Elections

Edwardsville residents to vote on school tax increase

A bus departs Edwardsville High School
A bus departs Edwardsville High School

Parents and families were marching in orange shirts at the EHS homecoming parade last week, but not just to cheer on the football team: They were cheering on a referendum that could raise their property taxes.

In November, voters in Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Hamel, Worden and Moro will be deciding on Proposition E, which could raise property taxes by 55 cents for District 7 schools. District 7 is asking to raise the education fund tax rate from $2.15 to $2.70 per $100 of equalized assessed value. That puts the total district tax rate at $4.70 per $100. For the owner of a $100,000 home, this would increase the annual tax bill by $183.

The increase would bring in an additional $6.9 million per year, according to district financial projections. Of that:

• $2.6 million will be used to ensure that revenues exceed expenditures by June 2019;

• $1.7 million will go toward the district’s debt, paying it down by June 2021 and then begin rebuilding cash reserves;

• $1.5 million will go toward increased personnel to address higher enrollment numbers; inflationary cost increases in food and instructional materials; and contractual increases in salaries and benefits;

• $1 million will go toward upgrading aging textbooks, building infrastructure and technology; and updating school security systems.

The education fund comprises 69 percent of the district’s budget, because it includes the salaries and benefits for personnel. But it also includes technology and instructional materials - just about everything involved in running a school, according to the district’s “Focus on Finance” program that has been broadcast online for the last year to inform the public about the workings of the school district.

A parent group called Vote Yes on Prop E has been promoting the referendum on Facebook and marched in the Homecoming Parade on Oct. 5, as well as handing out informational flyers at the Goshen Market each Saturday. Orange signs favoring the proposition have begun cropping up on yards around Edwardsville.

However, not everyone is marching in orange. Resident Mike Firsching has opposed District 7’s previous attempts to issue cash bonds in the short term, conducting a petition drive last spring that successfully halted the plan. He criticizes the District 7 financial plan because he says it is counting on a referendum that hasn’t passed yet and a predicted 2 percent increase in property values. He also said that the district’s projections include a 2 percent salary increase for employees.

“The school board plan is optimistic,” he said. “Can they count on the referendum passing? Can they count on (equalized assessed valuations) rising? Could not EAV fall? Why would they plan on giving raises with the revenue situation precarious and the current debt being high?”

Previous cuts and changes

Earlier this year, the District 7 board voted to cut 25 positions, including laying off 14 employees - making a total of 101 positions eliminated since 2008. The bulk of those layoffs have been in certified staff such as teachers, while the district has approximately the same enrollment.

“We have the same number of students in schools with far fewer teachers,” said Superintendent Lynda Andre. “We don’t have additional staff to cut.”

Class sizes are now averaging 22 to 29 for elementary, 32 per class for middle school and 31 to 33 for the high school, Andre said.

Andre said other cost-cutting measures this year included reducing stipends, field trips, testing budgets, paper mailings and other supply and maintenance costs, for a total of $1.79 million eliminated from the budget. They also increased fees for school lunches - now priced at $2.70 per day - as well as summer school, activity fees and parking fees.

That cut the deficit from $4.5 million to $2.5 million. But in order to close the gap entirely, finance director Dave Courtney has estimated that 80 teachers would have to be laid off, which is not a consideration, he said.

Since 2007, District 7 has suspended its curriculum review, which was a process that had been used for decades to maintain high-quality academics and improvement in the curriculum. The only updates that have been possible since 2007 were alterations to prepare for the new PARCC test, but even then new textbooks and instructional materials could not be purchased, Andre said.

That means that the last time the district updated its social science curriculum was in 2000. Foreign languages and physical education were last updated in 1998. Others have been revised in later years - science as recently as 2006, math in 2014 - but without buying new textbooks. Instead, teachers are trying to supplement outdated material with online and digital content, while the parent-teacher organizations have raised money for subscriptions to “Discovery Education,” an electronic database of academic resources.

In the meantime, the average textbook in District 7 classrooms is 12 years old.

State funding and District 7

District 7 receives about $72 million per year, of which nearly 80 percent comes from local property taxes. Property values in Edwardsville continued to grow at an average 8 percent per year from 1990 to 2008, dropping to about 3 percent after the crash of 2008. But in the last few years, the growth has slowed even further, even declining in 2011.

Meanwhile, annual state funding for District 7 dropped from $16.7 million in 2008 to $9.5 million last year, for a total loss of $40 million in state funding over the last eight years. That doesn’t include the policy of pro-rating school funding up through last year, which lost District 7 another $2 million per year.

But that balance isn’t likely to change, according to school officials.

“Because of the state’s formula, we are considered ‘property wealthy,’ so therefore the homeowners shoulder the vast responsibility for the financial support of the school district,” Andre said.

Andre said the reduced income from the state coupled with stagnant property values has made the biggest difference. However, she said that Edwardsville has one of the lowest tax rates in the region: Collinsville’s combined tax rate is $4.86; Highland $5.02; O’Fallon $5.38 and Belleville $5.80. 

What happens if it doesn’t pass?

“The board will go back to the drawing board, and will have to make some very tough decisions about some of our programs that we may not be able to maintain,” Andre said.

The referendum was a big step not taken lightly, Andre said: she believes the District 7 board took every measure possible to solve the situation before asking residents for more taxes. Many of their decisions were stopgap measures like living off the surplus working cash fund or passing short-term bonds, in the hopes that either the state or property values would rebound. But neither of those things have happened, she said.

“We believe we have waited as long as we possibly can,” Andre said.

This is a community decision. This community has pride in its schools and its children, and many of the people who live here are products of the school system. I think the Edwardsville school district does an amazing job at producing children that can go to any college or university that they want to, we take care of children with all kinds of academic and emotional needs and do a really good job of that. I think we have safe schools, we have talented teachers working with a very advanced curriculum. And maintaining that, there is a cost.

Lynda Andre, Edwardsville District 7 Superintendent

While some have asked why the district doesn’t cut extracurriculars such as fine arts and sports, Andre said reducing those programs would not resolve the problem, and are part of what draws people to live in District 7.

But while District 7 voters have approved referenda in recent decades to build new schools, the last time the education fund tax rate was increased was 1977.

Andre said District 7 is in danger of ‘certification of financial difficulty’ by the Illinois State Board of Education, which would allow the state to take over financial oversight of the school district. District 7 has been on the state financial watch list since 2009.

That means District 7 is at a crossroads, Andre said.

“This is a community decision,” she said. “This community has pride in its schools and its children, and many of the people who live here are products of the school system. I think the Edwardsville school district does an amazing job at producing children that can go to any college or university that they want to, we take care of children with all kinds of academic and emotional needs and do a really good job of that. I think we have safe schools, we have talented teachers working with a very advanced curriculum. And maintaining that, there is a cost.”

Other education referenda

Elsewhere in Madison County, residents of East Alton-Wood River High School District 14, East Alton District 13 and Wood River-Hartford District 15 will vote on another proposal to consolidate the three districts into one unit district. If successful, the new district would levy a combined tax rate of $3.40 per $100 of equalized assessed value.

Residents of the Aviston Elementary School District in Clinton and Madison counties will vote on an education-fund increase of the annual tax rate from 0.92 percent to 1.37 percent.    

District 7 by the numbers:

• Students: 7,600

• Schools: 15

• Territory: 185 square miles

• Classrooms: 500

• Teachers and Certified Staff (such as social workers, speech therapists, etc.): 477

• Other staff (such as custodians, food service, secretaries, etc.): 337

• There are 392 computers in District 7 primary schools for 1,806 students; 243 computers for 1,638 intermediate students; 700 computers for 1,720 middle school students; and 955 computers for 2,436 high school students.

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