Taxpayer support carries District 153 through economic hard times

Administrators in District 153 say the $7.5 million bond issue passed in 2011 has made all the difference to the district’s bottom line. Without that tax referendum money, the district would not be able to meet the community’s high expectations for its schools.

That revenue on hand helps the district continue to serve its 1, 800 students, improve on its outstanding programs and maintain the Willow, Churchill, Millennium and James Hart Junior High buildings, according to Superintendent Dale Mitchell and Business Manager John Gibson.

The referendum replenished the district’s Working Cash Fund, in simple terms a saving account, by $7.5 million by raising taxes approximately $100 for each $100,000 of assessed value. Today the Working Cash Fund has $4 million.

“We’ve done what we can to reduce expenses. We maintain our promise (in passing the referendum) that we would be good stewards” of the added revenue, Mitchell said.

The district gives raises to its 350 teachers and staff based on the cost-of-living (CPI) index and has worked with staff to continuously reduce spending.

Despite these belt-tightening measures, Mitchell said costs from suppliers — such as transportation and insurance — as well as unfunded mandates are eating away at the district’s pot.

This year the Illinois legislature considered additional unfunded mandates—everything from reporting bullying statistics to training staff in CPR measures and mandating new reporting requirements on teaching Black History, which is already law.

For fiscal year 2015, the district’s operating expenses are $21.6 million but its revenue is anticipated at $18.9 million. Revenue from the Working Cash Fund is helping keep the district on an even keel. “We try and maintain everything we have: our sports, gifted programs and on and on,” in addition to the mandates for special education and other directives set in law that are getting limited or no funding, Mitchell said. He estimates funding for mandates has remained flat the past seven years.

Overall state aid hasn’t increased the past several years. After the 2008 financial crisis, district administrators knew District 153 schools would be negatively impacted.

“We just didn’t have confidence in the state’s support in the future,” Gibson explained. He looked at all options, and proposed the bond sale because “this was the best and most consistent, structurally sound way” to generate revenue.

In retrospect, Gibson says a tax rate increase — based on property values — would have failed to provide added revenues because housing values dropped. When the District 153 board members proposed the bond sale it made pledges to the community that the money would keep Homewood schools sound.

Mitchell says four years out he can “demonstrate what the dollars are used for and the adjustments we’ve made to protect and be conservative with those dollars. I think that’s part of the story, too. We’ve made adjustments to be good stewards of those dollars while maintaining what we have.”

What will the future be? It’s hard to say, but if the state’s financial support to schools doesn’t improve in the next year, District 153 voters may be asked to again approve a bond sale.

“We hoped the economy would turn around and the state would be able to fund schools again. We were very fortunate to do what we did so we could continue to maintain what we had, but the expectation that things are changing for the positive aren’t there,” the superintendent added.

District 153

Contact Marilyn Thomas at [email protected]

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