Huntley District 158 candidates weigh in on recent property tax increase

While some say increase was needed due to inflation, others say spending can be cut

Candidates for Huntley School District 158's school board participate in two separate forums hosted by the Daily Herald Editorial Board in February 2023. They are (top row, left to right) Jonathan Dailey, Kate Policheri, Paula Yensen, (middle row) Andrew Bittman, Melissa M. Maiorino, Stephen Buchs, (bottom row) Kevin Gentry, Michael Thompson and Andrew Fekete.

After Huntley School District 158 passed its largest property tax increase in the district’s history in December, many school board hopefuls are calling foul on how the district prioritizes its finances.

Others noted that the district’s amount spent per student is one of the lowest in McHenry County and defended the recent tax hike as being necessary to keep up with inflation.

Nine of the 12 candidates running shared their thoughts as part of two forums hosted by the Daily Herald Editorial Board and attended by the Northwest Herald. The candidates discussed a variety of topics during the forum, including bullying and test scores.

In attendance were incumbents Melissa Maiorino, Jonathan Dailey and Kevin Gentry, and challengers Kate Policheri, Stephen Buchs, Andrew Bittman, Paula Yensen, Michael Thompson and Andrew Fekete.

Incumbent William Geheren and challengers Laura Murray and Gina Galligar did not attend the interviews.

Nine of the candidates are competing for three four-year seats in the April 4 election while three – Fekete, Gentry and Thompson – are vying for one two-year seat.

District 158 has the fifth-highest tax rate of the 19 districts based in McHenry County when referendum-approved bonds are included, according to McHenry County Clerk’s Office data. It has the eighth-highest when bonds are not included.

The district, however, also has the third-lowest spending per student in McHenry County, with about $12,800 spent per student, the data shows, with only Cary School District 26 and Marengo-Union School District 165 lower. It’s also below the state average, which is a little more than $16,000.

District 158 is No. 6 in the county in terms of the percentage it spends on instruction, with just less than 50%, the data shows. It’s in the middle of the pack for the portion of money spent on “other expenditures.”

When I go door to door, people take out their tax bill and they want to talk about it.

—  Huntley School District 158 school board candidate Paula Yensen

Maiorino was the lone person on the current board to vote against the property tax increase in December, saying inflation was hurting families. Even so, she said she understands the costs of running the district and hears from constituents that a tax increase is sometimes expected to maintain the schools.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “I will see where we’re at next year. … I’m open to feedback from constituents.”

Buchs said fiscal responsibility is a key priority for him, but added that with costs going up across the country, nobody knows for sure about whether they’ll vote for a property tax increase when the time comes.

“I hope we’re investing in people who can create partnerships and grants with our school district to actually be able to fund things without having to rely on tax dollars,” Buchs said.

Yensen, who previously served on the McHenry County Board, said she entered the race because of property taxes. She said she thinks the levy should remain flat given the district’s enrollment numbers, which have declined in recent years.

“When I go door to door, people take out their tax bill, and they want to talk about it,” she said.

Bittman also hit on declining enrollment as a reason to keep property taxes flat. He noted spending by the district, such as on electric buses, that he thinks can be cut.

“We’ve got to clean up this reckless spending,” Bittman said.

The district received a $1 million grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to purchase four all-electric buses, it said in a news release at the time.

Dailey, who was one of the board members who supported the property tax increase, said it was needed to keep up with inflation. He also noted the district’s average per pupil cost is low.

“[Property taxes] need to be considered on a year-by-year basis,” Dailey said. “We have to understand what the cost environment looks like.”

Policheri said it’s something to be considered year-to-year, but said she would have liked to see the district take less this past year. She also pointed to the cost of running the district, including the need to pay teachers competitive wages to both attract them and retain them.

“We need to spend tax dollars responsibly, but we don’t want to slash student programs,” Policheri said.

Running for a two-year term, Thompson said the district needs to find ways to do more with less, adding that many who support the district – such as those in the Del Webb Sun City neighborhood who are 55 and older – live on fixed incomes. He called the newest tax increase a “head scratcher.”

“Our economy is in shambles, and families are having a difficult time making ends meet,” he said. “You can’t look at your district as an endless resource. It’s disrespectful.”

Fekete said it’s expensive to run a large district, and Huntley also has a smaller tax base, which “can create some challenges.”

Overall, he said, fiscal responsibility and transparency need to be the priorities.

“We need to be financially wise,” Fekete said. “We need to … make sure money is being spent in the most equitable, positive, student-first way possible.”

Gentry, who has been on the board for 16 years, said he’s always taken seriously the role of fiscal steward. Similar to other incumbents, he said raising taxes is something to be looked at year-to-year. He also noted the district’s low cost per student and recent tax abatements, which can lower residents’ tax bills.

“I think more long term and look at what I need to do to keep [value] in place,” Gentry said.