After six years, a school funding sales tax proposition is back on the ballot in Madison County — and educators are making their case to voters to avoid another defeat.
In the April 2011 consolidated election, 80 percent of the county’s voters rejected a 1 percent sales tax for school facilities. Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber, who led the effort the first time, attributes the defeat partially to voters’ misconceptions.
“It was looked at as I wanted this because I was getting the money,” Daiber said. “The Regional Office doesn’t get any money out of this, but that was the misconception.”
This time, a group of superintendents is leading the effort to spread the word to parents and residents. Among those is Granite City School District Superintendent Jim Greenwald.
“We are on a very strong campaign right now that the month of March is upon us to let people know the honest reason why this is really a great program for all of the public schools,” Greenwald said.
How it works
If voters pass the measure, everyone who makes a purchase in the county will pay 1 cent extra per $1 spent. The tax excludes vehicles and boats, mobile homes, groceries, prescription and over-the-counter medicine and vitamins; and farm equipment.
The tax would go into effect July 1 and districts would receive funds based on their student population in October. The funds initially go to the Illinois Department of Revenue, which sends the money to the Regional Office of Education to be distributed to the districts. The funding is not subject to legislative action by the Illinois General Assembly.
Districts can use the revenue for new facilities, additions and renovations; security, entrances, safety and disabled access technology infrastructure; architectural planning; durable equipment; fire prevention and life safety; land acquisition, energy efficiency, parking lots, demolition and roof repairs.
Districts also can use the funds to abate property taxes levied to pay bonds issued for capital purposes. In the Granite City School District, Greenwald said the owner of a $100,000 home would save $146 for the 2018 and 2019 tax years.
“That’s why I really think this can be attractive to the educated voter that can take a close look at this,” he said. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody involved.
“If this doesn’t pass, there’s a real good chance that taxes may go up,” Greenwald said. “We don’t want to have to sell bonds or take out loans, but roofs, parking lots, technology infrastructure, servers, data networks – those things are an integral part of our school district.”
Once the tax is in effect, the Madison County Board can, by ordinance or resolution, put a measure on the ballot asking voters whether they want to reduce the tax or discontinue it.
Since it became state law in 2007, the tax has passed in 47 Illinois counties. Despite initial voter resistance in some counties, by the November 2016 election residents approved the tax measure in all eight counties that placed it on the ballot. Neighboring Bond, Jersey and Macoupin counties have all passed the tax and it’s on the April ballot in St. Clair County.
Daiber said a lack of state funding has made the tax a way for school districts to control property taxes.
“There’s no school construction money from the state, and the only money that schools have to maintain facilities is to levy property taxes,” he said.
Daiber said Madison County’s “pass-through” status confers benefits from a sales tax. The tax is expected to generate $23 million per year, with 30 to 40 percent coming from non-residents.
Another point he emphasized is that districts must reduce their levy if they use the revenue for paying off debt.
“When they get this money, whatever they’re going to use it for, they’re going to have to reduce their levy somewhere,” he said.
Daiber said he looks at the tax as an opportunity to maintain quality schools.
“One of the key things in this county for our growth has been quality schools,” he said. “Realtors have made lots of money in Madison County with our residential expansion. We have an excellent quality of life here; we have some of the best schools in the whole Midwest in this county, and I’m proud of this as regional superintendent. In order for us to maintain the quality of life and the quality of education that is here, we have to have quality facilities.”
Greenwald is making a similar point in his talks with parents groups and other influential organizations.
“We have really tightened our belt over the past five years to spend only on needs and not wants,” he said. “When you’re talking about parking lots, sidewalks, roofs, other necessary major repairs, that money has to come from somewhere. This county school tax revenue could help Granite City avoid the need to sell bonds or take out additional loans that would cause the school district to have additional debt, raise interest costs, and as we know additional debt and interest costs causes us unfortunately to have to raise property taxes.”
A political action committee, Madison County Citizens for a Sustainable Education, formed Feb. 7 to oppose the proposition.
In a fundraising email, the group states the proposals are backed by investment bankers, unions and construction companies that stand to benefit from new building projects. They also cast doubt on whether school boards will keep their promises to reduce property taxes.
“It’s all about issuing hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds,” the email states. “The investment bankers will pocket millions in fees and bonuses. The taxpayers will be left deep in debt.”
The group’s Illinois State Board of Elections paperwork lists Keith Melton of Troy as chairman and Doug Matthews of Glen Carbon as treasurer.
Representatives for the group did not return calls for comment.