How Roselle District 12 won its $500 tax increase

  • "I still can't believe it today," says Melissa Kaczkowski, superintendent of Roselle Elementary District 12, where voters have approved a property tax increase.

    "I still can't believe it today," says Melissa Kaczkowski, superintendent of Roselle Elementary District 12, where voters have approved a property tax increase. Courtesy of Stephanie Kiefer

  • "People worked with a strategy and I think that made all the difference," says Kaczkowski, hugging parent Steve Zurek, who helped organize a campaign in support of the tax increase.

    "People worked with a strategy and I think that made all the difference," says Kaczkowski, hugging parent Steve Zurek, who helped organize a campaign in support of the tax increase. Courtesy of Stephanie Kiefer

  • Voters in Roselle Elementary District 12 handily approved a property tax increase in Tuesday's primary.

      Voters in Roselle Elementary District 12 handily approved a property tax increase in Tuesday's primary. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/17/2016 8:17 AM

When Roselle Elementary District 12 officials decided to seek a substantial tax increase during a presidential primary, the proposal seemed almost certain to fizzle.

Most government bodies tend to avoid placing such hot-button proposals on the ballot in prominent elections such as Tuesday's primary. With higher turnout -- and many voters backing anti-establishment candidates in the presidential race -- proposed tax increases seem doomed to fail.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But District 12 bucked that trend when voters approved a property tax increase that will cost the owner of a $250,000 home about $500 more a year. Unofficial tallies show almost 56.4 percent of voters favored the hike.

"I still can't believe it today," Superintendent Melissa Kaczkowski said Wednesday.

The revenue will help pay for repairs in the district's two 1960s-era schools and help fix its finances after years of budget deficits.

"We ramped up the message in terms of how serious and how urgent this was at the beginning of this school year," said Kaczkowski, who cautioned that the district could face cuts to student programs and bigger class sizes if the tax increase was denied.

Kaczkowski also credits the approval in part to an active group of supporters who pushed for the district's first operating tax revenue increase in more than 30 years.

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Here's a look at their winning strategy.

Targeting neighborhoods

A steering committee with only about eight core members and "a shoestring budget" of roughly $4,000 organized the referendum campaign by Save Our Schools, member and parent Steve Zurek said. But dozens of volunteers still managed to personally visit more than 1,100 households, he said.

Having a dedicated group that mobilized around the issue likely "made a difference in what really should have been an anti-tax election," said Constance Mixon, an Elmhurst College political science professor and director of the schools' urban studies program.

Those one-on-one conversations with neighbors are more effective than mailers at getting out the vote, Mixon said.

The group included a Democratic precinct committeeman who opened up access to voter databases so volunteers could target their message, primarily to Democrats, seniors, renters and parents in the district, Zurek said.

"We wanted the community to start talking with one another," he said.

Low-profile opposition?

"Vote No" signs popped up in the weeks before Tuesday's primary and several Facebook pages against the increase were created anonymously, but they garnered only a handful of "likes."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They certainly were hiding in the shadows," Roselle Mayor Gayle Smolinski said of opponents.

A Chicago group, Taxpayers United of America, also urged voters to reject the increase, saying the district should instead pursue cuts and consolidation and calling employee salaries "lavish."

But Smolinski said supporters kept a visible presence.

Teacher deal

About a month before Tuesday's primary, the school board accepted an offer by the teachers union to freeze cost-of-living pay increases for one year and save the district about $35,000. Both sides also agreed to delay negotiations on a new contract -- previously set to expire in June -- for one year.

Union leaders say they made the offer to build support for the tax increase.

"Not only am I voting 'yes' myself, but I also have to do my part as a teacher," union Vice President Terri Schoen said at the time.

The agreement, Kaczkowski said Wednesday, "created a lot of momentum with teachers," many of whom live in town and knocked on doors in support of the tax increase.

"It wasn't a huge financial piece of the puzzle, but it was absolutely their investment in this and their willingness to offer something voluntarily," she said.

Looking ahead

Kaczkowski said the district initially struggled to get people in the door to hear about its plan to shore up its finances.

But after blasting automated calls out to parents, more than 300 people attended a fall forum in the district where Kaczkowski and two principals are the only administrators.

She says the district will remain "diligent" about getting people's input about spending, adding that a parent advisory committee will begin meeting in the coming weeks.

They have more than a year to plan before the district starts to receive the new revenue.

"Ongoing communication and accountability is key," Kaczkowski said. " ... That's certainly a piece we don't want to lose."

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