Education

Edwardsville school leaders, parents gear up again for school referendum

A sign supporting the tax referendum for Edwardsville schools.
A sign supporting the tax referendum for Edwardsville schools.

Edwardsville School District 7’s list of possible budget cuts includes eliminating all freshman and middle-school sports, half the extracurricular activities and music for two grades — if a tax referendum fails.

Edwardsville District 7’s referendum to increase the property tax rate by 55 cents narrowly failed at the last election by about 1,080 votes out of 28,000 votes cast. Proposition E would have raised property taxes from $2.15 per $2.70 per $100 of equalized assessed value, for a total district tax rate of $4.70. For the owner of a $100,000 home, that would have increased the annual tax bill by $182 and added $6.9 million per year to school district revenue.

Last month, the school board voted to try again, and the referendum will reappear on the ballot on April 4.

Meantime, District 7 has been working on a fall-back plan of what programs and services would have to be eliminated to prevent falling deeper into debt.

This is difficult because for decades the role of the administration and the board of education has been to develop and maintain high-quality programs and services to enhance the educational experience of thousands of students.

Lynda Andre, superintendent, Edwardsville School District 7

“This is difficult because for decades the role of the administration and the board of education has been to develop and maintain high-quality programs and services to enhance the educational experience of thousands of students,” Superintendent Lynda Andre said. “However, in the face of nine years of decreasing state support and stagnant property tax revenue, the board has no choice but to make the tough decisions that will move this district toward a balanced budget.”

Among those changes are:

▪  Eliminating all sports at both middle schools and freshman sports at Edwardsville High School.

▪  Reduce extracurricular clubs at both middle schools and the high school by 50 percent, as well as math club from the intermediate schools.

▪  Eliminate band and orchestra for fourth and fifth grades.

▪  Reduce middle school theater performances to one per year.

▪  Reduce course offerings at Edwardsville High School.

▪  Eliminate summer school and the writing center from Edwardsville High School.

▪  Eliminate after-school tutoring from the middle schools and high school, and the elementary Challenge Program.

▪  Eliminate all field trips in grades K-12.

▪  Eliminate the early bird bus service from Edwardsville High School and the after-school activity bus from the middle schools and high school.

▪  No textbooks, security cameras or computers will be updated, and wifi will be shut down at the middle schools and high school.

The board votes on this list of cuts during its meeting Monday — before the April 4 election. Andre said the cuts will be voted contingent on the results of the election; if it passes, the cuts do not take effect. If it fails, they will.

“The board’s plan needs to be taken seriously,” Andre said. “We are not trying to mislead anyone into thinking this won’t happen. This is the plan that will be implemented.”

Andre said the district has until June 2019 to balance the budget to prevent repercussions from the Illinois State Board of Education, which means increasing revenue or reducing expenses. This list would save about $800,000-900,000, Andre said, which means it is only round one of three. Andre could not say what rounds two or three might entail.

“I would suggest that people take this seriously and understand that this is not a scare tactic,” Andre said. “This is not a threat. This is a plan.”

Katie Robberson, co-chairwoman of the Save District 7 Schools committee, pointed out that District 7 has cut $2 million toward its $4.5 million deficit in the year prior to the referendum, with millions more in cuts in the years leading up to the deficit. The difference with these cuts, Robberson said, is that they will affect students much more directly.

“I’m an alumna of this district, and some of my favorite moments were on the tennis courts or on the stage. Those are experiences our kids wouldn’t get to have,” Robberson said. “These are the things people start to pay attention to because it affects their kids.”

I’m an alumna of this district, and some of my favorite moments were on the tennis courts or on the stage. Those are experiences our kids wouldn’t get to have.

Katie Robberson, co-chairwoman, Save District 7 Schools committee

Carrie Smith has three children, including a son in seventh grade who is involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. She said he is looking forward to the extra classes offered at the N.O. Nelson campus and the summer school opportunities. Smith runs a nonprofit group called Edwardsville Robotics that helps kids develop projects related to science, technology, engineering and math, and thus spends a lot of time talking with other parents.

“What I’m hearing is that they’re really scared about the cuts, and they want the kids to at least keep the status quo,” Smith said. “I have friends in other districts who don’t have the opportunities that ours do. I realize that we’re getting a lot of things that other districts don’t, but we’re paying the taxes for it.”

The concerns of Edwardsville families go beyond the kids, she said. “I feel like if the school district suffers, our property values will suffer, and not as many businesses will want to come here or to stay,” she said. “I think a lot of people fear that the cuts are scare tactics, but looking at the cuts so far and the state’s cuts, I don’t think that it is a scare tactic.”

Parent Kristen Krewson said she heard about the budget cuts when she attended a school board meeting where her daughter received a Do The Right Thing award. She said hearing the potential cuts list moved her to action.

“I am frustrated and sad,” Krewson said. “I graduated from District 7 in 2007 and my husband and I have stayed in the area despite both of us working and having opportunities elsewhere because we are so confident in the Edwardsville school system.”

Meanwhile, Krewson’s mother, Connie Williams, said she initially opposed the referendum, and is now undecided. “I know the referendum will help my grandchild with various activities while attending District 7 schools, but I personally need more details before I can make a qualified decision,” Williams said. “As a citizen approximately five years away from retirement and then having a fixed income, the amounts of the increases will also have an impact on my decision.”

Krewson said that’s where she thinks efforts should be focused for the referendum: spreading the word to voters on the fence or who may be reconsidering their opposition after seeing the budget cuts.

“I think our focus needs to be on recruiting folks who may not have children or think the referendum isn’t relevant to them,” Krewson said. “We need their vote to help get this passed.”

I think our focus needs to be on recruiting folks who may not have children or think the referendum isn’t relevant to them. We need their vote to help get this passed.

Parent Kristen Krewson, supporter of tax referendum

Like several other families, the Krewsons consider the quality of the schools as their primary reason for living in Edwardsville, she said. “If it does not pass, I am scared for my daughter,” she said. “If this is the direction that Edwardsville community members want to take their schools, then my husband and I may need to consider moving.

Robberson pointed out that the last time the district raised the education fund tax rate, it was 1977. “I wasn’t alive the last time this rate was raised,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense why we haven’t been able to pass this.”

The new campaign launches March 1 for a five-week effort to get out the vote. Last time, the grassroots effort literally ran out of orange road signs and social media was filled with endorsements from business leaders, former teachers, residents and even students, as well as former city administrator Ben Dickmann, WSIE director Steve Jankowski, the mayors of Edwardsville and Glen Carbon, and many others.

Andre said the District 7 system has historically been successful, with fine arts and athletics offered at every grade and a wide array of extracurricular activities to enhance learning. Edwardsville schools are one of the few that offer orchestra and band as a daily academic class, for example, and the crowds at music performances fill the entire EHS gymnasium.

“We know this system is successful as year after year we witness graduating classes who continue to attend college in enviable numbers - 95 percent of Edwardsville High School graduating seniors attend universities across this country and earn millions of dollars in scholarship funds to do so,” Andre said. “The administration and the board of education must find a way to balance the budget and continue to provide a quality education for our students. The ultimate solution to this financial crisis will have real consequences to our students and our communities.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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