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Referendums a tough go for schools

Voters wary of new tax to fund improvements

Schools are seeing a drop in state funding for operations and transportation. And they struggle to get voters to pass referendums to pay for school improvements.

In recent years, voters in Whiteside and Lee counties have rejected a 1 percent sales tax to fund school infrastructure.

On Tuesday, Whiteside voters decisively turned down the request – for a fourth time. A referendum also failed in Carroll County, but by a closer margin.

Before Tuesday, the tax proposal had gained support in each attempt – 42 percent support in November 2008, 45 percent in April 2009, and 46 percent last April. This time, however, nearly 58 percent of voters said no.

Passing a sales tax, Sterling public schools Superintendent Tad Everett said, would allow the district to cut its property taxes.

“What this boils down to is that we have a cost to maintain our buildings, which has averaged $800,000 to $900,000 a year,” he said. “The way we have funded that throughout our history is bonding. This [1 percent tax] is an alternative to that structure.”

The schools, Everett said, keep pushing for the 1 percent tax because they feel it will eventually pass.

If the tax does not pass, he said, “we will continue to fund our schools the same way.”

Taxpayers’ money is funding school building improvements, not “luxuries,” Everett argued.

“We are talking bricks and mortar and our heating and cooling systems,” he said. “Those things are necessities.”

Sometimes, people think the district paid for the artificial football field that was installed a couple of years ago, but that was entirely funded with private money, Everett said.

In Lee County, the 1 percent sales tax for schools went before the voters a couple of times – in November 2012 and April 2013. Unlike Whiteside County, support waned in Lee County.

The first time, when Dixon school officials pledged to devote their money to a proposed sports and activities complex, 59 percent of voters rejected the tax, which would be countywide and apportioned to school districts based on their enrollments.

Opposition increased to 72 percent in the second go-around, when Dixon designated any revenue from the tax to building improvements, not an activities complex.

Property taxes for schools dropped this year, but will rise to the old level because the school board approved new health-life-safety bonds to pay for school improvements, including for roof repairs at Dixon High School, Dixon Superintendent Michael Juenger said.

State health-life-safety codes require that schools to keep their buildings in good shape.

In recent months, the school district has been seeking public input on a long-term plan for schools.

One building that has been the subject of much discussion is Dixon High School.

“It’s a flat-out beautiful building,” said Juenger, who indicated a 90-year-old building might not meet today’s learning needs.

“We use space differently today than we did in the 1920s,” he said. “Can you have the shell and turn the inside into something a little more conducive to educating kids today? A little of the downside is that it sits on 13 acres, so we are limited. We have started having discussions with the community.”

Vision 2030 on Tuesday

Tuesday's edition will include a 52-page special section, "Vision 2030," that will examine what the Sauk Valley might look like in 2030. We will look at employment, the workforce, education, infrastructure, housing, religion and health care, among others issues.

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