Lessons for Mascoutah school taxpayers

Mascoutah Unit School District 19 is struggling to hold on to the money it receives from the federal government for being home to Scott Air Force Base and for educating service members’ children.

Tied up tight in that struggle are local property taxes.

If you look at last year’s Illinois School Report Card and the one from a decade earlier, the district’s finances have shifted significantly. The reliance on property taxes went from 12 percent of the district’s income to 31 percent.

Federal dollars dropped by $1.8 million even as costs grew. The district was getting nearly 40 percent of its money from federal sources and now receives less than 25 percent.

Most of Mascoutah’s federal money is called impact aid. Since the 1950s the federal government has paid schools that could not tax federal land but still had to educate the students who lived on that land — mostly military dependents and Native Americans. Congress has never appropriated the full amount called for in the formula.

Congress does expect local districts to levy property taxes at 95 percent of the state average to ensure local taxpayers fund their fair share. That’s a huge guessing game because that average levy, or amount of taxes requested, is not known for nearly three years after the district needs to set its levy, Mascoutah Superintendent Craig Fiegel said.

Mascoutah failed to meet that 95 percent standard in 2012, it just found out. It likely failed to make that standard for 2013 and 2014. Each year that they failed to make the mark is worth another $4 million.

So the Mascoutah school board boosted its 2015 levy and the property tax rate went from $4.66 per $100 assessed valuation to $4.93 for district schools — mainly to hold on to those federal dollars. Fiegel will pay his district $467 more in property taxes this year as a result.

And U.S. Rep. Mike Bost got an amendment passed to save as much of that $4 million a year in impact aid as possible; U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is working on a Senate version.

The crazy ride may not be over for Mascoutah property owners. That average levy in Illinois may be even harder to estimate because many districts jacked up their levies fearing statewide property tax limits would be imposed. Plus, disabled veterans are getting their property taxes discounted or forgiven, and there are a lot of disabled military vets who retired in Mascoutah after serving at Scott.

It’s easy to see how the feds refusing to meet their obligations might embolden state lawmakers to shirk their school funding obligations. Apparently what you can count on is property taxes increasing and all of it — federal, state and local — somehow coming out of your pocket.