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updated: 8/27/2014 5:10 AM

District 214 might give taxpayers a rebate in 2016

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Northwest Suburban High School District 214 has proposed spending $45 million in excess reserve funds on capital projects at its six high schools over three years, but officials said there still might be cash available for taxpayers to get some of their money back -- in 2016.

A tax abatement will be a "strong consideration" when administrators and the District 214 school board discuss the tax levy in fall 2015, said Superintendent David Schuler.

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"There is potential for it," he said.

The District 214 board has a policy to keep between 50 percent and 55 percent of its operating budget in reserves, but years of cost-cutting led to a surplus, officials said.

The district currently has $161 million in reserves and a $238 million operating budget, so even subtracting $45 million for capital projects could still leave money for the tax abatement, Schuler said Tuesday. How much money that will be is what officials said they don't know yet.

The district's Capital Projects Task Force last week outlined recommendations for each high school.

They didn't say how much should be set aside to refund taxpayers, because that wasn't their job, Schuler said.

"The charge of the task force was to look at capital project needs in the district and abatement really has nothing to do with that," Schuler said.

Although the task force -- students, staff and community members who attended eight community listening sessions over several months -- was meant to look only at capital projects, community members frequently brought up a desire for a tax abatement and for the district to spend its money doing long-term financial planning, said Board President Bill Dussling.

"We heard those concerns and put them in as a notation with our report," Dussling said.

Some of those concerns include how much the district will have to contribute to several unfunded liabilities -- such as the Affordable Care Act and the yet-to-be-determined future of teacher pensions in Illinois -- Dussling said.

Determining how much money is available for an abatement is a difficult equation, officials said.

The proposed capital improvement projects will be done in fiscal years 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 but might not break down to exactly $15 million taken out of the reserves each year.

Other variables such as the equalized assessed value of District 214 and the level of state and federal funding mean it will take another year or so before officials can put a number on how much taxpayer money could be abated, Schuler said.

The abatement has to wait until next year because the 2014-15 budget is already completed and will be voted on in a few weeks, Schuler said. District 214 starts its fiscal year on July 1 but doesn't pass a budget for that year until September and doesn't approve a levy for how much tax money it will need to pay for that budget until December.

A tax abatement doesn't mean taxpayers will get a check in the mail, Schuler added.

Instead, the abatement would come off the levy that District 214 approves in December 2015. Taxpayers would see the difference on the tax bills they pay in 2016.

If District 214 approves an abatement, it won't be the first time, Schuler said. Five or six years ago the district abated about $3 million during the levy process.

If it's possible, Dussling said, he's in favor of a tax abatement next year.

"I want to wait and see what the numbers are," Dussling said. "We just don't know what will happen with those unfunded liabilities and how the numbers are going to break down for the capital projects, but it is something we should look at and consider."

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