Legislation giving District 153 its levy increase passes

The benefits of the 2022 referendum supporting Homewood District 153 are a step closer to being available to support school improvements, staff needs and a rainy day fund.

The Illinois legislature approved a special bill Thursday, May 23, sponsored by Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, allowing the district to use $19.5 million as its fiscal year (FY) 2023 levy number. It now needs Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. 

Without this legislation, the district would be locked into using $17.8 million for its levy under Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL) guidelines that limit increases to match inflation. Every future levy is based on the last levy. The school board believed it was urgent to get the levy number for FY2023 increased to $19.5 million, which voters approved in 2022.

“We lost $1.7 million (in new revenue) for the FY22 levy,” Superintendent Scott McAlister said. The board didn’t want to short the district of that much money well into the future.

A levy sets the amount of money a school district requests Cook County to collect from taxpayers to support the schools.

Those PTELL restrictions would mean the district would never be able to capture the increase voters approved in a November 2022 referendum when they agreed to a new tax rate of $5.60 per $100 assessed, from the previous rate of $4.40 per $100 assessed, a rate set 30 years earlier.

The referendum, approved by more than 70% of voters, was deemed a permanent solution, rather than coming to voters yet again for the OK to sell bonds. The district won support from voters in 2011 and 2016 to sell working cash bonds to pump money into the district’s coffers. Rather than consider another short-term fix, the board decided to go for a tax rate increases because it’s considered a long-term solution.

The district anticipated raising $4.2 million for operations of Willow, Churchill and James Hart Schools, avoiding drastic cuts to programs and faculty and staff layoffs that would have been necessary to close a $2 million deficit. The raise in the district’s foundational level also will provide money to update its aging buildings and build a financial cushion to cover emergency expenses.

When the Cook County Assessor’s Office reassessed the South Suburbs in 2023, District 153’s equalized assessed valuation (EAV) of all properties in the district dropped. District 153 received less in new money than what voters said they’d support. The referendum did provide the district a $2.5 million increase in revenue, but it didn’t come to the $4.2 million that was anticipated. 

Once the school board realized what was happening, it appealed to elected officials for help. Illinois Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, introduced legislation in Springfield in December 2023 to amend the property tax code. The bill made its way to the Illinois Senate in April where it was sponsored by Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey.

School Board President Shelly Marks went to Springfield with McAlister and fellow board member Alex Bosch to watch the House vote on the bill. Marks called it “an incredible lesson in civics.” 

“Will Davis has been an amazing advocate for our school district,” Marks said. “He understood the issue immediately and was all about finding a solution.”

Marks said the community’s efforts had a major impact on getting the bill passed.

“We’ve all been involved in getting legislation passed. We called, sent emails, signed the (committee) witness slips,” she said. “It made a difference.”

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