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On Jan. 10, the District 65 School Board adopted, by a 6-0 vote, a resolution to place a $14.5 million operating referendum on the ballot for the April 4, 2017 election. Board member Omar Brown was unable to attend the meeting because a plane flight back to Chicago was delayed. He told the RoundTable he supported the referendum.
The actual proposition that the Board approved to place on the ballot is as follows:
“Shall the limiting rate under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law for Evanston/Skokie Community Consolidated School District Number 65, Cook County, Illinois, be increased by an additional amount equal to 0.595% above the limiting rate for school purposes for levy year 2015 and be equal to 4.166% of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein for levy year 2016?”
If approved by voters, this will allow the District to increase property taxes to be used for education, support services, and operations by an amount higher than the increase currently permitted under the State tax caps. Tax caps limit the increase to the lesser of the amount of the Consumer Price Index or 5%. During the last eight years, since the Great Recession, the CPI has averaged 1.5%.
In 2015, the District levied $86,960,550 in taxes on property subject to tax caps. If the referendum is approved, the District will be permitted to increase the taxes to approximately $101,460,550, or by approximately $14.5 million per year.
School Board member Claudia Garrison asked if the referendum question could be “translated” so it would be more understandable for voters.
Superintendent Paul Goren said the District’s legal advisors said the legalistic language is required to be on the ballot, but the District would prepare a “translation” that will inform and educate people about the referendum before they entered the polling place.
Snapshot of the Need for the Referendum
At the meeting, Dr. Goren summarized the need for the referendum, as he has in many prior Board and Finance Committee meetings and in several community forums.
The latest financial projections prepared by the District show that its operating deficits will grow from $5.1 million in FY’18 (the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018) to $24.4 million in FY’25. The cumulative deficits during the eight-year period are $112.3 million, said Dr. Goren.
If approved, the referendum would provide an additional $14.5 million in funding in year one. In subsequent years, it would provide an additional $14.5 million per year, plus increases on that amount permitted under tax caps. Over the next eight years, the referendum is projected to generate an additional $135.6 million, said Dr. Goren.
The $135.6 million would be enough to cover the projected deficits of $112.3 million, and enable the District to maintain its current educational program and provide a source of funding for technology. It would leave $23.3 million that could be used to enhance educational opportunities, to enable the District to move forward with some limited capital projects, and to maintain the working cash fund balance at 19% of operating expenses. Best practices aim for between 25% and 40% in working cash.
The funding that would become available for capital projects would total about $15.2 million over the next eight years. This would enable the District to construct double-vestibule safe entrances for the five remaining schools that do not have them, make priority replacements of air handler units and boilers, and make some roofing and masonry repairs.
The District has a list of capital projects totaling more than $90 million, said Dr. Goren.
While the plan is to sustain the District for the next eight years, the funding could provide a way for the District to survive if the State legislature cuts State funding to District 65 or freezes property taxes.
Dr. Goren said the State is continuing to consider legislation to reform the way it funds schools and to freeze property taxes. As an example, on Jan. 10, the Illinois House passed, by a wide margin, a bill to freeze property taxes.
Dr. Goren and Board President Candance Chow said the District is planning to have additional meetings with local legislators and to work with ED-Red, which represents a group of school districts on legislative issues.
If the referendum does not pass, the District will need to make drastic cuts totaling $8.8 million to balance the budgets in the next two school years, followed by even steeper cuts in subsequent years, said Dr. Goren.
Dr. Goren said to achieve cuts of between $4.25 million and $6 million, the District would need to cut between 50 and 60 staff positions, significantly increase class sizes, make deep cuts to central office services and operations, reduce classroom supports, and reduce curriculum and enrichment programming.
To achieve the balance of the cuts needed in just the first two years, the District would need to take some additional steps that could include closing a school or schools, combining buildings to serve fewer grade levels, creating multi-grade classrooms, and reassigning students to different schools, Dr. Goren said.
Impact on Taxpayers
Dr. Goren presented a table showing the impact of the referendum on property owners. A property owner who paid the average property tax bill of $8,076 in 2016 would see an increase of about $470 in property taxes per year, if the referendum were approved.
A property owner who paid $4,000 in property taxes would see an increase of $233 per year, and a property owner who paid $12,000 would see an increase of $698 per year. The increases are about 5.8% across the board, according to the table.
Reasons for Supporting the Referendum
“I’ve been an Evanston homeowner for 19 years and my children have gone to Evanston schools, and one is still at District 202. I value the education and the education services,” said Dr. Goren.
“Raising the tax burden on taxpayers and homeowners and renters is not something any of us take lightly,” Dr. Goren continued. “And yet as we think about the fabric of our community and the fabric of our schools, and what makes them so great, we’re at a pivot where, by making the investments we’re asking people to make, we can continue to build upon and stay committed to the excellence that we’ve had over the years and the progress that we’ve made over the last couple of years. This is really, at a personal level and a professional level, an investment that I think we all have to make in the value of our community and the fabric or our schools.”
Ms. Chow said, “This has been a really thoughtful and intentional process, and it’s not an action that the administration or the Board has entered into lightly.
“The District has made almost $11 million in reductions in the last seven years and we’ve worked with our staff and our teacher colleagues in the past months to help address our deficits, resulting in more than $2.6 million in reductions to those deficits through recently negotiated agreements, and through our compensation freezes at the administrative level.
“Yet, to realize $8.8 million in additional reductions, we would have to make cuts that would have dire consequences to our students, our families, and our schools.
“Unlike our State counterparts, we just don’t have the luxury of indecisiveness or inaction. And that is not the way we roll in Evanston.
“We must serve almost 8,000 students. That’s our responsibility. And we increased our enrollment by almost 1,500 students since 2007. We receive $600 per student from the State to prepare those children for their future. That means if we need roughly $20 million to adequately serve the new students, and we’ve received about $3.5 million in new property tax revenues to match that, we have a big gap.
“Our spending is in the middle of the pack of our peer group, and we have high expectations of our education in Evanston.
“I fully acknowledge, as Paul [Goren] has, that all children are not currently receiving equitable outcomes in our School District. We have made some progress and there’s still much more to do yet. We cannot go backwards.
“Much time and effort and consideration has gone into determining the referendum ask [the amount of the referendum] and about responding to our real needs versus overreaching.
“There are consequences that we face without the referendum, and I believe it’s our duty to put the question to the community.
“We also have a duty then to ensure that the community is informed and to that end we will be involved in continuing to share information to the extent that we can and make sure questions are answered.”
Board member and past President Tracy Quattrocki said, “I want one more time to thank the teachers for their role in trying to help us address these insurmountable deficits.
“And, on a personal note, it’s my eighth year on the Board. I have to say one of the things I dreaded is this moment, because it’s such a huge ask to the community, when people already feel stretched. But when we look at what we want to do for these students, I just don’t feel like we have a choice, because we just need this for our students. And that’s why, even though it’s hard to make the ask, I think it’s our responsibility to do so.”
“I support the referendum,” said Mr. Brown, in a text message he sent to Ms. Chow during the meeting. “The Board and administration have an obligation to find ways to support the students, teachers, principals, and staff. I believe the referendum will allow the District to continue the positive path forward.”
The referendum will appear on the April 4 ballot.
For more detailed information about the referendum, see articles, “District 65 School Board Considers $13.5 Million Referendum” and “D65 Committee Recommend $14.5 Referendum,” published in the Dec. 15 and 29 issues of the RoundTable, which are available at evanstonroundtable.com.