On June 28, voters in Center Cass School District 66 will decide whether to approve a referendum question. For some, approving the referendum is an easy “yes” but others view it as a hard “no.”
The referendum proposes increasing the limiting tax rate of the district by “an additional amount equal to 0.506%,” making it 2.650%. The limiting rate of a district represents the maximum rate at which the district is allowed to levy property taxes.
If the referendum is passed, the additional revenue will be used for needs that include facility upgrades, updating resources, personnel efforts and rebuilding the district’s finances, Superintendent Andrew Wise said.
The district is operating without balances in some funds, pulling money from COVID-19 relief to pay teachers, Wise said. Additionally, the district does not have the necessary funds to maintain basic building needs at its three schools, which serve students in portions of Downers Grove and Darien.
“The district has done a great job maintaining quality education, but we’ve been spending the fund balance to maintain that education,” Wise said. “We’re doing everything we can to meet the community’s needs, and if the community gives us this money, we will do what is needed.”
Parents Nikki Shanks and Elizabeth Uribe, who support the referendum, said they believe one of the biggest misconceptions about the referendum is how much it actually will impact residents’ property tax bills. They encouraged residents to use the district’s tax calculator to determine how the referendum will impact their property taxes.
The tax calculator can be found on the district’s website, ccsd66.org.
Chester Szerlag, a resident opposed to the referendum, said there was an issue with the calculator at one point in time. While the issue was promptly resolved, Szerlag said residents need to pay attention to all details associated with the referendum, including how the district has presented financial information and how individual tax bills will be impacted if the referendum is approved.
Uribe and Shanks also addressed the misconception that the district’s administration is the highest paid in the state. While this is not true, they said they have met many residents who believe it to be true, despite data from the Illinois School Report Card stating that District 66 is 762nd in administrative costs out of 850 districts in the state.
“If our schools fail, our community will fail, and it’s scary to think that my family may have to leave the community we love so much,” Uribe said. “It wouldn’t make sense for young families to stay if we don’t fix this problem.”
Wise said if the referendum is passed, the hope is to lower the tax rate every year going forward, but some residents are skeptical of the district’s promises and financial management. Part of this skepticism comes from the fact that a previous referendum amounting to $13 million was passed just five years ago.
The 2017 referendum passed by a slim margin, with 972 voters supporting the measure and 900 residents opposing it. The vast majority of the $13 million, about $11.6 million, went to Elizabeth Ide Elementary School for facility updates and repairs.
Szerlag does not believe the district should be seeking additional money so soon after the 2017 referendum.
Szerlag has attended community meetings hosted by the district in an effort to learn more about the referendum and maintains that the referendum is being “hushed” through to the ballot box. Not many people are even aware of the referendum, and once a resident becomes aware of the issue, it is incredibly challenging to unpack the nuances of it, he said.
“To be continually taking on debt is not responsible and this doesn’t really make sense to me because we haven’t heard from the school district [regarding] what it’s done to manage costs,” Szerlag said. “There’s a lot of uneasiness about if this is really what we need to be doing. It’s not a revenue problem the district has – it’s a spending problem.”
Some are concerned that Wise, who has been at the district for two years, is only in his position to navigate the referendum to passage, citing that the previous district he served passed a similar referendum just before he left. There also is a distrust for the school board, Szerlag said. He also believes the question is on the June ballot so the district can “try again” in November if necessary.
Wise acknowledges there is a need for a high level of transparency and accountability about where the dollars are going in the district. The district has developed a 10- to 15-year plan that can be found on its website. Wise said it’s important to understand that while the cost of running a school district has been increasing, the district’s tax operating rate has not increased since the inception of the district.
The district currently has a financial rating of 3.45 from the Illinois School District Financial Profile School Report, with the highest score being a 4. This rating puts the district into the Financial Review category, which Uribe and Shanks believe should serve as a warning to residents. There are 101 out of 851 school districts in the Financial Review category this year.
“Districts in this category will be given a limited review by ISBE, but they will be monitored for potential downward trends,” according to the report. If a district continues to decline in score, it will be placed in the Financial Watch Category, at which point the state can establish a Financial Oversight Panel.
Proponents of the referendum said it is imperative to avoid having the state intervene, as doing so would mean losing local control. On the other hand, some opponents believe having the state step in for financial guidance could be a good thing that helps rebuild trust for the district.
Shanks and Uribe said their children’s educations depend on this decision. Shanks, a former teacher in Lemont, said she has seen firsthand what District 66 could soon suffer if the referendum does not pass.
“In my old district, the referendum didn’t pass and we lost 30% of our staff, so teachers were teaching classes of 45 kids at one time,” Shanks said. “If more revenue doesn’t come in, we can’t have a 21st-century school on a 20th-century budget. If this doesn’t pass, everything is on the table.”
Shanks is the mother of a 15-month-old who eventually will enter the district. Uribe will have two students in the district this academic year.
The referendum should be of interest to more than just parents, Uribe said, although much of the disagreement regarding the question is determined by whether an individual has a student in the district.
Szerlag agrees, calling the debate a “generational war” that is entirely unnecessary.
“The priority should be to get the word out and let people make their decision at the ballot box,” Szerlag said. “The key thing is to talk and get a clear understanding of what’s happening and then vote.”