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posted: 3/10/2010 12:01 AM

Schools superintendents riding the fence on income tax increase

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Throwing support behind an income tax increase is a political hot potato for local legislators.

It's also one for school superintendents, who, across the suburbs, have split on the issue, despite collectively voicing frustrations over the state's budget mess.

Several suburban superintendents are keeping mum, refusing to reveal whether they support an income tax increase to refill their coffers.

"It is obvious that the state cannot meet its obligations in funding education," Bensenville Elementary District 2 Superintendent William Jordan said.

The five-school district even planned for a $1.1 million state funding shortfall in this year's $27 million budget and made $800,000 in cuts.

How can the ship be righted? Jordan and a random selection of his peers plan to leave it up to legislators.

Elgin Area School District U-46, which announced recently it will make at least $31 million in budget cuts next year, with more likely to come, has begun posting signs of how much the state owes it in funding. At last check, that number was $12.4 million.

Preparing next year's budget, Chief Financial Officer Ron Ally said, the district is assuming a $100 per pupil reduction in general state aid.

But supporting a tax increase? Officials won't go that far publicly.

"That's what (legislators) are elected to do. To figure out that problem," Superintendent Jose Torres said. "They've got to fund education at an adequate level. They signed up for that. I signed up to improve achievement in this district. I have my hands full."

In Aurora-based Indian Prairie District 204, which in December made more than $9 million in cuts and has recently announced it will make $12 million more, Superintendent Kathy Birkett was equally cautious.

"I am not at this point making any political statement on how to solve this problem," Birkett said. "My efforts have been 'Somebody show me a plan. Any plan.' I'm not willing to say that taxes are the answer, and I'm not willing to say cuts are the answer."

Jody Ware, superintendent of Mundelein High School District 120, and Kim Perkins, superintendent of Bloomingdale District 13, only said they would support an income tax increase to help fund schools.

"At this time, the state of Illinois ... has few options for raising revenue," Ware said.

Perkins said he takes the same position as the Civic Federation of Chicago, a nonpartisan research group that works for government effectiveness.

"There are a lot of things that have to happen first. We're in the middle of a recession," Perkins said. "They need to reform the pension systems. They need to look at ways to create greater efficiencies. I think if they do all these things, they can make a case for a tax increase."

Only Ellen Correll, superintendent of Grayslake Elementary District 46, said she was opposed to a tax increase.

"That would put more of a burden on parents," Correll said. "I'd hate to put more of a burden on parents."

Tax increase or not, the state's education budget will almost certainly be cut next year.

With the federal stimulus money that was used to plug state funding holes in 2008 and 2009 now dried up, David Vaught, Gov. Pat Quinn's budget director, said more than $1.4 billion million in cuts to elementary and secondary education budgets would likely be made across the board - to general state aid, grants and mandated categorical funding. Specifics will come out Wednesday during Quinn's budget presentation.

"I'm an old school board member. Those are tough cuts," Vaught said. He pointed out that while serving on a St. Clair County school board, after a tax increase referendum was voted down, the board cut one-third of the teaching staff.

"They (local schools) are going to have to tighten their belts and face up to this," Vaught said. "And then they're going to have to help us find a solution."

• Daily Herald staff writers John Patterson, Chase Castle, Russell Lissau and Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.

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