St. Charles Unit District 303 school board members are poised to commit to a plan that will raise taxes for the next five years, but the increase will be about $14 million less than it could be.
District staff put together a five-year financial plan that would see the school board approve a 2.5 percent tax levy increase for the next five levies. For example, that would make the levy for 2012 1.5 percent less than the maximum possible levy allowed to the district.
However, district staff have asked to retain some flexibility in the plan by setting a maximum levy in December, then abating the levy in April so the actual increase to taxpayers is 2.5 percent. Using the abatement process would allow the district to stick with the higher levy should unexpected expenses crop up.
In the meantime, district staff would keep a firm grip on expenses while restructuring some long-term debt and using some savings to eliminate the need for the $14 million the district would have received through maximum levies.
The plan comes as school board members have expressed concerns about raising taxes during the tough economy when both the county and the city have already locked in levies that will not increase taxes for the average property owner.
Superintendent Don Schlomann said the plan provides a way to give the district the money it needs while giving district taxpayers a break. The previous plan would have increased the tax levy by as much as 4 percent in December.
But Board Member Judith McConnell said she wants the district to cut expenses, not just try to hold the line.
"I don't think we would damage the school district by lessening some expenses," McConnell said. "Money is not the answer to the school system."
But board member Jim Gaffney said $120 million of the district's $160 million in operating costs come from salaries and benefits to teachers and staff. The recent one-year, across-the-board salary freeze teachers accepted can't last forever, Gaffney said.
"I think there's a point where you just have to say there's an impossibility here," Gaffney said. "Even without enrollment dropping we won't see salaries go down that much. To me, there is no way to sit here and say we can take 2 percent or 5 percent out of the budget for the next 10 years. I think that's an impossibility."
Schlomann said it's up to school board members to decide if 2.5 percent tax levy increases are still too much to ask taxpayers for. That said, he reminded the school board that the district still needs enough money to provide a good education to its students.
"From my perspective a community isn't healthy if it has a school system that is not working," Schlomann said. "We're able to lower the allowable amount to what we would hope to be a reasonable amount. But you as a board of education will have to decide if that's a reasonable amount."