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District 161 board members voice concerns about home rule plan

The Flossmoor District 161 Board of Education is still deliberating whether it will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Homewood as the village continues its efforts to become a home rule community. A decision is expected in January but some board members are publicly stating their reservations.
“I still have doubts,” said board member Cameron Nelson. “It still bothers me that this board would be party to a sales tax increase affecting other communities.”
The school board discussed the proposal at its Dec. 11 meeting. During the meeting, State Rep. Will Davis also discussed the newly-approved school funding bill in Illinois. 
Residents of Homewood will be presented with a referendum in March to approve the village board’s request for home rule. If successful, Homewood plans to implement a 0.25 percent sales tax increase which would generate revenue of $1 million,* with the proceeds going to local taxing bodies including District 161, Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Homewood District 153 schools, Homewood-Flossmoor Park District and the Homewood Library.
District 161 is part of the discussion because 20 percent of its 454 students reside in Homewood.  According to Superintendent Dana Smith, Homewood is seeking the District 161 board’s participation in the agreement. According to Smith’s data, District 161 would receive about $75,000 per year from the new sales tax, 7.5 percent of the total revenue.
“Do we really need this money?” Nelson asked. “We seem to be doing OK. I don’t know if we need this revenue.”
Nelson also stated that “there are other reasons Homewood is interested in home rule.”  He added, “This is going to be controversial.”

Homewood officials have explained they want the home rule designation because it would increase flexibility in hiring police officers and firefighters and because it would give the village greater authority to enforce building codes.

Nelson characterized the formula for distribution of the sales tax revenue as “ambiguous.” 
Smith said, “You are 100 percent right, the wording is peculiar.”
Board President Michelle Hoereth said, “I don’t know where I stand on this issue. The revenue is marginal.  What other incentive is there for us to approve this?”
Hoereth added, “We need a good answer to explain why we would support this.”
Smith told the board he will bring the proposal to the next board meeting on Jan. 9.
Davis, D-Homewood, was a special guest at the District 161 meeting.  Davis was invited to comment on the new state funding formula that was referenced several times during the board’s budget and tax levy discussions over the past few months.
Davis said, “There have been a lot of ups and downs in Springfield” as “substantial changes were made to the school funding formula.” The changes are the most comprehensive in 20 years, he said.
“We’re trying to meet the needs of the state being the primary funder of schools,” Davis said. “We saw inequities in state funding and why some schools receive less funding than those in more developed areas.”
Davis characterized the new evidence-based funding formula as a means for the General Assembly to ultimately fulfill the constitutionally mandated requirement to fund education.
Generally, the new formula performs calculations in three stages.
The first stage is determining the cost of educating all students according to defined cost factors. The result, Davis explained, is the adequacy target for each district in the state.
The next stage involves measuring each district’s local resources for comparison to the adequacy target.
Finally, there is distribution of additional state funds to assist districts in meeting their targets.
“There were a lot of moving pieces to this bill,” Davis stated. “Not everyone was pleased. Our effort was to put a formula in place so we are moving in the direction of adequately funding each district.”
Davis added, “This is just the beginning. The quicker we move on improving the state budget, the closer we will get to adequate funding.”
Davis shared his thoughts with the board about districts with higher property tax rates. He said the new formula would increase funding to districts that reduce property taxes.
Davis also said, “The state has to make educational funding a priority. We need to see this each year when we make appropriations.  My goal is to push even higher.”
Also at the District 161 meeting the board unanimously approved the recent financial audit report and the annual investment report. 

* This story originally stated that the estimated sales tax revenues would be $1.2 million, a figure Homewood officials used at a community meeting in November. Village Manager Jim Marino said the estimate was lowered to $1 million to be more conservative for planning purposes.

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