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Voters field school funding question punted by Illinois lawmakers

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[March 18, 2014]  By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD (Illinois Watchdog) It has fallen to local voters to decide school funding questions that Illinois lawmakers couldn't or wouldn't.

HAD ENOUGH: Taxpayers in McLean County are saying no to a new tax for schools.

"Our (state) priority is public education. We need to refocus our priorities," state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, told Illinois Watchdog.

Illinois is supposed to pick up most of the cost for public schools, but in the current budget, lawmakers cover just 28 percent of the tab. Local taxpayers, primarily through local property taxes, pay 61 percent of the cost for schools. The federal government pays for the rest.

In 2007, the Illinois General Assembly authorized schools to use a countywide sales tax to make up any school funding shortfalls.

"(The sales tax money) provides the ability to help their schools on a local basis, with voters having the say," Brady said.

As long as schools that make up a majority of students agree, voters will be asked to approve up to a 1 percent sales tax increase.


Voters in 16 counties are being asked to approve sales tax increases this week.

Ben Scwharm, vice president of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said those counties are Carroll, Coles, DeWitt, Effingham, Fulton, Gallatin, Hamilton, Mason, McLean, Peoria, Pike, Randolph, Rock Island, Shelby, Stephenson and Whiteside counties.

McLean County, however, has seen a revolt against the proposed tax hike.

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Erik Prenzler, a local business owner, founded a group to fight what would be a $17 million-a-year tax increase.

"It's $17.9 million in new taxes," Prenzler said earlier this month. "They can take (those dollars) and they can put debt on that. That would equate to about $192 million of bond debt."

Prenzler said McLean County Unit District 5, the biggest school district in the county, hasn't shown the need or the discipline for almost $200 million in taxpayer-guaranteed borrowing ability.

Unit 5 leaders say the countywide sales tax increase is needed to build new schools.

But Prenzler points out Unit 5 just hired a new superintendent at $190,000 a year. That is $40,000 more than he previously made.

"We're talking about basic financial management," Prenzler said. "The expenses are just gone through the roof."

Unit 5 is promising to lower property taxes a bit, about $100 on a $200,000 home, but only if taxpayers approve the sales tax increase.

Prenzler said taxpayers can see through that bribe.

Voters will have their say Tuesday.

[This article courtesy of Illinois Watchdog.]

Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter:  @BenYount.

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