When it comes to his school district's finances, Addison Elementary District 4 Superintendent John Langton is fully aware of the shortcomings of his property tax base.
The district will collect nearly $28.7 million in property taxes this year. But spread among the 4,151 students, that's just $6,907 per pupil. That's far below the average of $12,432 in property taxes collected per student for 92 suburban school districts, according to a Daily Herald analysis of Illinois Board of Education reports.
Experts and critics contend the taxing disparities hinder education and create inconsistencies in instruction and leadership.
"We've suffered with this for years," Langton said. "We don't have the necessary extracurriculars. Three or four years ago we eliminated our reading specialists."
The gap between the top and bottom suburban districts is vast. On one end of the spectrum is Rondout Elementary District 72 in Lake Forest, which will collect $30,381 in property taxes per student this year. On the opposite end is East Aurora Unit District 131, which has a property tax collection level of $2,816 per student, according to district budget documents submitted to the state.
"The main reason for the huge differences has to do with property tax wealth," said Larry Joseph, director of fiscal policy at Chicago-based Voices for Illinois Children. "The heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools combined with the weak support from the state just makes for very large fiscal disparities."
School districts get about 70 percent of an average person's property tax bill. Districts with low property values don't get much in the way of property taxes.
State and federal aid is available for school districts where a lot of students come from low-income homes, but Joseph said those payments rarely make up for the lower property tax income.
"State aid is designed to mitigate the disparities in property tax wealth, not eliminate it," he said.
About 78 miles north of Langton's district is Antioch's Grass Lake Elementary District 36. The 154 students of that district cost taxpayers there about $25,612 each this year, according to budget documents.
That level of funding shows the community's commitment to education, Superintendent Terry O'Brien said. Almost the entirety of the district's $4 million budget is covered by property taxes. The district offers half-day prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds, all-day kindergarten and music education starting in fourth grade at no extra cost to parents at registration.
"We work very hard to make sure (taxpayers) see a return on their investment by helping produce outstanding student graduates," O'Brien said. "For us to operate successfully, we rely on tax dollars."
Stevenson High School District 125 Assistant Superintendent for Business Mark Michelini said the community's investment in public education benefits taxpayers as well.
"The investment in the schools is reflected in the property value of the community," he said.
Michelini and O'Brien -- like officials in many other property tax-rich districts -- tout a strong commercial property base as a reason the district's tax-per-student level is higher than average. Conversely, districts without much commercial property tax revenue tend to struggle.
"The more commercial property there is the more tax dollars you get without getting any more kids," said John Burkey, superintendent at Huntley Unit District 158. "It eases the burden on other taxpayers and there's more money to go around to fewer kids."
Some believe a way to even the playing fields is to share commercial property tax revenue, either regionally or statewide.
The idea works like revenue sharing in professional sports, which helps create competitive parity. It never has gained much traction, however.
State Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Schaumburg Democrat who sits on the House Elementary and Secondary Education Appropriations Committee, said the idea should be explored, but there's no magic bullet to solve this problem.
"We can identify the problem, but we can't seem to figure out the solution," she said. "The problem is that a solution that may benefit one district may be to the detriment of another."
Meanwhile, districts that collect lower than average property taxes per student struggle with attracting and retaining staff.
Burkey's district stands to collect $6,823 per student this year, according to budget documents. He said that reflects a "no fluff" budget. While he said teacher and staff turnover is no higher than average, he admits budget constraints make luring teachers difficult.
"Salaries are lower," Burkey said. "We don't have high turnover, but we do have a hard time recruiting people to come to our district."
Langton said stability is one of the toughest things to maintain with lower property tax revenues. He said District 4's school board has had to make difficult choices to retain quality teachers there.
"The good news is that our teacher salaries are right in the middle of the pack in DuPage County," Langton said. "Our administrators and support staff (salaries) are much lower than average and it's always been a challenge to keep those good administrators and support staff."
School districts are limited in how much additional property tax revenue can be collected each year due to the state's "tax cap" law. The law allows districts to automatically increase the amount of property taxes they receive by 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lowest. In order to exceed that level, districts must go to the voters.
"That's been a tough sell in the past five to six years," Langton said.