School district referendums seem to be on several ballots this election season, and with surrounding districts varying in their success to pass those referendums, community advocacy groups are strategizing on what the clearest path to passage looks like for their district.
In Illinois, there are laws that limit school officials and employees in what referendum-related activities they may partake in, such as prohibiting the use of public funds to advocate for videos for or against a referendum. Often, this leaves advocacy of the issue to community groups such as Vote Yes DG58.
Vote Yes DG58 has about 60 volunteer members, chairwoman Peg Chaidez said, many of whom were on the district’s task force in preparing for the referendum. Chaidez said the group’s strategy to success is to educate, inform and bring awareness to voters about the referendum and the district’s needs.
“We want to help people understand how this referendum will help the community as a whole and help those without children in the district become aware of the referendum and the ways it is important to them as well,” Chaidez said.
The District 58 referendum will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot and asks voters to allow the district to issue $179 million in bonds to improve district facilities by actions such as replacing roofing and adding secure entrance vestibules.
If the referendum is approved, the district would be able to replace plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems; update classrooms, science labs and libraries; and improve energy efficiency and increase accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Additionally, the funds would allow the district to expand Herrick and O’Neill middle schools to accommodate sixth grade students. This transition would not only benefit sixth graders, it would reduce overcrowding in District 58 elementary schools, according to the district.
District 58′s current tax rate – the lowest among large DuPage County school districts as defined by the Illinois State Board of Education – is $1.98 per $100 equalized assessed valuation. If the referendum passes, the tax rate will increase 0.25 to $2.23 and will remain the lowest rate compared with peer districts, according to a District 58 webpage. The estimated annual tax impact of the $179 million in capital improvements is $253 for a $300,000 home, according to the district.
“The tax impact is a huge question people have, and because of the facts we’ve been able to put out, I think people do understand we would still have a very low rate,” District 58 Superintendent Kevin Russell said.
From the standpoint of a superintendent, facts are key when the district places a referendum on the ballot, Russell said. That’s because Illinois law does allow districts to use their resources to dispense facts through means such as brochures, web postings and other communications that describe the proposition without advocating for a “yes” or “no” vote. That, Russell said, is where the community comes in.
Deb Truskey, a retired District 58 teacher who taught for 25 years, is part of that community of advocates and supporters. Truskey is doing her part to support the referendum by sharing her opinion and posting a “Vote Yes” sign, which she received from the Vote Yes DG58 group, in her yard.
“I know the work that goes into these efforts and the sign is my way of saying ‘I support this, and if you have questions you can come to me,’” Truskey said. ”Our government has a way of mandating things without funding them, and the district is doing the best with what it has, but the taxpayers need to step up now.”
Chaidez, who has three sons who attended District 58 schools, said she understands there are people worried about a tax increase and she can respect that concern. She encourages individuals to attend a district open house to see the buildings that will benefit from the referendum.
For Vote Yes DG58, the most important thing is being present, and yard signs are one way to do that. The group uses social media and participates in community events to publicize the referendum and its mission, as well as takes on canvassing efforts and working with other community groups, Chaidez said.
“I love talking to people to understand where they are coming from and share where we’re coming from, and as homeowners, this impacts all of us,” Chaidez said. “I will step up any time the district needs because they have been incredibly supportive to my family.”