STERLING – The Sterling School Board backed the 1-cent county sales tax, giving the county’s districts enough support to put a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The board on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to put the County School Facility Sales Tax question to Whiteside County voters in the next election.
The district’s enrollment constitutes 37 percent of the county’s 9,450 students, so once Bob Sondgeroth, regional schools superintendent, has the paperwork from the districts that have supported the resolution, he can have the measure certified by the county clerk. Sondgeroth’s certification deadline is Aug. 18.
Both the Rock Falls elementary and high school districts’ boards have voted in favor of the resolution. The Sterling and Rock Falls districts have a total of 5,221 of the county’s 9,450 students, and only a simple majority of the students represented by the boards is needed to get the measure on the ballot.
The Erie, Morrison and Montmorency districts have not yet voted.
If the referendum is put on the ballot and passes, the county sales tax will increase from 6.75 percent to 7.75 percent.
Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett said simple numbers compiled over a long period of time illustrate the need for the sales tax increase.
“We have spent, on average, $880,000 annually in maintenance costs over the last 30 years,” Everett said. “That evidence supports the fact we have a very large district with a number of buildings.”
The district has 10 buildings on 88 acres to maintain and has taken out $25.43 million in Health/Life Safety bonds over the last 36 years.
While Everett says he understands that no one likes a tax increase of any kind, this particular tax addresses the issue of shared responsibility.
“Our property taxpayers pay 100 percent of the cost – they have for 30 years,” Everett said. “There’s a different avenue by which these expenses can be handled.”
Historically, the schools rely on the annual tax levy and occasional bond issues for facility upkeep and maintenance. Supporters of the facility sales tax point out that it takes some of the burden off the property owners and even brings those who don’t live in the county into the mix.
If the sales tax passes, it would bring an estimated $1.6 million to the Sterling schools for building maintenance.
Everett has targeted several high-priority projects at the district’s various buildings:
• A geothermal project at the high school
• Upgrades at Roscoe Eades Stadium
• A new parking lot at Franklin Elementary School
• Visitor parking at Sterling High School
• Parking lot lighting and security cameras
• Windows at all four elementary schools
• Safety entryways at all buildings
• Improvements to the indoor physical education facilities at the elementary and middle schools
• Roofing, sidewalk, curb and gutter work that Everett says needs to be done somewhere within the district just about every year
The most pressing sidewalk and streets work is along Fourth Avenue at the high school, and on LeFevre Road between Fourth and Sixth avenues.
The projects carry different time frames, but given the high cost of many of them, Everett said it is important to constantly look for additional revenue streams for maintenance needs at least through a 10-year period.
“For instance, the stadium was built in the 1930s, and there are structural issues,” Everett said. “Projections show that those upgrades should be done within 5 to 10 years.”
The Franklin parking lot becomes a bigger concern because the new prekindergarten program will add to the traffic at the school.
A State Board of Education policy change also puts the spotlight on the PE facilities.
“In 2018, the state will no longer allow districts to take advantage of the PE waiver,” Everett said. “We’ve been sharing facilities, even using the cafeterias in bad weather, because we don’t have the space without upgrading the indoor facilities at the elementary and middle schools.”
The board approved the waiver through the 2016-17 school year. The waiver allows the district to offer elementary PE in two 25-minute periods a week rather than daily.
“Is the PE facilities problem something that could be addressed with this sales tax?” asked Sterling resident Tom Brackemeyer.
“This is exactly the type of uses we have in mind with the sales tax revenue,” Everett replied.
This is the fourth time in 7 years Whiteside County schools have tried to put the tax on the ballot. Last year, the county’s voters shot down the request for a 1-cent sales tax by a vote of 4,253 to 3,599, or 54.2 percent to 45.8 percent.
Everett believes the conversation is changing regarding this particular tax option.
“In tough economic times, there are two views,” he said. “One is the last thing you do is ask for additional taxes, and the other is that schools are important to our future and it should be a shared responsibility.”
In other action, the board approved a 2-year agreement with Rock Falls High School to allow its students to participate in the Sterling High School girls and boys swimming program.
“There is no additional cost to us,” said Greg King, Sterling High School activities director.
All of the swimming coaches and other personnel will be employed by the Sterling schools. Participation fees are paid to Sterling High School. Rock Falls swimmers would be responsible for their own travel costs if they qualified for the state meet.