Area school districts push for adding 1-cent tax

By NOELLE McGEE

nmcgee@news-gazette.com

Salt Fork schools Superintendent Phil Cox is pleased that the first phase of a roof replacement project at the South Campus elementary and junior high school in Jamaica is wrapping up.

But there’s still a long list of looming capital improvement projects: Phase 2 of the roof work, expanding the North Campus elementary’s parking lot and improving drainage, replacing old windows at the North Campus and addressing old boilers at the South Campus and high school — and little or no capital to do them.

“These are just the operational things,” Cox said. “There are other things we’d like to do to improve educational opportunities like updating the science labs. And a lot of our classrooms only have two outlets. So we need to improve our technology infrastructure as we look to move toward one-to-one computers.”

Vermilion County voters could be asked in March to approve a new revenue stream that could help fund Salt Fork’s improvements along with other much-needed schools facilities projects throughout the county.

There are 11 school districts in the county. The school boards of all but one, Danville, have already approved or are planning to approve a resolution that would put a referendum, asking voters to approve a 1-cent county schools facility tax, on the March 20 primary ballot.

A proposal would need approval by a simple majority to pass. If approved, the tax would start being collected in July, and school districts would start receiving payments around November. The sales tax revenue would be collected by the Illinois Department of Revenue, then go to regional schools Superintendent Cheryl Reifsteck’s office, which would distribute it to local districts based on student enrollment.

Illinois voters have had the option to approve the tax since 2007.

Items that fall under the tax: clothes, household goods, appliances, gas, eating out and most other retail expenses.

Items that are exempt: groceries, medicine and vitamins, vehicles, mobile homes, ATVs, RVs, boats, farm equipment, seed and fertilizer.

“Ultimately, it’s a penny tax,” Cox said. “If your family goes out for a meal and spends $40, you’re paying an extra 40 cents.”

Forty nine other counties have it 

Cox and Westville schools Superintendent Seth Miller said the tax shifts facility funding away from property taxes, school districts’ only means of raising money since state construction funds pretty much dried up years ago. When districts borrow the money, debt payments also fall on taxpayers.

“Sales tax is something everyone contributes to,” Miller said, adding that it’s spread out among all Vermilion County residents as well as nonresidents who work in or visit the county.

Currently, they added, 49 counties — including neighboring Champaign, Edgar, Douglas and Piatt — have it on their books.

“Any time someone from Vermilion County goes shopping in Champaign County, which probably happens a lot, they are contributing to those schools in Champaign County,” Cox said. “But any time someone from Champaign County shops in Vermilion County ... eats out, buys gas, they aren’t contributing anything to our schools.

“Think about things like local sporting events, the Midwest Classic (show choir competition) or the NJCAA tournament at DACC that bring people to the county. While they’re here eating at restaurants, staying in hotels, buying gas, they could be contributing, so we can upgrade our facilities.”

Miller said districts are limited on how they can use the money. “This is not for higher teachers’ salaries or new computers or textbooks,” he said, adding the money can be used for construction, renovation, maintenance and repairs, energy-efficient work and paying off building bond debt, which in turn would allow districts to abate property taxes.

Westville district’s plan

If a resolution is put on the ballot and approved, Miller said Westville stands to gain $550,000 for facilities. He said the district would put $350,000 a year toward bond debt, instead of levying taxes to meet the obligation — a 13 percent decrease in the tax rate, based on the last levy. He projects that the owner of a $100,000 home would see a $205 decrease in their tax bill to the district, while the owner of a $200,000 home would see a $455 decrease.

Miller said leftover CSFT money would be used on preventive maintenance, including HVAC system controls at all schools and boiler, pipe and roof work at the high school.

“We want to stop small problems before they become big problems,” he said. Miller said the district’s third priority would be to improve educational opportunities. Under a tentative plan, the district would build an early childhood learning center at Giacoma Elementary, which would have a cafetorium capable of hosting districtwide pre-K activities and daily PE for all students.

Tentative plans also call for building on additional classroom space and renovating the cafeteria and locker rooms at the junior high, allowing for sixth-grade instruction, and building a performing arts auditorium, renovating restrooms and sports areas at the high school and installing air conditioning in the varsity gym.

In order for the referendum to be put on the ballot, Reifsteck must certify that districts approving the resolution represent more than 50 percent of students in Vermilion County.

What it means

A proposed 1-cent schools facility tax for Vermilion County is projected to raise about $5.3 million a year for school facilities improvements, based on 2015-16 sales tax figures. Here are approximate estimates of what each district could receive:

 

District        Revenue

Danville        $2.5 million

Westville        $550,000

Hoopeston        $423,000

Georgetown-RF        $421,000

Oakwood        $421,000

Bismarck-Henning        $373,000

Salt Fork        $372,000

Rossville-Alvin        $129,000

Potomac        $72,000

Armstrong Township HS $39,000

Armstrong-Ellis        $27,000

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