District 31 Chief Defends Tax Referendum at Forum
Audience told that every 'bang for the buck' has been squeezed out at the current spending level.
West Northfield School District 31 may be asking voters for a property tax increase, but it still offers parents a good bargain, according to Superintendent Alexandra Nicholson.
That’s because the district encompassing Winkelman Elementary and Field Middle schools has the lowest property tax rate of four surrounding school districts and its students still score well above state averages on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT).
“District 31 has been a bang for the buck because we have the lowest rate and our ISAT scores are right up there,” Nicholson told parents and community members, who gathered at Winkelman School Wednesday to hear about the district’s referendum to increase property taxes.
If voters approve the measure April 5, the district would raise its tax rate to collect an additional $2.2 million annually. According to Nicholson, that would increase property taxes for homeowners by approximately $59 for each $1,000 of property taxes paid.
At the new rate, the district would still have the lowest property taxes among nearby school districts, which include Northbrook/Glenview District 30, Northbrook’s District 27 and 28, and Glenview’s District 34, she said.
This property tax increase is also the first one in several decades.
“No one who works here remembered one,” Nicholson said. The school district went back 35 years before it gave up on finding records of a permanent property tax increase, she explained.
“We didn’t go back any further than that. We thought it was insignificant to do so.”
Why District 31 is Short on Cash
The money brought in with a property tax increase would help make up for an expected budget shortfall of $3.3 million, which the district will have to refund to Allstate if the insurance company wins its tax appeal for 2004-2006. That’s on top of an additional $2.3 million District 31 already had to pay Allstate for tax appeals between 1992 and 2003.
“Some people ask the question, 'Well, since you knew back in 2005 that we got hit with 2.3, why haven’t you done anything about it since?'” Nicholson said.
In fact, the district is currently fighting Allstate’s tax appeal in court (at a cost of thousands of dollars in lawyers fees, according to Nicholson). And the district attempted to budget for tax refunds. In 2005, District 31 predicted about $50,000 in tax appeals every year—a figure that has turned out to be much higher.
District 225, which incorporates Glenbrook North and South high schools, is also affected by Allstate’s property tax appeals. But the high school district has a much bigger budget and already has significant funds reserved in case of successful tax appeals, Nicholson added, and that’s why it isn’t coming before voters with a referendum this year.
In October, District 31’s school board approved a $6 million bond issue, $3 million of which went to pay for operational expenses as the district waited for property taxes to come in from the state. The other $3 million is to be set aside for improvements to facilities, according to Nicholson—but the district wants to avoid taking out more loans and exhausting its capability to borrow.
District 31 has already reduced expenses by $450,000, its superintendent said. That was done by laying off music and art teachers, a part-time athletic director and support staff.
“Any more cuts or reductions beyond that will begin to impact instruction,” she said.
Further cuts—which she said the district would have to make if the referendum does not pass—would be made in several areas. Those could include letting go more teachers and staff, eliminating student competitions or cutting middle school sports.
Meanwhile, Nicholson emphasized, District 31 has some of the lowest paid teachers and administrators in Cook County, according to publicly available information. It also spends the least amount of money per student when compared to other North Shore school districts.
According to Nicholson, District 31 spends $13,916 per student, compared with $19,315 in Northfield's Sunset Ridge District 29, for example, and $18,323 in Northbrook’s District 27.
Parents, Taxpayers React
While Nicholson said her presentation was intended to be informational, parents and taxpayers who attended were vocal about their opinions.
“I don’t want to sound insensitive here, but you make it sound so benign,” said Allen Jezek, a retired resident. “My property values have gone down. And after we got that ridiculously, politically late tax bill, my property value went down and my taxes have gone up.”
Jezek said he and his wife never had children and, due to retirement, are living on a fixed income. The property tax increase would significantly affect his finances, he said.
“I’m already paying more,” he added.
District 31 parent Fran Manousselis, however, described voting yes on the property tax increase as a “no-brainer.”
“It’s peanuts,” she said, explaining that money spent on schools would most likely increase test scores and thereby increase property values for everyone in the district.
“I have friends who want to move from the city, and they’re like, 'I don’t want to move into your neighborhood, you’re not on the list,' ” she said, referring to a Chicago Tribune ranking of area school districts. The list took into account how much each district spends per pupil.
“That makes my house not desirable,” Manousselis added.
Parent Sue Americus said she came simply to understand exactly what District 31 was asking for, given the many complex calculations involved.
“I’m very pro-school,” she said. “I just want to understand where the money’s going.”
For interested residents, Nicholson will host two more information sessions at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at Field Middle School.