Residents of the Freeburg, Smithton and St. Libory school districts agree that improvements are needed in local school facilities. The only thing in question is how to pay for the upgrades without adding an additional burden on taxpayers.
A proposal to place a referendum on the St. Clair County ballot in the spring which will ask voters to approve a county-wide, 1-cent sales tax appears to be the perfect solution. It would create the needed revenue to expand schools, make them safer and keep them in good repair — all while offering a reduction in property taxes.
The sales tax can only be used to improve school facilities or retire new or existing bonds. It cannot be used for salaries, instructional materials, or other operating costs.
The sales tax, which would be charged on fast food, electronics, gas and other non-essentials — but not groceries, new car and truck sales, medication and farm equipment — would be more fair to taxpayers, spreading the cost of paying for schools beyond homeowners to a larger pool of St. Clair County residents, shoppers and visitors. Because of that, homeowners would actually see their tax bills go down.
Smithton Elementary School is in desperate need of expansion, according to Superintendent Susan Homes. About 75 students currently attend classes in temporary buildings that cost $14,000 a year to operate because the school, originally built in the early 1950s, hasn’t kept up with the growth of the community. Because the temporary classrooms have no plumbing, children who need to use the restroom must walk across the parking lot to the main building, protected only by a lanyard with a panic button hung around their necks.
Smithton District 130 could increase its revenue by more than $276,000 a year through the sales tax. Homes said about 40 percent of the money would go to expansion and renovation of school facilities, the remaining 60 percent of the revenue would allow the district to abate about $164,000 in property tax income a year. The owner of a $100,000 house would save $56.40 on their annual property tax bills for existing indebtedness and avoid up to an additional $39 toward the cost of the needed facility improvements.
Freeburg Elementary School District 70 would bring in about $410,000 in new revenue from the 1-cent sales tax. According to Assistant Superintendent Mark Janssen, about 80 percent of the money would be used to pay for needed infrastructure improvements including a new roof and a new heating and air conditioning system for the Primary Center. The remaining 20 percent would be used to pay off existing bonds issued in 2008. In total, the owner of a $100,000 home would save about $91 a year.
St. Libory District 30 would bring in about $43,350 from the penny sales tax. About 85 percent of that total would go to pay for facility improvements including replacement of the roof over the gym and the west wing of the elementary school plus security improvements including new doors and surveillance cameras. The remaining 15 percent would be used to eliminate a 5-cent Health-Life-Safety Fund tax. By eliminating the need to issue bonds to pay for school upgrades and offsetting the 5-cent tax, the owner of a $100,000 home would save about $100 a year.
Freeburg High School District 77 would bring in about $338,000 from the sales tax, Superintendent Greg Frerking said. It would use 55 percent of the money to pay for replacing its 60-year-old gym, its aging boiler system and the roof over the school’s south and central wings. The owner of $100,000 home in the high school district would save about $41 per year — plus the property tax savings they realized in their grade school district.
The owner of a $100,000 home located in one of the three feeder districts and Freeburg High School District would save a total of $97 to $141 a year. Meanwhile, the purchaser of a $7 fast food meal would see 7 cents added to his bill.
Switching some of the burden of paying for St. Clair County schools from property taxes to sales taxes would allow people on fixed incomes to better control their expenses. The revenue collected in St. Clair County would remain in St. Clair County to benefit local families and the money would not be subjected to potential cuts or reimbursement delays by the Illinois General Assembly.
Freeburg, Smithton and St. Libory schools need improvements. Funding them through a 1-cent sales tax while making property taxes go down is the fairest way to make sure our schools continue to meet the needs of the community
Robert Mueller is a leader of the Vote Yes for Safety, Yes for Kids, Yes for our Future group asking voters on April 4 to approve a 1-cent sales tax for schools as well as a 1-cent sales tax for public safety in St. Clair County. He and group members Cheri Becherer, Shari Money and JoAnne Gagen collaborated on this article.