Another school district took in more than they told the voters during a past referendum. This school board did the right thing and cut taxes. The below article appeared in the November 17th edition of The Doings.
Ethics drive board to cut taxes, risk losses
BY LESLIE O'NEIL
Fighting back tears, school board president Louise Hillegass urged the board to weigh all options before taking the final 4-3 vote that could result in cutting district programs.
Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 Monday discussed for nearly 3 1/2 hours the benefits and disadvantages of slashing the tax rate from the equivalent of 60 cents to 31 cents. Because of a temporarily lifted tax cap, a reallocation of funds and the use of a phase-in method to increase tax rates, the district has received more than twice what was requested in a 2002 referendum. A group of citizens caught the error.
"I do not believe we have acted unethically," Hillegass said, adding she believes the board never intended to overtax residents.
But with schools' programs on the line, she said the board faces another ethical problem -- whether to risk educational quality to appease overtaxed residents.
"I want to be quite sure we're doing the right thing for the district," she said. "There's a lot of gray out there. I want to be careful about not oversimplifying this issue."
Along with Hillegass, Superintendent Mary Curley recommended postponing cutting the rate until a committee of citizens could be formed and more residents' views could be heard. Business manager Pat Seigel warned that returning to the 31-cent rate and abating the $5 million would likely result in the district needing to pass another referendum by 2008.
"Think seriously about not giving back the $5 million tonight," Curley told the board. "It's not imperative that we make that decision tonight. Nobody's paying for the time, and you can still end up in the same place."
During public comment, residents voiced concerns that they were being stolen from, even having their "wallets lifted" by the board. One resident presented a visual, the "district mascot" -- an oinking piggy bank that grunts "more money, more money."
Still others, some calling themselves the quiet majority, said they would rather be overtaxed than see children lose programs and homes lose property value.
"I'm concerned that the opinions of a few are being interpreted as the feelings of the majority," one resident said. "They call themselves anti-tax, but I think they're anti-education."
Despite pleas from Hillegass, Curley and other board members, taking additional time to sort out the issue wouldn't have changed four board members' minds.
"The bottom line is at the end of this, it's my ethics. If I think it's wrong now, I'm still going to think it's wrong in March," board member Lisa Armonda said about the board keeping any additional money. "I can't come up with any other scenario than this. I'm sorry."
Armonda, along with Kitty Delaney, Mary Beth Tamm and Kevin Hanrahan, approved returning to the 31-cent increase and abating the additional $5 million. Hillegass, Bill Mouka and Daniel Rizzardini opposed the motion.
Before the 4-3 vote, Curley warned the decision could result in lost programs.
She presented a list of more than 20 items that could be reduced or slashed.
"To even mention a lot of these cuts is difficult," Curley said as she unveiled the option of consolidating special education classes and reducing special education staff.
Despite the possible cuts, Hanrahan said he would vote for what he thinks is right.
"I have to set an example for my children about what's right and what's wrong," he said. "I can't justify using money without a formal public mandate."
During closing public comment, residents expressed gratitude for the board members' efforts.
"I don't know how I would have voted," one resident said. "Every one of you made an ethical vote. I'm personally very proud to have every one of you as a board member."