Valorie Eversole Daily Union Editor
Shelbyville Daily Union
---- — Shelby County school districts continue to appeal to the voters to help them as the districts face even more cuts in state funding.
The 1 percent sale tax could bring in an extra $1 million to the county schools for much needed maintenance and improvements on the buildings.
"We are at a critical juncture for our communities, our school districts, and our children," said Shelbyville Superintendent Denise Bence at a press conference Tuesday.
Over the past three years, the State has cut more than $7 million in educational funding from Shelby County schools. A preliminary revenue forecast by state lawmakers last month showed schools throughout the state potentially losing $1 billion in funding beginning July 1. The State Board of Education had requested a $1 billion increase.
"When budgets get tight, we have to look at how to cut spending. We have to prioritize the spending and facilities get put lower and lower on the list. To get by, we have to make do," Bence said.
County schools are aging and heating systems, roofs, and building brickwork are in desperate need of repair or replacement. The proposed sales tax referendum would bring added revenue to the districts that can only be used specifically on the buildings.
Other community members spoke in support of the sales tax.
Local home and land owner, business owner, and parent Tad Mayhall noted that the learning environment for the children is being compromised by the extreme temperatures of the classroom.
"They shouldn't have to sit and worry about being too cold or too hot or water coming down from the ceiling," Mayhall said. "They (districts) are not asking for new schools, but for improvements - not band-aid fixes."
"No one wants to pay more taxes but this is one I'm willing to pay for our children," he added.
David Young of the Shelby County Economic Development Committee noted that schools are what draws families to an area and the failure of schools will cause families to move.
"Without schools, families will move somewhere else. The schools were paid for by our forefathers and is an investment in our future. We have a choice. We can help them by increasing real estate and property taxes or through the sales tax," Young said.
Shelbyville school board member Mark Snider said his eyes were opened when he became part of the school board. He was able to see the district's budget and the areas in the buildings that need immediate repair.
"I saw the boiler room and just walked out shaking my head. I saw windows in the high school open when it's 10 degrees outside," Snider said. "The long you put things off the more expensive they are going to be."
"The 1 percent tax is the best way to deal with the problems. The money stays right here in Shelby County and helps our kids. It's going to be up to our local school boards deciding what to do with the money - not Springfield," he added.
But what happens if the amount of sales tax revenue drops dramatically?
According to a state rule, if the sales tax passes, an obligation bond gets attached to it. That means, if the school district can't pay its bills with money from the sales tax, it could levy property taxes to make up the difference. Illinois is the only state with this rule.
"Yes, this is the law. But, it's a misconception," Bence said. "If a school district borrows money and uses it to pay off a bond or loan, it's pledging the money to pay off the loan. If they don't, it's illegal. A district can only borrow 75 percent against our anticipated funds and the sales tax could make up the other 25 percent. The sales tax backs up the loans. There are safety nets in place so defaulting is rare.The sales tax revenue would have to drop over several years before we would have to do something. There are alternative revenue bonds that would be used before we could request a property tax levy. The property tax increase is a backup only in case of catastrophe. Districts have been using alternative revenue bond and no one has ever had to ask for property taxes to make up the shortfall."
"We just did a $2.1 million project at Moulton without raising property taxes," Bence noted. Moulton Middle School replaced windows and installed a geothermal system in 2012.
"We have patched and patched. We can't patch anymore," said Cowden-Herrick superintendent Darrell Gordon. "Springfield says to consolidate. But if you consolidated five broke schools, you have one big broke school."
Shelby County is one of three area counties with the sales tax referendum on the ballot. Effingham and Coles counties are also considering the proposal.
Macon, Champaign, Christian, and Douglas counties already have the sales tax in place and are using the revenue for their school buildings.
"We are being surrounded by counties with the additional sales tax. When we shop out of county, we're helping their schools. Why not help ours," Bence said.
The proposal reads: Shall a retailers' occupation tax and a service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a "sales tax") be imposed in The County of Shelby, Illinois, at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?
For a video of how the sales tax would help individual districts, visit www.youtube.com/scpublicschools or www.facebook.com/scpublicschools.