Saturday, March 18, 2006

What do they do with the money? - A state senate candidate who gets it.

The following letter to the editor appeared in the Daily Southtown If you live in District 19 you may want to vote for Eric M. Wallace for Senate.

"Why do districts keep asking for money?"

The recent article by Kati Phillips (March 6) about school referendums asks a good question but does not come up with the right answer. The only thing I agree with her on is that people will spend money on new construction if there is overcrowding. This is a no-brainer and easy to evaluate. It is tangible. What is not easy to see is that schools need more money to improve the quality of education. What is not easy to see is whether the district is spending its money (actually our money) wisely.

People balk at spending money when the results are poor to mediocre. People, taxpayers, balk at higher property taxes when there is no evidence that they will get a better return on their investment. Actually, we intuitively know that the opposite is true. We know that higher property taxes chase away new streams of revenue. The higher the property tax, the least likely you will have new homebuyers move into your town, or new homes built in your area, and the more likely new businesses will pass up your community and old businesses will relocate or close up shop. Thus we are left with a system that chokes off any possibility of new revenue.

But we continue to hike the property tax, telling people it is for the children. We are told it is only a few more dollars a year. What you are not told is that the assessment on your property is about to go up 1.9 percent (in Cook County), that the value of your house has also gone up along with all your utilities. What was a few dollars has now mushroomed into $500 to $1,200 more. Who can afford this? And the money is to be used for what?

The real question is why aren't the school districts better stewards of our money? Why aren't we looking outside the box to create better revenue streams while keeping our taxes low? When was the last time the district was audited? What did you do with the last increase? These are the right questions. Now if we could only get some answers (the right answers). Then maybe, just maybe, we could get a handle on the school funding problem, and at the same time begin to tackle the quality of education, which is a subject for another day. But back to the original question, why do school districts keep asking for money? The answer: because they misspent the last installment of your tax dollars.

Eric M. Wallace
Candidate for state Senate, 19th District

Thursday, March 16, 2006

It's your money, folks. Having a hand in how it is spent shouldn't be pie in the sky.

Where's the scrutiny on school district decisions?

Everyone who's had high school civics knows tax revenue is a big pie that is carved up and doled out to the various government boards and authorities.
In Downers Grove, the property tax pie has many slices. The sanitary district and airport authority get the thinnest of slivers. The forest preserve district, library and College of DuPage get somewhat more substantial pieces.

The two most hotly contested slices — the ones that generate the most controversy and debate on a continual basis — go to the village of Downers Grove and the Downers Grove Park District. Still, even these slices are pretty modest, with the village's take only 8.8 percent of the pie and the park district's even smaller.

By far the biggest pieces of the tax pie, the real gut-busters, go to our two local school districts, Grade School District 58 and Community High School District 99. Together, our public schools account for almost 70 percent of the Downers Grove property tax bills, some $3,200 on a $300,000 home in 2004.

So it was with considerable dismay that I learned the District 99 school board has instituted a new policy that will limit each visitor's comments to just three minutes per meeting. The policy also allows the board president to increase or shorten the amount of time a visitor may speak and to deny a visitor the opportunity to speak at all if they have previously addressed the board on a specific issue.

One has only to imagine the outcry that would result if the Village Council or park board tried such a stunt. Both of them have run afoul of public opinion with comparatively lesser affronts, such as neglecting to include an opportunity for visitors' comments on an agenda or by responding disrespectfully to citizens who comment.

Yet here we have one of our community's two biggest consumers of the tax pie literally biting the hand that feeds it. And to judge from the lack of irate letters to the editor, getting away with it, too.

It's a mystery to me how local taxpayers can practically come to blows over whether the half-percent home-rule sales tax is appropriate while consistently overlooking the taxing and spending decisions of our school districts.

With the exception of a handful of citizens who have spent years calling District 99 to account — and to whom the new policy was undoubtedly addressed — the operations of our school districts continue largely unquestioned by the taxpayers who foot the bill.

The result in District 58 is board meetings that are so carefully choreographed as to bear little resemblance to the meetings of the politically motivated Village Council or the sometimes contentious park board.

District 58 may take this as a compliment, but I find it difficult to understand how there can be so little substance in the monthly meeting of a board that has ultimate responsibility for $40 million in property tax revenue.

Politics and contention might never be welcome in that chamber, but there is every reason to expect members of both school boards to proactively surface issues and conduct substantive discussions in the public forum. And for the public to actually be on hand to witness it.

How to account for the lack of public interest in school district affairs? It might be that residents lose touch with the schools as their children grow up and move on, while maintaining their connection to village and park district issues.

It could be the kid card — the real or imagined sensitivity of some parents to doing or saying anything that could negatively impact their children. Or it might be the expertise mystique — the entrenched idea that the administrators are hired to run the district without undue involvement by the school board members elected to oversee them.

Whatever the reason, our local school districts operate a world apart from the Village Council or park board, which have their meetings broadcast on public access television for all interested citizens to watch.

To view the rest of the story go to Suburban Chicago

Elaine Johnson has been a resident of Downers Grove since 1984. Contact her c/o The Sun, 1500 W. Ogden Ave., Naperville, IL 60540, or at

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.

Monday, March 13, 2006

National Taxpayers United of Illinois BUST MORTON DIST. 201 LAWBREAKERS

The following press release was sent to us by the National Taxpayers United of Illinois.

FOR RELEASE: Monday, March 13, 2006
Contact: Jim Tobin (312) 427-5128 (office), (773) 354-2076 (cell)


BERWYN--The president of Illinois' largest taxpayer organization announced today that the group has reported J. Sterling Morton High School District 201 to the Cook County State's Attorney for violating the Illinois Election Interference law in the campaign to increase the school district's property tax rate.

On Thursday March 9, NTU Vice-President Jeffrey Babbitt spoke with the General Counsel for the Illinois State Board of Elections, Steve Sandvoss, regarding District 201's illegal activities. Sandvoss advised that District 201's actions violated criminal law and should be reported to Mary Bucaro at the Public Corruption and Financial Crimes division of Cook County
State's Attorney Dick Devine's office.

NTU outlined several violations committed by District 201 in its complaint filed with the State's Attorney on March 9, including the distribution of "a fax promoting a fundraising event for the Morton Quality in EducationCommittee ... and urging support for the referendum ... through a District 201 fax machine paid for with public funds and using telecommunications services paid for with public funds," listing a District 201 phone number as a contact number for the pro-referendum political action committee, and displaying a large pro-referendum banner on school property. All of
these charges have been substantiated by reporter Johnna Kelly and city editor Robert Carr at The Life newspapers.

The complaint also stated that public employees on District 201's staff may have further violated the Elections Interference law by performing political pro-referendum work while on the clock. NTU's complaint ended by urging the State's Attorney's office "to take immediate action on this violation of election law."

"District 201 teachers and administrators want a substantial property-tax hike--more than $400 every year for the average homeowner--in order to line their pockets with more $100,000 salaries," said Jim Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois (NTU) and a 23-year-resident of the school district. The district taxes Berwyn, Cicero, Stickney, Lyons,
Forest View and McCook. "Apparently it's hard for them to convince the taxpayers while playing fair. They have broken the law on several counts, and it's time for them to take the consequences."

"Giving District 201 more money would do nothing for the children, but it certainly would support District 201's culture of corruption and greed," said Tobin.

Founded in 1976, NTU is the largest taxpayer organization in Illinois with over 10,000 members and affiliation with more than 200 local taxpayer groups.

Jim Tobin
National Taxpayers United of Illinois

SD 228 won't pay for supt.'s degree

The following article appeared in the Daily Southtown. Many of you may be surprised that school districts pay for advanced degrees. In deed many do. The best way to find out if your school district pays for advanced degrees is to go to your school board office and fill out a FOIA for the teachers' and administrators' contracts. Keep in mind once you pay for these education courses you often pay an increase in salaries for the individuals that take this perk.

SD 228 won't pay for supt.'s degree
By Glen Leyden
Daily Southtown

Bremen High School District 228 will not pay about $100,000 for its superintendent to get a second doctoral degree - a decision the board majority says is a cost-saving move but that contend is politically motivated.

Supt. Richard Mitchell has been admitted to Benedictine University's Organizational Development doctorate program. Hundreds of senior-level managers from various fields applied and 25 were accepted, Mitchell said.

The school board voted Tuesday not to pay the cost of the three-year program. Board members Verla Clevenger and Ruth Becker supported the payment.

Mitchell said he will enroll despite the board's decision.

"Dr. Mitchell already has a Ph.D. and this one costs $100,000 and it's not even in administration or education," board president Evelyn Gleason said. "Considering the financial state of our district right now, it's not a good idea."

But Clevenger said this is the first time the District 228 board has turned down a full-time administrator's request for tuition payment.

"If everyone else gets it, why doesn't Dr. Mitchell get it? It's because they don't want him here. He's not one of their good old boys," she said.

District 228 administrators' contracts include a stipulation on reimbursement for higher education, but Mitchell said his does not specify cost or types of degrees.

"I just want them to honor my contract and do what is right for the district," he said, adding that he's reviewing the board's decision with his attorney.

"We're going to find ourselves in a lawsuit," Clevenger said.

Gleason said the board's attorney told her that the board had the right to turn down Mitchell's request.

Mitchell said he applied to the program because it will put him in contact with top managers and executives from a variety of fields and backgrounds. District 228 needs to try new ideas to help pull two of its schools off the state's list of academically failing schools.

"This district needs some out-of-the-box thinking, some innovative ideas," he said. "I have two schools on the watch list, and they're not moving."

The traditional Ph.D. in education that most administrators pursue is not providing those new ideas, he said.

"It is an expensive program but will it help us?" board member Ruth Becker said. "Yes, organizational management is all about finding new and innovative ideas rather than trying the same old ideas every time."

District 228 includes Bremen, Oak Forest, Hillcrest and Tinley Park high schools.