Guest Column September 14, 2007
RE: Response to “Rising School Fees Tax Bills Stem from States Failure to Act”/”School Funding Mess Main Cause of Big Property Tax Hikes”
The Southtown’s recent editorials blaming “The State” for high student fees and taxes clearly missed the real problem.
High taxes and fees are due more to school system “greed” than student “need”.
Consider the fees in High School District 230..
Last year, District 230 had a budget SURPLUS of about $3.5 million, yet still burdened parents with minimum fees of $286 per student, among the highest in the Southland.
Such high fees clearly were not needed to fund the students’ educational costs, but it was in the staff’s interest to save the money for future raises.
Guess who won?
Perhaps the biggest abuse of fees this year is in Palatine High School District 211.
The Palatine Superintendent claims a whopping $44.5 million surplus this year..
They still charge students a minimum $140 fee for enrollment, among other high "use" fees.
High real estate taxes also are often due to student unfriendly decisions by school boards, not "inadequate state funding".
Thornton High School District 205 illustrates this point well.
Thornton 205 has among the highest tax rates in the state.
Its operating expenses are over $12,000 per student. This is about $4,000 more than Lincoln Way District 210, a district known for providing quality education at fair cost.
Average teacher salaries in Thornton are about $81,000 for nine months work, around $25,000 above state average. By comparison, the average civil engineer in the Chicago area makes only about $67,000 for 12 months work.
Over 100 of the Thornton staff had six figure annual compensation according to recent Teacher Retirement System data. The highest paid teacher in Thornton made over $137,000.
With such highly paid teachers and staff, and spending 50% higher than the top high school district in the Southland, Thornton students should be extremely successful, right?
Report Cards show that Thornton students meet or exceed state overall testing requirements at less than 40% of the state average, despite having the same percentage of low income students.
It was the Thornton school board that decided paying teachers $25,000 above state average was more important than providing the courses, extracurriculars, and tutoring necessary for student success, not the state.
It was District 230 President Dennis Cook and the school board that decided creating a surplus for future raises and “pork” spending was more important than fair fees, not the state.
I won’t dispute the fact that our school funding from Springfield is unfair.
Roundout District 72 in the North Suburbs spends over $24,000 per student each year from local funding. This is about triple the state average. Despite this local “overfunding”, Roundout still receives over $600 per student in state aid.
Property rich Palatine Elementary District 15, which spends around $10,000 per student, receives about $1,100 per student in state aid.
I believe it is unconscionable that taxpayers in Harvey, Matteson, and Robbins are subsidizing Palatine and Roundout with their state income tax dollars, while their own school taxes and fees are oppressively high.
Raising income taxes, while increasing unnecessary aid to the “rich” schools, will only make this unfairness worse.
There are many things Springfield can do to reduce property taxes and student fees without raising income taxes.
It could prohibit fees and truly protect “free’ public education for families.
It could address funding inequity by improving “means testing” in the state formula without raising taxes. We can take care of the underfunded schools, special education needs, and disadvantaged students before distributing state funds to the wealthy.
Springfield can abolish the costly “early retirement” benefits and “end of career” raises which are bankrupting our pension system and creating school budget deficits.
They could also standardize and cap school salaries and benefits, which make up about 80% of school spending.
In the end, however, only parents and taxpayers can protect themselves from excessive taxes and fees regardless of what's done in Springfield .
Study your school report cards (www.isbe.net) and hold your board accountable for excessive and “student unfriendly” spending.
Check your school staff pay at www.thechampion.org. You’ll be amazed how much many districts can afford to pay staff while the students’ programs are being threatened.
Vote in school Board elections and find out which candidates are for the students and taxpayers, and which ones have the Big Ed “network” as their priority.
Better yet, run for the school Board. It only takes fifty petition signatures, some time, a little money, and really thick skin if you criticize school spending or performance.
Remember, the greatest fear of those abusing taxpayers and parents in the “Big Ed” bureaucracy is a well informed and active community.
Student need will only beat Big Ed greed when parents and taxpayers diligently work together to make student success our schools’ top priority.
Bob Shelstrom is a former High School and College Math and Science Teacher and a Professional Engineer, and has three children in Southland public schools. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.