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Little House Dreams and Modern Day Problems: School Facilities Occupation Tax Defeated

April 13, 2011

With the defeat of the School Facilities Occupation Tax – the ominously misnamed 1% sales tax increase – the three Carroll County School Districts will have to find some other way to pay for future capital improvements and building repairs. The options are pretty much the same, and pretty much the same mixed bag of bad, sad, and pie in the sky dreamland solutions that West Carroll, Chadwick-Milledgeville, and Eastland School Districts had before; if there is an upside to the defeat of the proposition, it is that the Carroll County Board won’t have to worry about whether to impose the tax and run the risk of either disenfranchising the county’s Chambers of Commerce or falling over it’s own rhetoric regarding the will of Carroll County voters.

The defeat of the proposition is in no small way the result of more than a decade of county residents’ frustration with the school districts – West Carroll in particular, since it is the largest of the three. Small town rivalry, a botched consolidation, and the lingering impact of an economic recession – that has lasted longer than this recent sub-prime started, multiple war driven, big business bail out debacle that the entire country has been dealing with for better than four years – all congealed to create a bitterness among the electorate and a panic among the local Chambers of Commerce.

Out of the 2,698 total votes on the proposition – around 22.6% of the 11889 registered voters in Carroll County – 1,826 votes were cast striking down the proposition that would, if the tax had been implemented by the county board, have gone towards property tax abatement and capital – that’s brick and mortar – projects. That’s 67.68% of the voters who turned out, or roughly 15% of the total registered voters in the county.

Most anyone who was paying attention to the election could get a sense of how it was going to be. The red “anti-tax” signs significantly out numbered the green “support our children” signs. The fight or flight reaction people have when they hear the word “tax” fully enforced by the Savanna and then the Lanark Chambers of Commerce, rang out loud and clear. When people talk about how to fix schools, they tend to rely on the same phrases they use when asked how to improve Carroll County government

“Control the budget!” has become the rallying cry for those who either remember with fondness the one room school house (that they may or may not have actually attended) or for those that would remove education from the public sphere entirely – setting back a couple hundred years of Democracy and relying on some other model that promises better – or at the very least different – results.

The problems come, however, when the one room school house needs to be fixed. And unlike on The Little House on The Prairie Michael Landon isn’t going to show up with Victor French to fix it. Now some of the people who show up to do the work may, in fact, be friends and neighbors; but rather than working for Ma’s homemade fried chicken and a sense of community pride, these friends and neighbors work to support their families. They will work for a contractor, who will charge same amount he would charge if the School Facilities Occupation Tax had passed. He will be paying his workers prevailing wage. And the work – which West Carroll Superintendent Craig Mathers said will get done one way or the either, because school districts are required by law to make periodic Health/Life/Safety updates and repairs to its buildings – will still have to be paid for.

And the same connected issues will still exist. Unless or until the Thomson Federal Penitentiary becomes reality, the money that Carroll County’s School Districts get from the state – which is measured by butts in the seats – will still be low. And until the state of Illinois gets its financial house in order, those payments will then, like now, be in arrears. And even if the Thomson Pen really does happen – even the most casual observer is still waiting on it with the same expectation of waiting for flying pigs – that means West Carroll, Chadwick-Milledgeville, and Eastland are all waiting for the swarms of new employees with their gaggle of offspring to appear. Mathers has said that one of the things people asked him to do when started as Superintendent was to try and lower property taxes. The School Facilities Occupation Tax was a measure designed to do just that.

One of the alternatives are Senate Bill 1737, which is almost exactly like Public Act 095-0675 , except that it would give school boards the power to raise sales taxes in their districts up to 1% at quarter percent increments. Another alternative will be that in a couple of years a bond referendum will show up on the ballot and the district will have to sell bonds in order to complete the work. When school districts sell bonds, property taxes go up. The other alternative is Governor Quinn’s idea to consolidate each county’s districts to a single district… a move that was heartily contested some years ago when it was tried at the county level. A leaner, meaner Carroll County School District – which would mean more bussing and a few more building closed, maybe even Mount Carroll – might give who ever the Superintendent is then the funds to make sure that the roof doesn’t fall in.

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