District 186 Considers Tax Referendum Possibilities
Springfield's district 186 is struggling to fill a 5 million dollar gap in the budget for the coming school year. A group of parents and community members say they have an answer to supplementing the district's budget: raise property taxes. But passing a referendum will prove challenging. And if it's going to happen, some say efforts to get the word out need to ramp up now.
It's not a new idea. Schools are limited when it comes to where they can go for money. The property tax is usually the choice. But it's been decades since voters approved a tax hike for District 186. That hasn't stopped supporters from trying again. Shelly Tulipana told the school board she's worried that if the district continues to cut teachers and programs to make ends meet, students will be increasingly negatively affected. That includes her child, who she says has performed poorly in school since the Capitol College Preparatory Academy he was attending closed last school year. “I am telling you this in the hopes you will not let this happen to other families and students. We all know that the state and federal governments are not going to bail us out of this mess. This is up to us as a community. This is not about politics or you asking to raise taxes. We are asking that you give us as parents and concerned community members the chance to let the voters decide. Let us have the chance to convince our friends and neighbors that raising the property taxes is good for the whole community," Tulipana told the school board at its last meeting.
Bob Hill is the district's interim superintendent. He served previously in the role before retiring in 2002. He also warns that money is getting dangerously low. He says District 186 has a history of tapping out its budget reserves when state and local funding isn't enough. But, "Those days are gone,” he says. “For me the much bigger picture is what do we for beyond this year ... Most people believe there's a lot of fat in this budget that can be cut out and you've heard politicians say we're past the fat and into the bone. We'll we're past the fat and getting into the bone now. If you have to do this next year you'll be past the fat and into the bone - there's no question," Hill said at the last school board meeting.
But Hill also says he knows from prior experience that getting a referendum to pass would be difficult. Board member Scott McFarland noted at the last meeting, as did others, that the expected $4.7 million dollar shortfall the district faces for the coming school year could be made even larger if the state decides to fund school districts at a lower amount than last year. McFarland says if a tax referendum is to be sought, the board needs to make that decision as soon as possible so the word can get out. “My request is no matter what we do, we decide as a board are we moving forward with this, and if so when. Because that will decide the fundraising, that will decide the campaigning, the door-knocking, and everything else that will be enclosed in this," he says.
There's also another proposal to raise funds. Adam Lopez, the board's vice president, says he wants to see a county-wide sales tax referendum go on the ballot. State law allows county voters to hike the sales tax to benefit repair and construction of school buildings. That means, if approved, the money brought in would be earmarked and limit how districts could use it. An attempt in Sangamon County failed in 2010
WUIS asked all the District 186 board members if they support either idea. Five of the seven responded. Two say they are against higher property taxes, one favors that plan, and the rest say they are still undecided which referendum would be best, if any. Supporters of the property tax referendum say it would cost the average home owner about $120 extra per year. It's not clear when or if the board will take a decisive vote on the issue.