School Referendum Results Mixed

Apr 10, 2013

Voters in several northern Illinois counties were asked to approve sales-tax hikes on Tuesday. The ballot initiatives aimed to bring in more revenue for school districts in need of facility upgrades.

The language in these ballot questions had slight variations in the wording. But they essentially asked the same thing: should there be a one-percent sales-tax increase to help schools with construction-related projects?

In Boone County, which saw its referendum fail last fall, the proposal that appeared on Tuesday’s ballot easily won approval.

However, similar proposals failed in Whiteside, Lee, Ogle and LaSalle Counties.

LaSalle County supporters of the tax-hike were also seeking voter approval for a second time.

Dan Marenda is superintendent of the LaSalle Elementary District. He says they’re dealing with a growing student population and shrinking classroom space. Marenda says with property values still low, they don’t have much money to build new space. He says there’s another problem.

“We also had to reopen a building that had been closed for a number of years. That building is in need of millions of dollars in health safety work to bring it up to code” Marenda said.

Marenda says he understands the argument that taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay more money in a fragile economic recovery. But he notes that giving the green light to construction projects would put more people to work.

“Whether it’s building a new building, whether it’s improving an existing building, that provides a number of jobs for the construction trade, electricians, plumbers, cement finishers” Marenda said.

William Phelan led the opposition to the LaSalle County referendum. He says in addition to asking struggling residents to pay a little more for certain purchases, he doesn’t think school leaders in his community are doing enough to rein in costs.

“I guess they haven’t adjusted to the new economic reality we’re in. Until they do that, I think it’s gonna be a hard sell to ask for more revenue without changing some of the things they’re doing” Phelan said.

Still, Phelan says he does like the idea of more control at the local level when it comes to education funding.

“There’s gonna be changes in the way schools are funded, whether we like it or not” Phelan said.

In addition to state and federal funding, Illinois schools have relied heavily on property taxes. But in 2007, a new state law gave schools the option of trying to raise sales-tax revenue through county-wide ballot questions. If voters say yes, the money is distributed proportionally. The law says any increase must exclude basic necessities such as groceries and medicine. And, the money raised can only be used for construction and renovations. Schools districts can also pay down existing bond debt.

Ben Schwarm is with the Illinois Association of School Boards. He says the law is similar to the model Iowa uses. He says while Illinois voters don’t appear to have the appetite for a sales-tax hike, especially after the state raised income taxes in 2011, he does see more counties asking taxpayers for additional help.

“The state hasn’t funded a viable construction bond program for school districts for years. The need is there for construction and refurbishing in some areas. The state has not stepped up to provide that funding” Schwarm said.

Like they have done with proposed property-tax hikes, Schwarm says many districts will give their sales-tax pitch another try if their initial attempt is rejected.