After and to raise property taxes, board members of have until December to decide whether or not to go out for a referendum again.
At a board meeting Thursday night, Superintendent Alexandra Nicholson presented a detailed report on the district’s current financial state and on its options going forward—including taking out bonds, making cuts or attempting to pass a referendum.
Right now, District 31 is in particularly rough shape, according to Nicholson.
“Everybody’s suffering from less state funds, everyone’s suffering from less federal funds, from house values going down,” she said. “But there are things to District 31 that are unique to us that really are causing the most challenges.”
District faces mounting property tax appeals, changing student population
Among those challenges are millions of dollars in property tax appeals from District 31’s biggest property tax payer, . The district is currently from Allstate for the tax years 2004 - 2006, of which District 31’s share would be roughly $2.4 million. Another appeal for the tax years 2007- 2009 is on its way, Nicholson said.
While the district must set aside funds for Allstate’s property tax appeals, it also has to budget for roughly $1.4 million in repairs to and schools, according to Nicholson. That includes fixing a leaky roof at Winkelman, resurfacing the deteriorating concrete sidwalks at Field and replacing a 17-year-old boiler at Field that has nearly reached its life expectancy of 20 years.
Additionally, the district faces mounting costs for student services as more and more students enter who do not speak English, or speak only a limited amount. The district already has two bilingual programs in place and is one student away from having to open a third bilingual program in Russian, according to Nicholson. That program alone could cost the district $90,000 to $100,000, she said.
In comparison to other districts in the area, District 31 has a disproportionately large number of students requiring special English Language Learner (ELL) classes, according to board president David Handler.
“If you add up the ELL students in [districts] , , , and then double it, you don’t have as many as we have,” Handler said.
Superintendent: "We have to eventually pass a referendum"
Projecting district spending out at its current level, and anticipating that the board will authorize the remaining $3 million in bonds from Nicholson predicted that District 31’s cash reserves would fall steeply within the next 10 years. Under this model, she predicted that that District 31’s reserves would be less than 35 percent of its budget by 2016, below the policy set by the board of trustees.
And by 2017, District 31 would need to issue more bonds or find another set of revenue, according to Craig Schilling, a financial consultant to District 31 and former assistant superintendent for finance for . But if the district issued more bonds, he said, it would take longer to pay them back than it would to spend them.
“You’re getting yourself into one of those credit card cycles that you could never get out of as an individual,” he said. “It’s not a long-term solution.”
As a second option, the district could continue to cut costs, reducing the budget gradually each year over the next five years, Nicholson said. In 2012-13, the district would need to make $414,000 in cuts, she said. That could include laying off at least one arts teacher and one custodian and shifting the burden of paying for busing to parents.
But Nicholson said budget cuts were not a long-term solution, either.
“Eventually, it devastates the district,” she said.
The third option Nicholson presented was to go out for a referendum in March 2012. If the district sought $1.5 million dollars in additional property tax revenue, it would remain in good financial shape through 2022, she said.
Last year, a referendum to raise property taxes by approximately $2.2 million , with roughly 1,000 people voting against it and 500 people voting for it.
Asked by one parent what her feeling on another referendum was, Nicholson said she believed it was worth a shot.
“I can’t ethically, morally, go into $400,000 worth of cuts after doing $1.6 million and take more away from these kids without at least going out there and trying,” she said.
District will try to learn from last year's referendum failure
Nicholson said she was meeting with residents of and other areas where the referendum had met resistance last time in order to develop positive relationships and to explain the district’s financial situation. She said she believed a referendum would see more support in 2012, although she wasn’t sure whether it would be enough to pass it. But that didn’t mean they should stop trying, Nicholson said.
“There are many districts that I’m aware of, they lose a referendum, they go back out in six months. They lose it, they go back out in six months, and after five or six tries, they pass it,” she said. “We have to eventually pass a referendum in this district."
Following Nicholson’s presentation, several parents in the audience said they believed communicating strategically with voters was key for a second shot at the polls. One woman suggested that supporters of the referendum should hire a public relations firm, and several other parents said they liked the idea.
In order to put a referendum on the ballot in March 2012, board members must come to a decision by their December meeting. The next board meeting takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10, at Field School.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article contained a statement about Wilmette's District 39 that could have been confusing. We apologize sincerely for the lack of clarity.