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Most referendums fall short

School officials not discouraged; discuss next move

The proposed 1 percent sales tax to fund public school facilities gained approval from voters in just a quarter of the precincts in Whiteside County, but school officials are not discouraged.

In Lee County, only two precincts of 49 voted in favor of the proposed sales tax.

In the Whiteside County referendum April 9, 54.2 percent of voters rejected the tax – 4,253 against vs. 3,599 for, according to official results.

In Morrison, 57.9 percent approved the tax. In the Rock Falls area, it was close – 48.3 percent backed the tax. But in Sterling, only 38.7 percent voted for it.

Voters in just 15 of 60 precincts in Whiteside County supported the tax increase. More than half the precincts that had majorities for the tax were in the Fulton and Morrison areas.

Four precincts in the Rock Falls area approved it, But only one precinct in Sterling – near downtown, from 14th Street south to the river – posted a majority in support of the tax.

It was the third time that voters had defeated the referendum.

School officials were, understandably, disappointed that the measure failed, as it did in most counties around the state that considered such a tax. But they were encouraged that the measure was defeated by such a slim margin – relatively speaking.

In Lee County, a similar tax proposal was rejected by 73 percent of voters. In Ogle County, 65 percent of voters disapproved. Only precincts in Bradford and Reynolds voted in favor.

“There were very few counties that were as close as we were,” said Tad Everett, superintendent of the schools in Sterling. “We believe there still is a vested interest [in the tax].”

School officials believe a misunderstanding about the tax and the allowable uses for the money might have led voters to defeat the measure.

“There are some people who believe that the money will be rerouted and used for other things,” said Dan Arickx, superintendent of the Rock Falls Elementary School District.

If voters had approved the increase, each public school district would have received a share of the annual county sales tax revenue based on its proportion of overall county enrollment.

The money could be used to construct new buildings or add on to or renovate existing buildings; make facilities handicapped accessible; or repair parking lots and sidewalks, aging roofs and boilers, among other improvements.

A district also could have used the money to abate property taxes that have been levied to pay off existing construction bonds, but such use wasn’t required.

Without the new revenue, districts will continue to issue Health/Life Safety bonds and levy property taxes to pay for building improvements.

Superintendents are not allowed to campaign for the sales tax increase, but most – via their school boards – promised a combination of property tax relief and school facility improvements if voters approved the referendum.

Arickx now questions whether Rock Falls voters understood the positive impact the additional revenue would have on their district and their community.

“It would have provided for property tax relief, which is a direct benefit to them,” Arickx said. “It also would have improved facilities, ... which is a plus for the community. ... That’s economic development in the Sauk Valley.”

Everett says Sterling voters, many of whom are renters rather than homeowners, likely turned down the tax because they would not reap the benefits of property tax abatement, but would feel the sales tax pinch at the store.

Suellen Girard, superintendent of the schools in Morrison, where voters have supported the sales tax every time it has been on the ballot, says voters there see the benefits – perhaps because of their proximity to Iowa, where a tax for school facilities has been in place statewide for years.

“The community of Morrison realizes that the center of our community and the health of our community is directly related to the school district,” she said, “and it is critical for us to maintain excellent schools with excellent programs.”

School officials did as much as they were permitted to tell their constituents about the tax. Sterling posted information on its website a few months ahead of the vote. Rock Falls Elementary sent home fact sheets with every student the Friday before the election and held an informational meeting the night before the vote.

In Morrison, community members submitted articles and letters of support to local media, rather than let their peers get the message only from the school district.

Administrators know that if the tax makes it to the ballot a fourth time, they will have to work hard to promote the measure within the parameters of the law.

“We need to continue to provide that information, even when it’s not a month before the election, but now, 11 months before another election,” Arickx said.

“We’ll have to look at the creation of a community group or organization that might be able to speak more openly about it, too,” Everett added.

They also believe that repeated defeat is part of a slow journey to passage. They hope that as more and more counties in Illinois adopt the tax (Henry and Mercer counties approved it this month.), voters will see its impact elsewhere and come around to support it locally.

If tax supporters have momentum, it’s building slowly. The first time the question was before the voters, in November 2008, 42 percent supported it. The following April, the tax won 45 percent of the vote. This year, the support was near 46 percent.

Whiteside County superintendents have not met as a group to discuss the sales tax or any plans to put a measure on the ballot again in March, the soonest it could go before voters. Public school boards representing a majority of the students in the county have until the end of this year to adopt resolutions to place a request for a sales tax increase on the ballot next spring.

Michael Juenger, superintendent of Dixon schools, said the board has not had any discussion about the facilities tax since the election, but said the district’s needs are not going to go away.

“We’re losing funding every year,” Juenger said. “It’s making it tough to educate kids. My biggest concern is that kids in school now not the same quality of education as my kids did when they went through school. We’re not financing the same way we did before. That’s not fair to them.

“I’m not willing to face that. That’s why our district has continued to push really hard and push our staff. We’re going to everything we can to give them that same opportunity.”

— Derek Barichello contributed to this report.

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