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Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:01 am

School district seeks to rebound from years of cuts

Funding referendum could be on November ballot

Outgoing interim superintendent Bob Leming received a gift from the Springfield school board at his final meeting on Jan. 7. Dr. Robert Hill has now replaced Leming as interim superintendent while the board negotiates with Jennifer Gill to take over the post full time.

 

Springfield Public Schools could ask taxpayers for a boost soon, but the school board first plans to make another round of budget cuts.

At a school board meeting on Jan. 7, the board unanimously approved a $22 million line of credit from Bank of Springfield to meet cash-flow needs for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Still, the district faces a projected $5 million budget shortfall. To prevent similar shortfalls in the future, the board will begin discussing at the Feb. 3 meeting whether to ask taxpayers for a rate increase.

The major budget cuts in Springfield Public Schools started four years ago, says school board member Scott McFarland. He explains that the district faced a large deficit in 2010 because of state funding cuts and the 2008 recession that devalued the district’s investments. McFarland says the deficit was so large that cutting all of that money from the budget in one year would have devastated the district, so the board decided to mete out the cuts over four years.

Joe Bascio, interim director of business services for the school district, projects a $5 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, but he adds that this should be the last year with major cuts, assuming state funding isn’t cut again.

Board member Judith Ann Johnson suggested at the Jan. 7 meeting that the board go through the budget line by line before asking for a referendum.

“We need to do that sooner rather than later, so that we can really weed out what some people may think are excessive positions,” Johnson said.

Speaking after the meeting, she told Illinois Times that she isn’t necessarily in favor of a referendum, but the district must know what money it does have first and what money it might need.

“My point in bringing it up tonight out here in open session is that we need to have an open board discussion about how we feel about it,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re not over-employing in some areas and under-employing in other areas. We need to get the best bang for our buck.”

Education funding in Illinois is complex. School districts receive revenue from a variety of sources, including federal and state money, local property and sales taxes, and grants from various levels of government. Additionally, many districts invest part of their revenue to reap investment income. The State of Illinois provides a “foundation level” of funding per student each year, and the state also provides “supplemental state aid” for districts with low-income students.

For Springfield Public Schools, the state’s contribution makes up less than half of the district’s budget, leaving a wide budget gap that is mostly filled by property taxes. Each fiscal year, the district determines its “levy,” which is how much money it needs to seek from taxpayers. The levy is then divided by the community’s total “equalized assessed value” to obtain the rate that property owners pay.

In a given year, a school district can increase the tax rate on property up to five percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The district needs to ask voters to approve a referendum if it wants to raise the rate more than that.

The Springfield Public School District’s property tax is by far the largest portion of a property owner’s tax bill, last year making up 4.892 percent of the total 7.9471 percent tax paid by a typical homeowner. However, the district hasn’t passed a referendum in nearly 30 years, with the last being in 1984.

In order to put a referendum on the March 18 primary election ballot, the Springfield school board would have had to pass a resolution by Dec. 30. The district still has time to get the referendum on the Nov. 4 general election ballot, however, provided the school board passes a resolution by Aug. 18.

McFarland says he favors a referendum, although one has not been formally introduced before the board yet. He says the district has already tightened its belt and has made painful cuts for four years.

“When folks say we need to live within our means, we are,” he says. “We’re making cuts every year, so the question isn’t ‘do we live within our means?’ We do. But do the means we have support and educate our children well? The answer is no.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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