Lisle District 202 candidates take sides on tax-cut proposal
The school board race in Lisle Unit District 202 has become inextricably linked to a ballot question that could reduce the district's property tax revenue.
Seven candidates are seeking election to four seats on the school board on April 2. Incumbent Pam Ahlmann is being challenged by Susan Cassa for a 2-year seat on the panel. Wendy Nadeau, Lisa Kiener-Barnett, Daniel Helderle, Elizabeth Kennedy and Jim Strnad are competing for three 4-year terms.
The candidates are split on what they are calling the top issue -- whether voters next month should approve a binding referendum to reduce District 202's property tax levy by roughly $1.2 million.
"We know what programs are going to be cut (if the referendum passes)," Kiener-Barnett said. "We know what the kids are going to lose, and it's a lot. It would be devastating."
Kiener-Barnett, Nadeau, Helderle and Ahlmann say they want voters to reject the ballot measure.
Cassa, meanwhile, is a member of the pro-tax-cut group that collected signatures to put the question on the April 2 ballot. Cassa, Kennedy and Strnad say they hope the referendum question is approved.
"The district is in need of some new eyes," Cassa said. "Our platform is really focused on improving academic achievement and promoting fair taxation. At this juncture, those two things are out of alignment in Lisle."
The ballot question was made possible by a state law approved in 2017.
As part of that law, school districts with an "adequacy level" for education funding that's 110 percent or more are eligible for referendum questions that seek tax cuts. The adequacy level reflects how much the state believes a school district should be spending to educate students in comparison to what the district actually spends.
Supporters of the levy reduction say District 202 has an adequacy rate of 149 percent.
Strnad said District 202 used tax revenue to increase its reserves through the years. As a result, the district didn't need voter approval to start construction of a new elementary school.
He said he understands the benefits of building a school.
"But I dislike the way it was done," Strnad said. "We should have had a referendum to consider a new school."
Helderle defended the district, saying it "planned exceptionally well" to make the project a reality without a property tax increase.
"The timing was right," he said. "We have the best rating a school can having in Illinois."
District 202 was able to accumulate $25 million to help pay for the $39 million project. It borrowed the rest of the money.
Helderle said the public knew about the district's plan at least two years ago.
"That's plenty of time for anyone who was really upset to say this should have gone to a referendum," said Helderle, who was appointed to the board in October 2017. "We did not get that pushback."
If the tax-cut question is approved, the district's education fund would be reduced by $1.2 million to $17.15 million.
If that happens, District 202 officials say decisions would need to be made about how to proceed with less revenue. The list of changes that would be considered includes increasing class sizes, cutting teachers, reducing support personnel positions, reducing the number of honors courses, and eliminating 10 percent of athletic and extracurricular activities.
However, Cassa insists that "draconian" cuts wouldn't be necessary.
In fact, Cassa said she and others wouldn't have put the question on the ballot if they thought reducing the levy would negatively impact student activities, teachers, programs or "anything to do with the learning environment."
"We are not shortchanging this district financially," she said.
Kiener-Barnett strongly disagrees.
"They keep saying we don't have to make cuts," said Kiener-Barnett, who was appointed to the board in October 2018. "But they have no data to back that up. They have no facts.
"We have the numbers," she added. "Our administration has researched what will happen if we lose $1.2 million per year."
Ahlmann, who has served on the school board since 2004, says she's convinced there would be a negative impact if the referendum question is approved.
"What does it say to the community?" she said. "It says to our schools that taxes are more important than students."
But Kennedy says she has heard from many people who are questioning whether the district overtaxed them. "The residents of Lisle are pushing and asking for a tax reduction to take place," she said.