School funding, the ballot box and Illinois’ high property taxes

School funding, the ballot box and Illinois’ high property taxes

Before your school district asks for another penny in property taxes, ask your school board what they’re doing to get their own house in order.

Primary season is just around the corner, and your local school district might be asking your family for more money at the ballot box.

Later this month, there will be at least four school district property tax increases and 14 bond issues up for a vote across the state, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

At the same time though, many Illinois property taxpayers are tapped out. Can they shoulder even higher bills? And what type of bang are they getting for their property tax buck?

One example in Chicago’s northwest suburbs shows how instead of pursuing cost-saving reforms, school districts are often reliant on large tax hikes.

Pennoyer District 79 – which serves a patchwork of neighborhoods containing about 400 K-8 students – is asking the typical owner of a $250,000 house to shoulder a $1,000 property tax hike to pay for a sweeping overhaul of school facilities. The proposed $25 million bond deal constitutes about $62,500 per student.

It’s true that this district – and many across the state – are in need of some help. Pennoyer has serious problems, including lead found in sinks, asbestos and failing HVAC systems.

But it’s also true that spending priorities have been out of whack for some time in Illinois education. And there are commonsense solutions on the table that could offer property tax relief while still delivering a quality education.

Pennoyer District 79, for example, oversees a single school: Pennoyer Elementary. This district’s bureaucracy is a wasteful layer of government. And it’s not alone. More than 360 of Illinois’ 852 school districts serve just one or two schools.

Meanwhile, Florida – with about 8 million more people than Illinois – is home to fewer than 70 school districts.

Sound too extreme? Maybe compromise with the Virginia model. The Old Dominion is home to 132 school districts, despite average enrollment per school being very similar to Illinois.

Administrative spending in Illinois is crowding out money that could be used in the classroom, on school improvements or for property tax relief. The Land of Lincoln ranks among the top states in the nation when it comes to the share of education dollars that flow to administrative costs.

There are other areas ripe for reform as well.

The latest Pennoyer teachers’ contract provides end-of-career salary bumps of 6 percent in each of the last three years before retirement. This practice, called “pension spiking,” is also prevalent throughout the state.

It’s not fair to force taxpayers to pay $1,000 in additional property taxes while offering such a benefit.

But those opposed to collective bargaining reform and consolidation sing a common refrain. They argue that the state does not pay its fair share for schools. But that’s missing the bigger picture. The real question is how much money do schools receive? And how do they spend it?

Illinois’ state and local governments combined send more money to public education per student than any surrounding state, by a healthy margin. This holds true even when taking Illinois’ property-rich school districts – where taxpayers shell out big dollars for special amenities – out of the equation.

And yet, Illinois students’ college readiness is below the national average, according to ACT testing data.

Instead of endless referendums asking for more, school districts need to get creative, and reprioritize spending away from administrative coffers.

Consolidation is more than just possible; it’s crucial if the state is to get property taxes under control. One small glimmer of hope: A recent independent study commissioned in Eureka, about 20 minutes outside Peoria, recommended the consolidation of four local school districts in the face of declining enrollment.

Before your school district asks for another penny in property taxes, ask your school board what they’re doing to get their own house in order.

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