Homewood residents get answers on schools, taxes at special informational meeting

Residents in Homewood District 153 gathered for two hours on Monday evening to hear school board members talk about district finances, tax options and plans to consolidate schools.

If the district is unable to keep its current tax rate, it will be forced to cut teaching positions pumping class sizes from 17 to 30 or more children, Superintendent Dale Mitchell told the 100 parents and district supporters at the information session.

District 153 Superintendent 
Dale Mitchell addresses 
parents at a meeting 
Wednesday to discuss 
district finances.
(Photo by 
Marilyn Thomas/HF Chronicle)

At this first of two special board meetings, residents were given information on the district’s initiatives to serve students and maintain and strengthen programs.  They heard about enrollment numbers and how keeping the fifth grade class at Churchill School would impact school operations. They learned about school finances and the state’s lagging support.  And, they were told about three options the board is considering to raise revenue.

Declining property values due to the 2008 housing recession, and a continuing drop in state aid have had a direct impact on district finances, said John Gibson the district’s chief school business official. The board’s $28.5 million budget is in the red.

In 2011, residents overwhelmingly supported a 25-cent per $100 assessed valuation tax increase for seven years. The vote allowed the district to raise enough money to sell $7.5 million in bonds. The revenue went into a fund that has been helping to cover a portion of the recurring debt of about $2.5 million each year.

As the district nears the end of the seven-year tax increase, the board is trying to plan for the future. Should the tax rate revert to pre-2011 rates, the district will be forced to cut staff resulting in larger class sizes.

That has to be an option, but it is not the board’s first option, said Steve Anderson, the board’s Finance Committee chair.

Another option is to ask for a continuation of the 25-cent tax for another seven years. A third option is to ask for a 50-cent tax increase for three years—that’s 25-cents above what homeowners are now paying—and revert to the current 25-cent rate for the remaining four years, plus saving $600,000 by closing fifth- and sixth- grade Millennium School. That decision would mean shifting the 190 fifth graders to Churchill School and James Hart School reverting to sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Parents asked a range of questions, including salaries in the district (which Mitchell said are below the state average); whether contracts for staff and vendors are being renegotiated (which Gibson assured them they are); if the district has made every effort to cut spending (which a district team looks at each year); and what will become of the extra space once Millennium closes (which will allow special programs to have additional space).

The district’s curriculum includes classes that many schools have eliminated. Several parents were concerned that these ‘specials’ would be eliminated, but Mitchell assured them that the district has no intention of eliminating the 30 minutes of physical education each day and an hour each week of art/music/technology sessions. 

Anderson said he has struggled the past five years with the question of finances and how the district can work to improve the picture on its own, but state laws have reduced the options open to District 153.

“The answer is we can’t find any way to do it within the confines of the state of Illinois.  And more importantly, Cook County,” Anderson told the audience.

In 1995 the state imposed property tax caps that limit tax increases to not more than 5 percent or the Consumer Price Index—whichever is less. This year, CPI is extremely low, so the district’s taxes will only go up about .8 percent.

In addition, the state sets limits on how much school districts can tax for specific needs, such as salaries and building maintenance.  District 153 is at the maximum in several funds and can’t go above those.

“I can’t accept the fact that we have to do this.  But we’re at our maximum rate. And we can’t change that legally. Period,” Anderson said. “We don’t have the ability to fix a structural deficit. We operate $2.5 million in the red every year.  And that doesn’t mean it won’t get worse because the state continues to nickel and dime us on the revenue side.

“So, the short answer is: It’s incredibly frustrating of why the answer (to fix finances) is  ‘No.’ This (referendum) is the best option that allows us the most flexibility that when and if we are ever able to permanently fix this we can do it,” he said.

The board’s next special meeting will be 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9. It will be another informational meeting.  At the board’s regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, a decision will be made on whether to close Millennium School. The board may also take action on what referendum language will be on the March 15, 2016, ballot. Both meetings will be in the James Hart School cafetorium.

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A great community deserves a great newspaper. The HF Chronicle was created in June 2014 as an online publication. In December 2015 we began monthly print publication, too. Our mission is to chronicle the life of our community — news by, for, and about the people of Homewood and Flossmoor, Illinois.

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