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Thursday, July 15, 2010 06:03 pm

Opening the books

Group seeks spending details from District 186 before sales tax vote

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A limited government group is asking District 186 schools to give community members more information before seeking a sales tax increase in the November election.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative anti-tax advocacy group, last week sent school board members a letter requesting that they consider developing an online check register, a database that would provide more detail than what the already public budget offers.

The district, with a coalition of several other Sangamon County school districts, has approved a resolution calling for the county’s current 8 percent sales tax to climb to 9 percent – instead of paying 8 cents in taxes for every dollar spent, consumers would pay 9 cents for every dollar. The issue will be placed before voters in the November election and, if they approve, the county board will have the final say as to whether Sangamon County sales taxes will rise and by how much. Even if voters approve the one percentage point increase, the county board could limit an increase to a quarter of a percentage point. The earliest an increase could go into effect would be July 1, 2011.

“I think we know from past examples from any organization as big as District 186 that there are savings,” says Greg Blankenship, project manager for the Springfield Chapter of Americans for Prosperity Illinois, who signed the letter.

Blankenship says he knows of no specific examples where District 186 could be saving money. “I have not yet begun to investigate, but as we move closer to a referendum we’ll be keeping a very close eye on them,” he says.

The District 186 school board in June approved several million dollars in deficit spending for fiscal year 2011, dipping into reserves to cover the cost.

The district plans to use the potential near-term proceeds of an increased sales tax to fund construction of five new middle school gymnasiums, needed by 2013 to satisfy state mandates, and the addition of 10 new classrooms and a new gym at Southeast High School.

At the same time board members approved those projects as the initial recipients of a possible sales tax increase, they also resolved to use 10 percent of the new sales tax income to ease property tax rates.

Board President Bill Looby says he expects the sales tax referendum push to go on as planned but adds that he is open to providing as much transparency as possible.

 “I’m just not sure what kind of staff time that takes. … I don’t know much of the details about it, but I think it’s certainly something we could look into and see if that’s a good use of our resources,” Looby says.

He adds that he thinks the district is already transparent in terms of online information availability, the budget process and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Along with every school board agenda, the district already posts a list of vendors and payments made to each of them, but Blankenship says he’d like to see more details about what the payments are for and to be able to access the information through an easy-to-search database.

Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, through a representative, said the district is now in the process of switching to a more user-friendly accounting system, which will make the vendor reports more readable. That system will go online sometime this school year.

Blankenship applauds the district for its efforts and says he’s encouraged by the board member responses he’s received so far. But he adds, “The information should be readily available before we start discussing a tax increase.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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