from the governor’s office and state agencies to the General Assembly and its staff, including “working the relevant House and Senate committee membership to vote for the bill.”

▪  Attending formal committee hearings as well as other meetings relevant to the passage of the proposed legislation.

▪  Identifying other organizations and interest groups — “potential allies and adversaries” — monitoring their activities and interacting with them to advance the bill.

▪  Providing political as well as legislative and governmental consultation on an ongoing basis.

Lobbyist’s clients

The following are Springfield-based lobbyist Mike Hoffmann’s clients:

  • Association of Illinois Soil & Water Conservation Districts
  • Automobile Club Insurance Association
  • Carmax Auto Superstores, Inc.
  • Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District
  • Dealertrack Processing Solutions
  • Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders
  • Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association
  • Jeffrey A. Dixon
  • Mascoutah Unit 19 School District

Source: Illinois Secretary of State’s office