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D233 board struggles with tax levy needs, fiscal issues

It remains unclear whether members of the Homewood-Flossmoor High School District 233 School Board will come together next month to unanimously approve the district’s annual tax levy amount.

It remains unclear whether members of the Homewood-Flossmoor High School District 233 School Board will come together next month to unanimously approve the district’s annual tax levy amount.
Board members Annette Bannon and Beth Larocca have voted against tax levy proposals in the past. At Tuesday’s meeting, their fellow board members argued for the importance of the levy to day-to-day operations at H-F High School as well as protecting the district’s bond rating.
The vote on the 2019 levy, estimated at about $39.8 million, will be taken at the Dec. 17 board meeting. The tax levy is expected to raise about 62 percent of the district’s annual budget. The district’s current budget is $56 million.

Expenses are rising, board members said. However, an Illinois law limits the board’s annual tax increase request based on the rate of inflation, tying it to the Consumer Price Index which this year is 1.9 percent.

“Our property taxes are approximately equal to the penny what our teacher salaries are,” said board member Nathan Legardy. “So when you vote no for a tax levy, you’re really trying to under-fund our staff. When you boil it down, it’s really critical that we take that vote seriously. It’s nothing to play with, unless you want to shut this school down.”
Board member Debbie Berman said passing the increased levy was a way to “overcorrect” and ensure the district’s budget is covered. If the board doesn’t request enough capital, there’s no going back to get more, she argued. 

Berman also questioned why some board members were reluctant to pass the levy when they previously approved staff salary increases.

“I’m at a loss to understand how you could pass a teachers contract and then not vote for the levy (to cover salaries),” Berman said. “It’s just not a responsible thing to do. It is not fiscally responsible to not pass the levy.”

Bannon and Larocca say they aren’t against the tax levy in principle, but they’re holding true to a campaign pledge from their 2017 election in which they promised fiscal responsibility and a reduction in the tax burden.
“The reason I voted ‘no’ was I could not justify the levy without some simultaneous assurance about reduction in expenses considering our current reserves,” Bannon said. 

She said her research leads her to believe that high taxes are pushing residents out of the district. 

Larocca said H-F spends on average more per pupil than neighboring districts, but received the same commendable rating on the state’s annual report card based on test scores. She said that should be “food for thought.”
“We must find the balance between a great school and high property taxes,” Larocca said. “This is one of the reasons I did not support the levy in the past. There has to be a balance, and I did not feel we had a balance.”
Larocca, who serves on the board’s Finance Committee, said the district should perform cost-benefit analyses of programs and supports to consider whether outsourcing any of these could help reduce expenses.*
Superintendent Von Mansfield was asked how he would propose working toward a more balanced budget.
“If there is a deficit, you take a look at where to cut. If it’s a substantial (deficit) number, then you cut staff,” Mansfield said, stressing that he would “make sure (students) have the coursework they need. I will commit to that.”
Berman also stressed the importance of good fiscal management among members of the district’s board and administration. She said the district has maintained its Triple-A bond rating from Standard & Poors because of its balanced budgets and reserves, as well as the board’s past fiscal responsibility.
“If (S&P) determines that we’re not responsible … that can affect your bond rating,” she said.
The example was given of a $25 million bond issue, which currently would cost the district 2 percent in interest, or $500,000. If Standard & Poors reduced H-F’s bond rating to AA+, the same bond issue would cost the district an additional $50,000 in interest annually.
* This paragraph was revised to correct a typographic error.

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