Tax cuts in 18 school districts? It's possible, thanks to referendums on next April's ballot
At least 18 suburban school districts could see property tax collections slashed next year, some by as much as 10 percent.
An 11th-hour addition to a 2017 Illinois school-funding law gave voters the power to cut property taxes for the schools through referendums, and an effort already is underway to do just that in Lisle Unit District 202.
The schools that are vulnerable to the tax-cutting referendums have an "adequacy level" for education funding that's 110 percent or more. The adequacy level reflects how much the state believes a school district should be spending to educate students in comparison to what the school district actually spends.
Some school officials complain they're being punished for providing educational services that are above minimal levels. Some taxpayer groups, however, say it's about time they had a tool to prevent districts from socking away too much in reserve.
Referendums under the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act can only happen in consolidated elections in odd-numbered years -- the first of which arrives on April 2, 2019.
Voters in District 202 might be among the first in the state to decide whether to cut the school district's tax bill. Organizers of a group called "Go Refund Me" say they already have more than half the 1,100 signatures needed to put the question on April's ballot. The petitions are due to county election officials by Dec. 31, according to the DuPage Election Commission.
"If there was any chance at all that the tax reduction being sought would damage the schools or any student-related services, we would not be undertaking the petition, as we would ultimately be damaging our own home values," said Susan Cassa, one of the roughly two dozen members of the grass-roots organization.
"The adequacy target was the minimum, and always the intent of this law was to have access to adequate resources," said Lisle Unit District 202 Superintendent Keith Filipiak, whose district's adequacy rate is 143.8 percent according to recently released Illinois State Board of Education reports.
"The intent of the law was to provide new (state) money to districts with the greatest need that didn't meet that minimum, but there's no research to support any suggestion that anything above the minimum is excessive," Filipiak said.
Lisle's "Go Refund Me" organizers have been critical of District 202 for using tax revenue to build up reserves, allowing the school board to build a new school without seeking voter approval.
"The way they were able to build a new school without going to referendum was the district overtaxed us for decades," Cassa said.
Filipiak said reducing the school district's tax collections probably would result in cutting services. Construction of the new school ate up most of the district's reserves and reducing tax collections by 10 percent would mean a loss of $2 million or more in revenue, he said.
Of the other 17 suburban school districts that could face tax-cut ballot initiatives, 11 could see a full 10 percent reduction.
The other six have adequacy levels between 110 percent and 120 percent. The new law only allows tax cuts that reduce the adequacy levels to 110 percent, so a district like Maine Township High School District 207 that has a 115.1 percent adequacy level could only have its property taxes cut 5.1 percent.
That's little comfort to Mary Kalou, District 207's assistant superintendent for business. Though she's unaware of any organized effort to put the question on the April ballot, she's not a fan of the provision that allows it.
"They say we're overpaying for the adequate level of education," she said. "It's punitive."
That was never the intention of the evidence-based funding plan, school finance experts said.
The school funding formulas were designed to at least maintain a consistent level of state funding for school districts with more property tax wealth and create additional funding for poorer districts.
Bob Spatz, a school board member at Oak Park Elementary District 97 and one of the architects of the original evidence-based funding formulas, said the ballot question provision was a late addition to the law during a special legislative session in August 2017.
"The original intent was not to punish districts for additional resources -- absolutely not," Spatz said. "I think the implementation of it is flawed and 110 percent is not the right number and it can lead to bad outcomes because the public just doesn't understand the effects."
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who voted in favor of the bill in 2017, said having the referendum option empowers taxpayers.
"School property taxes are the biggest drivers of tax costs in DuPage County," he said. "This allows voters to determine some level of relief that the school boards themselves could do in a heartbeat."
Statewide, the ISBE reports show 90 school districts have adequacy levels above 110 percent. That's roughly 10 percent of all school districts receiving state aid.
There's also a wrinkle in the interpretation of how to apply the property tax cut if voters approve of one.
Some state officials believe the tax cut only applies to the district's education fund tax levy. However, the language in the law says the cut can be applied to taxes levied for "educational purposes," which is a much broader and more expensive application.
Whatever the outcome of any vote, the law also precludes voters in the district from seeking another tax cut for at least six years.
At least 18 suburban school districts could face voter-driven tax-cut referendums because they exceeded the new state aid formula's "adequate" education funding level of 110 percent.
Is it enough?
School district/Adequacy level
Rondout Elem. Dist. 7: 280.4%
Libertyville HS Dist. 12: 165.2%
Grass Lake Elem. Dist. 36: 161.2%
Butler Elem. Dist. 53: 160.9%
Rosemont Elem. Dist. 78: 160.4%
Stevenson HS Dist. 125: 158.2%
Salt Creek Elem. Dist. 48: 145.6%
Lisle Unit Dist. 202: 143.8%
Oak Grove Elem. Dist. 68: 132.7%
Benjamin Elem. Dist. 25: 131.8%
Lincolnshire-Prairie View 103: 130.7%
Winfield Elem. Dist. 34: 126.8%
Kildeer Countryside 96: 118.8%
Naperville Unit Dist. 203: 115.6%
Maine Township HS Dist. 207: 115.1%
Barrington Unit Dist. 220: 112.8%
Emmons Elem. Dist. 33: 112.1%
Des Plaines Elem. Dist. 62: 111.8%
Source: Illinois State Board of Education
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