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Marianne's Meanderings: School facility referendum unifies concerns over education funding

Marianne Gillespie
mgillespie@timestoday.com

As you are reading this, you most likely have heard the outcome of the Peoria County school facility sales tax referendum. At the time of writing this, I can only make an educated guess.

My guess is that voters in school districts outside Peoria District 150 will approve the measure, but Peorians will vote it down. Not only is there a lot of unrest in the Peoria school system, but those living in Peoria would end up with a high sales tax: 9.25 percent on many items, and coupled with the city’s entertainment tax and downtown hospitality zone, the result would be up to 12.25 percent on certain items. In comparison, the city of Chillicothe’s sales tax would be 8.25 percent.

This referendum has stirred some things I have been surprised to hear: people that I thought would say “no” to any kind of additional tax, have said they are going to vote for the measure. The reason, as they have said it, is that they do not want to pay any more in property taxes. So, as they see it, either way they will be paying something, and they like the idea of others, even visitors to the county, paying the estimated $1.4 million District 321 would receive out of the $18 million.

I also have seen discussion on Facebook and in person about the proposal, which has a couple other takeaways.

For starters, some residents had a lot of questions, both about the basics and the nitty gritty of the referendum. Some of their questions would have been answered if they had read stories in this paper. Others probably would have required a conversation with a school board member or member of the administration.

Some wanted to know specifically what IVC would do with the funding, if it passed. Some did not want the school district to pay off its bonds on previous projects and instead fund some of the current needs. Some didn’t care either way as long as their property taxes went down.

Some stated specific projects weren’t really that important as opposed to others, and that they wouldn’t have any control over what projects would be completed.

That isn’t entirely true. Residents always can use their voices to ask questions and make their opinions known to administration, school board members individually or the entire board. If you don’t like their decisions, wait until the next election and either run for office yourself or vote them out of office.

I can tell you, however, that in my reporting duties, it is uncommon to see residents asking a question of the board or making their opinion known. Many times I sit in the audience by myself, or occasionally with other people who are addressing the board, such as teachers or principals giving reports. For residents who say they care so much about children’s education, few capitalize on the opportunity to speak up.

You might think it just means that residents trust the school board members’ or administration judgments, but I know that’s not true.

I have heard residents complain about the board buying the farm land to the east of the high school with no plans for it. Those who have children at Mossville School have repeatedly complained that the Butler building was intended to be temporary, and instead it’s become a permanent part of the school. Some parents didn’t like the offerings for high school classes in light of changing or eliminating teacher positions.

While I’m bringing up some touchy subjects, that doesn’t necessarily mean school officials haven’t tried to be responsible. District 321 buildings are better maintained than some districts, and while the district has faced deficits in recent years due to state funding cuts, it was small compared to what others have seen.

The IVC Educational Foundation, a non-profit entity which began to enrich students’ education, also has helped with many projects, including not only the mini-grants for teachers in the classroom, but also building endeavors, such as the fitness center at the high school.

Some teachers and coaches are also willing to put children’s education and sporting activities ahead of their own interests.

Take IVC varsity softball coach Josh Clarke, for example.

He exuded passion when proposing the idea of starting a junior high girls’ softball team at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting.

Yes, it would benefit him as the players would have more experience before high school and his children could be on the team in the future.

But that’s not the point: he saw a possibility and presented a way to make it happen, including volunteering his time to coach.

Ultimately, it was finances that killed the measure, but anyone who saw his presentation knew he put time and effort into just thinking through what could be, and he was willing to do what he could to make it work.

In my time covering the school board this year, I haven’t found any of the board members or administration unwilling to answer or explain anything that I asked. You may think that’s just because I am a reporter that they treat me differently, but I can assure you, not everyone is as kind. I suggest giving them a chance and see for yourself. You may not like the answer you get, but that’s different than not getting one.

It’s the sales tax referendum, however, that brings uneasiness all over the county to the forefront. People are tired of seeing their property taxes go up (although some in Chillicothe have seen them decline slightly in recent years), and the thought of more money going to government entities of any kind make people’s blood boil, especially in Illinois. Those on fixed incomes, either through pensions, Social Security benefits or not getting raises at work, make the issue even more exasperating in trying to keep up.

Our state continues to sock it to us when it comes to any kind of tax, and we don’t see anything getting fixed. That’s not our schools’ fault, but unfortunately, it is a byproduct. Businesses say the same thing: profits have decreased so there will be no cost-of-living raise or jobs are eliminated. It’s easy to see why the middle class, especially those on the lower end, are slipping closer to poverty. Some then can’t pay their property taxes.

There’s no easy solution to any of this, but I have an idea. If the administration and school board want to send a clear message that they feel the pain of property owners who are tired of paying increased bills, then forego the administrators’ wage raise for a year. Of the 11 administrative positions, their salaries range from $60,000 to $140,000. While the administrators don’t all receive the same raise, let’s just say they each receive a 3 percent raise. (Keep in mind that teachers are under contract for a 2.75 percent raise.) The administration total would be more than $29,000. That probably won’t go far in roof repairs, which is at the top of the school district’s list, but it would be a start.

Am I saying that the administrators don’t deserve raises? No, just like it’s not property owners’ fault that the state isn’t paying what it should be to the schools or that there are building needs. Sometimes everyone has to feel the pain in order to feel like they are in it together.

And that’s the truth: the community is in it together. Good schools not only mean more people may want to live in Chillicothe and build the tax base, but we produce better citizens who can either decide to stay in this area and raise a family or move to another area and do likewise.

Whether you’re a student, school board member, parent, grandparent or resident with no connection to the school system, your opinions and questions are important in keeping a well-rounded education system continuing in Chillicothe. Now that’s something that everyone can be proud of.