District 31 referendum wins by solid margin
Updated: March 29, 2012 3:39PM
Supporters of a tax increase in West Northfield Elementary School District 31 had reason to celebrate Tuesday.
On a night when five of six school referendums went down to defeat, voters in District 31 approved an increase in the district’s maximum tax rate that is expected to generate about $1.55 million a year in new revenue and head off a third year of program cuts.
With all 10 precincts reporting the referendum passed with more than 56 percent of the vote. Unofficial returns showed it with 1,399 votes in favor of the tax increase and 1,096 votes against it.
District officials made a concerted effort to inform the public about the measure with Superintendent Alexandra Nicholson meeting with a range of community groups to give a presentation on the district’s finances.
In addition, a citizens group, Citizens for District 31, worked hard to promote the referendum as necessary to maintain both the district’s educational standards for students and property values in the district.
“We had a very strongly organized group of parents,” said Phil Hollenberg, spokesman for the citizens’ group.
“I’m very excited, very happy,” he said Tuesday night after the returns came in.
The school board had already tentatively approved a list of cuts and had scheduled a special meeting March 21 to be held only if the referendum failed. At that meeting the board planned to give final approval to cuts for next school year.
In total the district was looking at cuts totaling about $1 million over the next two years. Those would have come on top of $1.8 million the district already has cut from its budget.
Hollenberg said that in part at least the fact that the district had already made cuts had outlined new cuts and that this year’s request was smaller than the one sough last April contributed to its passage.
“It came after $1 million in cuts last year,” he said. “The school district did a painful thing. It identified what it would have to cut if the referendum failed.”
Tuesday’s successful referendum will increase the maximum tax rate by 0.27 percent. rate. That number, however, does not reflect a multiplier in Cook County of 3.3.
With that used to calculate the actual increase, district officials say homeowners will see a property tax increase of $89.10 per $100,000 of fair market value of their homes.
In April voters turned down a referendum last April that would have increased the maximum tax rate by .49 percent.
Hollenberg said the smaller size of Tuesday’s request likely also contributed to its passage.
The previous cuts included about $1 million through the elimination of many extracurricular and after school activities and sports programs the district made after a referendum that would have increased the district’s maximum tax rate by 49 cents per $100 equalized assessed valuation failed in April of last year.
The new round of cuts would have impacted not only programs, but also will mean elimination of staff.
Also, the district planned to eliminate all financial support for transportation services. Other planned cuts included all sports and before and after school programs, the gifted education program and all band programs and instrumental music lessons.
Other programs that would be impacted include fine arts, technology, English Language Learners, Spanish Bilingual Education and speech and language services.
For the most part officials cite the loss of property tax revenue as the result of appeals by large corporate taxpayers in the district, chief among them Allstate Insurance. The district has already lost close to $5 million to Allstate and additional losses are expected in the next five years.
District 31 has the seventh lowest operating fund tax rate in Illinois and the lowest in the area. Even if the referendum passes District 31 will have the lowest maximum operating rate in Northfield Township.
District 31 also has higher-than-average costs for student services with twice as many low-income students as those in Districts 27, 28, 29 and 30 combined.
In addition, 45 percent of all incoming students score below local standards in reading and 38 percent score below local standards in math.
Almost half, 49 percent, of incoming students speak little or no English.
That is a greater percentage than Districts 27, 28, 29 and 30 combined. District 31 has 145 students who speak 20 languages in English Language Learners programs.
District 31 officials also noted that state and federal grants for those programs have decreased by 67 percent in the past three years.