Editorial: Program helps some schools and taxpayers, but is it focused where it's needed most?
The superintendent of Queen Bee Elementary District 16 in Glendale Heights explains pretty succinctly the value to school districts and taxpayers of participating in a two-year-old state program that rewards certain districts for lowering their property tax levies.
"We're not blind to the reality that property taxes are high," Superintendent Joseph Williams told our tax watchdog editor Jake Griffin for a story published Monday. "We can afford the small loss of revenue because we have come in under budget in recent years, so this would be hard to justify taking a pass on."
In exchange for abating a portion of their property taxes for two years, Queen Bee District 16 and 38 other Illinois school districts will get a rough equivalent of their losses restored by the state in three years and every year thereafter, when they'll also be permitted to again increase their tax levies.
There's nothing wrong with this arrangement in principle. It can serve as a reasonable test for shifting the burden for supporting schools from local property taxes to the state. But in practice, the grant program -- for which only five suburban districts qualified: Dist. 16, plus Marquardt Elementary District 15 in Glendale Heights, Round Lake Area Unit District 116, Fox River Grove Elementary District 3 and Grayslake High School District 127 -- has had some troubling consequences.
John Haffner, executive director of business and operations at West Chicago Elementary District 33, which did not qualify, explained the concern. He said many of the districts awarded grants are well-funded locally, some at 100 percent or more of what would be considered adequate to education students under the state's new aid formula, while District 33 is funded at only 62% of adequacy.
"(The higher funded districts) are being rewarded with relief for spending more on salaries, benefits, resources and facilities," Haffner said, "while District 33 fights to pay market-level salaries, fights high student-to-teacher ratios, can't offer the same resources that 100% adequacy districts offer, and local taxpayers have a higher burden to properly educate their students."
Haffner and representatives from other needy districts complain that the state's complicated algorithm for qualifying schools for the program places too much emphasis on a district's property tax rate, and as a result, many struggling schools and the taxpayers who support them are being overlooked for the opportunity for local property tax relief and a long-term state funding increase.
Without a thorough analysis of the program, its goals and its effects in its first two years in operation, it is hard to rush to his support on the point, but he makes a compelling case. With two years under the state's belt, we'd like to see that analysis.
Taxpayers in the selected districts may well deserve the couple hundred dollars a year or more they could save, at least temporarily, and districts like Queen Bee surely deserve credit for the responsible handling of their money that enables them to manage for two years with a small levy decrease. But many other more-needy districts may be equally deserving of the chance not to pass up a great funding opportunity. For their sake, the program deserves a closer, critical review.