Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Great news! Two newspapers have seen the light on the D-300 education referendum.

Courier News

Approve D300 bond issue, not tax hike

A strong educational system is a foundation of any community. Its contribution to the vitality of a region cannot be overstated.

In that spirit, we wanted to support District 300's ambitious but costly referendum on March 21, which asks voters to approve $185 million in bonds for new construction and a 55-cent per $100 of assessed valuation increase in the education fund. If the proposal is successful, owners of a $200,000 home would pay an additional $339 a year in taxes. If not, the District 300 Board of Education has promised to cut virtually every extra-curricular activity from varsity sports all the way down to elementary music.

Setting aside emotional issues, we examined only the numbers used by the district to justify this tax increase.

Whether the district needs more money to operate effectively is not in question. In fact, even Carpentersville businessman Jack Roeser, ardent member of the Family Taxpayers Network and frequent opponent of school referenda, told The Courier News editorial board that he offered to work for a referendum if the district would seek a smaller amount. And in fact, the amount that the district seeks, not its need, is what we question.

Any financial projection is based on estimates of future growth and potential tax revenues. But the district has used an absolute worst-case scenario of high student growth and artificially low revenues in justifying the 55-cent figure.

In its defense, the administration has adopted a conservative approach in contrast to its previous more liberal view of potential revenue. But asking taxpayers to fund only the most dire projection is not prudent.

Two examples illustrate our point.

In a recent Courier News story, the district estimated the foundation state aid to education per pupil would increase only $50, while the state budget estimated $170 per pupil. When challenged, the district revised the estimate to $170, potentially generating another $3 million in revenue. State estimates are notoriously high, so the actual figure will be less, but probably well above $50.

Secondly, the district revised sharply higher its estimate of the district's 2006 equalized assessed valuation, the base upon which taxes are levied, which will increase property tax revenue. Financial officials said that increase will be offset by losses elsewhere and that it won't have a material effect on the district's overall financial picture. Growth and revenue estimates are fluid, but vastly different numbers are unsettling.

The school board decided to seek this amount of money before these revisions. It may have made a different decision if it had been presented with a range of potential outcomes, rather than just the worst one.

A doomsday scenario needs to be bolstered by evidence more compelling than what the district has presented. A skeptical public that does not want to vote itself a huge tax increase needs only a sliver of a doubt to reject it.

We cannot urge residents to vote for something as costly as this without complete confidence in the numbers the district is using to justify its need.

If this measure fails, the school board should avoid a punitive stance and reconsider its pledge to cut extra-curriculars until it has a firmer grasp of the true financial picture. So far, that picture appears to have brightened considerably since the board took its vote in January.

We urge voters to reject the education fund increase and force the district to come back to them with a more reasonable figure.

To view the rest of the story click here.

Daily Herald
Education fund tax hike — No

For: Additional teachers, reduced class sizes.

Cost per year on $200,000 home: From low of $361 to high of $577. Average annual cost over 20 years: $461.

Our decision on the 55-cent education fund tax hike is “no,” and will be until we see numbers that don’t change with every challenge, assurances that employees will be part of the financial solution and a defter touch on the budget-cutting knife. Laudably, the district:

• Would take the tax hike in a single year, reducing the overall cost to taxpayers and matching plan to a tax cap law amendment being considered now that would mandate it.

•Has already cut $14 million over the last three years, stopping the fund’s bleeding.

•Has asked employees to pay more toward health-care costs. The 30 percent average is typical in the private sector, but groundbreaking in the public sector.

•Has begun in-depth financial and efficiency analyses of all departments and programs.

Yes, we also understand new schools must be staffed, but building a school takes two years. There is time to present a better plan, more assurances and more defensible numbers.

If academics are the heart of a school district, extracurricular activities are its soul, the glue that holds the school experience together and offers possibilities beyond test scores. They also have little impact financially. The board’s scorched earth approach seems excessive and manipulative, given the many questions elsewhere.

The district low-balled its revenues numbers early. When challenged, revenue numbers were revised upward, reducing the needed cuts. But the board reaffirmed the damaging cuts for 2006-07 anyway. That’s a stubbornness that borders on irresponsible, given the impact. Reduced wage costs and smaller cuts would cover the $2.5 million we believe needs paring for next year.

Its contract with teachers expires this summer. A deal prior to the election would have assured voters their money wouldn’t go mostly for pay raises. School officials said they would keep pay hikes in check, but we believe the public needs more than vague promises. If the tax hike fails, the district should:

•Immediately drop plans for extracurricular cuts for 2006-07. There is no going back from this draconian decision; it should be delayed.

•Ink a multiple-year teacher pact that includes a freeze or minimal increases. Employees represent the greatest part of the budget. They either are part of the solution or there won’t be one.

•Complete program analyses quickly. Look for efficiencies and potential cuts heretofore unknown, especially in the more expensive programs like special education. This should be done before asking for more cash.

•Rethink class size reductions given research shows little impact on achievement. Could reductions be limited to certain classes or ages?

•Solidify all revenue and expense numbers using reasonable expectations. Reassess all cut proposals in light of the above.

Then try again, when voters might believe they are part of a reasoned solution involving all parties, not just the convenient local bank.
To view the rest of the story in the Daily Herald click here.

No comments: