Home rule could help District 153 schools meet its budget shortfall

Homewood District 153 anticipates a $760,000 windfall to its budget if Homewood residents support the home rule initiative.
 
The village board is proposing to raise the sales tax by 0.25 percent and give the additional revenue to the other taxing bodies in Homewood — School Districts 153, 161 and 233, the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District and the Homewood Public Library.
 
Homewood trustees are expected to take a vote at the Dec. 12 village board meeting that will direct the Cook County Board of Elections to put the question of home rule before the voters in a March referendum. 
 
Illinois grants communities with a population greater than 25,000 automatic home rule. Homewood’s population is less than 20,000 so voters must approve the governing change. Home rule would give the village greater flexibility in making some decisions and raising taxes. 
 
The increased taxes, expected to bring in at least $1 million annually, will be split between the five agencies. The bulk of the revenue — $700,000 — would go to the elementary district because it has the greatest need. The state legislature has shortchanged school funding for years.
 
Through a series of meetings the past few months, representatives from the five taxing bodies have debated the best distribution formula. After the $700,00 payout to District 153, the remaining $300,000 will be split by the five agencies giving each an estimated $60,000. None of the additional money will go to the village of Homewood.
 
The past school year District 153 reported a deficit of $1.7 million, according to Superintendent Dale Mitchell. The district was able to balance its books because voters approved a $9 million bond sale in 2016 to help the district meet its expenses. 
 
Officials estimated the bond money would help District 153 cover its outstanding debt for six or seven years, but getting additional sales tax revenue could help the district extend the life of the bonds.
 
“Some people are mistaken in thinking that schools get money from sales taxes. We don’t,” Board President Shelly Marks said at the board’s Nov. 13 meeting. 

Homewood’s current sales tax rate is 9-cents on the dollar, one of the lowest tax rates in the South Suburbs. Its strong shopping district along Halsted Street would be the backbone of the tax base that Marks said “is primarily paid by people who don’t live here.”
 
The District 153 board will consider a resolution supporting home rule at its 7:15 p.m. meeting on Dec. 11. Marks hopes the other board members will support the initiative.
 
“It would be very nice for us and help relieve the burden” on residents who are paying school costs through property taxes, Marks added.
 
Board members asked for clarification on how the shared revenue agreement would work. How will revenues be split if the village’s estimate of $1 million in tax money is not on target. Which taxing body would lose if the revenue is lower, or gain if more money comes in? Mitchell said details will be worked out, but it is likely the taxing bodies will renegotiate the agreement every three to five years.  
 
Marks also said board members should be aware of the village’s home rule proposal to conduct inspections of home rental properties. Current law only allows inspections from the street. With home rule powers, Homewood hopes to increase its inspection powers as a way to protect property values and make certain landlords are maintaining homes.
 
“Some of the situations frankly could use some improvement. Those are our (District 153) kids living in those homes,” Marks said.
 
In other business, the board will spend Nov. 15 and 16 working with volunteers who are helping develop a long range strategic plan for the district. They will use survey responses from more than 400 residents who offered their insights into how the district operates and what they want for the children in Willow, Churchill and James Hart Schools.

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