U-46 school board hopefuls discuss taxes, school funding
Eight candidates vying for four seats on the Elgin Area School District U-46 school board are divided on whether raising taxes is necessary to maintain programs and provide quality education.
Incumbents Jeanette Ward of West Chicago and Sue Kerr and John Devereux, both of Bartlett, face newcomers Tina Rio of Bartlett, Kathleen Thommes of Elgin, and Eva Porter, Daniel Hancock and Ina Silva-Sobolewski, all of Hanover Park, seeking 4-year terms on April 2.
Ward, Rio, Silva-Sobolewski and Hancock were unequivocal about not raising taxes, while the other four candidates said they would have to weigh that decision based on needs.
U-46 is funded at 55 percent of its adequacy target -- the calculated cost to educate students based on factors outlined in the state's evidence-based school funding law.
This school year, the district budgeted for roughly $561 million in revenues -- an increase of $52 million over the previous year -- and $558 million in expenditures -- a $40 million increase over the previous year.
To reach adequacy under the evidence-based funding model, the district would have to spend roughly $800 million to educate its 38,764 students enrolled this year, said Ward, 45, a product manager for an international chemical company completing her first term on the board.
"It's absolutely shocking ... in a bad way," Ward said. "I don't think we need to spend $800 million. Enrollment has been steadily declining ... and that's projected to continue. It's projected to decrease 13 percent from 2012 to 2022. Meanwhile, spending is projected to increase 36 percent from 2012 to 2022. In 2019, we will receive an additional $54 million from the state. So what are we going to do when the money from the state dries up?"
Ward said that with the increased state funding in 2019, the school board could have decreased how much the district collects in property taxes. Instead, the district applied for property tax relief from the state, which works like a grant and would have allowed officials to abate tax money. The request was denied.
Kerr, 62, a retired computer programmer/analyst also completing her first term, said evidence-based funding eventually should allow school districts to reduce taxes, as long as the state lives up to its promise of increased education funding.
"This state has been horribly remiss in the last 20 years in funding education," Kerr said. "We had the most inequitably funded education system in the country. I would love to reduce taxes, but at this point, I don't think it would be responsible."
Devereux, 52, an actuary appointed to the board last June, said that as a result of evidence-based funding, U-46 is in a position to "make smart investments."
"I have no interest, nobody does really, in increasing taxes," he said. "If we're smart in terms of our financial stewardship, we're smart in utilizing additional funds that are made available, we can do a lot of great things without adding to the burden of local property tax."
Rio, 52, who works for the airline industry, said she is against any tax increase and district officials need to reevaluate how funds currently are allocated.
"For us, our taxes have about doubled since we moved to Bartlett. ... It's too much," she said. "Of course, you want the best for the kids and you want a good school ... but the truth is, sometimes you just have to say we can't afford it. Something has to be done, some difficult decisions have to be made ... to not increase our taxes anymore because people are even leaving the state."
Silva-Sobolewski, 56, a Portuguese translator/interpreter, said high taxes are the main reason young couples with children aren't buying houses in Hanover Park within U-46's boundaries. According to the Illinois School Report Card, 59 percent of the district's students come from low-income families.
"They are going to be the taxpayers 20 years from now," Silva-Sobolewski said. "What are the chances that they will be able to buy houses, to maintain their houses, and to do the things we do today with the taxes high and the level of education low?"
Students' educational outcomes haven't improved significantly with increased property taxes, said Hancock, 68, a retired electrical engineer.
"I think one of the mistakes that is made all the time is assuming that money solves the issues of education. It doesn't always solve the issues of education," Hancock said. "People are definitely fleeing the state. Part of it is the poor operation of the state itself because it is definitely not fiscally responsible. And part of it, too, is property taxes."
Porter, 64, a retired teacher, and Thommes, 44, also an educator, agreed the decision of whether to raise taxes can't be made arbitrarily.
"If taxes have to go up, I would hate to see that as well. But I also know that taxes (are) a very important part of school funding," Porter said.
U-46's per-pupil spending of $11,946 is low compared to the state average of $13,337, Thommes said.
"I don't think that the answer is looking at all of the taxpayers and saying you will have to pay 3 percent more," Thommes said. "Right now, we're operating on a balanced budget. We've got money in reserves and we're doing pretty good. So there's really not a need to be raising taxes much beyond that consumer price index. But saying I would never raise taxes isn't a fair assessment either because we need to be sure that we are providing quality education to our students."