Grass Lake District 36 to freeze tax levy after complaints

  • Grass Lake School District 36 serves about 200 students in one building in Antioch.

    Grass Lake School District 36 serves about 200 students in one building in Antioch. Courtesy of Grass Lake School District 36

  • Grass Lake School District 36 Superintendent Terry O'Brien

    Grass Lake School District 36 Superintendent Terry O'Brien

 
 
Updated 11/19/2015 3:40 PM

Responding to community complaints, Grass Lake Elementary District 36 officials plan to freeze the amount of taxes they'll collect from local property owners in 2016.

Trustees with the tiny Antioch district on Tuesday approved an estimated $4.1 million levy for 2016. The school board will formally set the levy at its Dec. 15 meeting.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The move is possible because the district's revenue has been exceeding expenses, Superintendent Terry O'Brien said.

The board's decision follows accusations from some residents that district leaders have banked too much property-tax revenue through the years, leading to a roughly $12.7 million surplus.

"It's crazy we keep adding to that," said Antioch resident Denise Mandigo, one of the more vocal critics.

Mandigo was pleased the board opted to freeze the levy instead of increasing the annual cash haul by about 1.4 percent, which was another option on the table.

"The (board) recognized that we have plenty of surplus to supplement if expenses ever surpass revenue," she said.

The balanced budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which started July 1, calls for about $9.6 million in spending. That includes roughly $5.8 million for improvements to Grass Lake School, the district's lone building.

A classroom addition, security upgrades and other improvements are planned.

O'Brien said the surplus is the result of solid financial planning. Officials have built the surplus over 10 years to eventually fund campus improvements.

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"We are fiscally responsible," he said. "It has been a strategic financial plan."

Additionally, the surplus represents about 18 months of district spending, O'Brien said. He's comfortable with that amount, which he said will ensure Grass Lake School is financially stable "for many years to come."

Freezing the levy means the district isn't collecting some cash it's legally allowed to request. That loss of potential revenue won't negatively affect the facilities plan, salaries or programs, O'Brien said.

"We'll maintain all services that are provided this year," he said.

O'Brien called freezing the levy "a good call."

"We're only asking for what is needed without putting the district in financial dire straits," he said.

The building projects are in the works because this past spring, voters overwhelmingly rejected an $11.6 million plan to replace the 68-year-old school with a new facility.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mandigo opposes the improvement plan, too. With fewer than 200 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, the Grass Lake School community should consider merging with a neighboring district, she said.

"It is no longer fiscally responsible to continue to have the overhead expense of operating a stand-alone school district for so few students," Mandigo said.

O'Brien said Grass Lake officials have spoken with neighboring districts about a possible merger, and the outlook isn't good.

"At this time, they're not interested in entertaining it," he said.

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