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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Group pushing for school funding vote

Property tax proposal could raise up to $10 million

A group of parents, teachers and volunteers is pushing the Springfield Public Schools board to place a school funding referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The group, Invest in 186, has proposed a plan that would raise between $8 million and $10 million. The money would begin to replace millions of dollars which were cut from the school district’s budget in recent years.

District 186 has faced a budget shortfall each year since 2010 because of state funding cuts and the 2008 market crash that devalued the district’s investments. Rather than cut about $16 million in a single year, the school board spread out the cuts over four years. With a projected $5 million budget shortfall looming over the coming fiscal year, the board hopes that this will be the final year of deep cuts.

“We think that the schools have been cut too much,” said Lynn Handy, a volunteer in the school district and director of Invest in 186. Handy says 85 teaching positions and 58 supporting positions have been eliminated in the past three years, along with programs aimed at keeping children from falling behind. Replacing those positions and programs, Handy says, is necessary to give students a quality education.

“The current situation is really unacceptable,” Handy said. “We have kids entering kindergarten already behind and struggling to catch up. The teachers are trying to address the needs of kids who have never had a book read to them while also trying to teach kids who are already able to read. We’ve also cut the people who help teachers be effective, like reading and math coaches and computer technicians. Even custodians and security have seen cuts.”

Illinois law allows school boards to ask voters for more money through either the property tax or the sales tax. The last time the school board successfully passed a referendum was 30 years ago in 1984. The board attempted to pass a sales tax increase in 2010, but the measure failed.

Katherine Eastvold, spokeswoman for Invest in 186 and a parent with three children in the district, says the group doesn’t favor another attempt at a sales tax for several reasons. She notes that under Illinois law, a school district can only use sales tax increases to fund construction projects. She also says the sales tax is regressive, meaning it effectively takes proportionally more of a low-income family’s income than it does for a high-income family.

Instead, the group proposes an increase of 50 cents for every $100 of a property’s equalized assessed valuation. The EAV is typically one-third of a property’s fair market value, and homes that serve as a primary residence for the owner are eligible for a $6,000 credit known as the homestead exemption. Under Invest in 186’s proposal – which they caution is only one option – the owners of a home valued at $100,000 would pay an additional $137 per year in property tax. That comes to an additional $11.39 per month.

Calculate the potential property tax increase for your home under Invest in 186’s proposal:
Divide the fair market value of your home by three.

  1. Example: $100,000 / 3 = $33,333.33
    Subtract $6,000 for the homestead exemption if the home is your primary residence.
  2. Example: $33,333.33 - $6,000 = $27,333.33
    Divide the result (your equalized assessed value) by 100.
  3. Example: $27,333.33 / 100 = $273.33
    Multiply the result by 0.5.
  4. Example: $273.33 x 0.5 = $136.67
    The result is your home’s potential property tax increase.

Handy says her group recognizes that no one wants to pay more taxes.

“The odds of people voting to increase their own taxes are not very good,” Handy said. “It will be a struggle to get people to believe the need is great enough and the benefits are great enough that it’s worth their investment to pay a little more for a better outcome in the education of the people who are going to be running this city 20 years from now. We cannot continue to let bits of our education system dribble away over the course of years and think that’s not going to make a difference.”

At a Jan. 7 board meeting, board member Judith Ann Johnson suggested going through the budget line-by-line to “weed out what some people may think are excessive positions” before asking voters for more money. Handy says that’s certainly a good idea, but she wonders why the board cut so many positions and programs already without doing a line-by-line review first.

In order to make sure any new revenues from a referendum are used correctly, Handy wants the board to include in their resolution a statement specifying how the money would be spent if approved.

“There is a fear among some people that any new amount that comes in will go to teacher raises,” Handy said. “I’m not saying teachers don’t deserve raises – I actually marvel at what they do – but this is not a way for teachers to just get a big chunk of money. This is for all those things like keeping kids in school.”

“Our school system is the foundation of our city, we believe,” Handy continued. “We have to have an educated population to have a strong city. I want to live in a place where the population is educated, civically involved, employed, and not committing crimes, and all those things are closely associated with good schools.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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