Resident organizing challenge to Champaign district's working-cash bonds
CHAMPAIGN — After the Champaign school board approved issuing $14.5 million in working-cash bonds earlier this week, at least one taxpayer is ready to challenge that decision.
The bond issue would raise property taxes about $25 a year for the owner of a $150,000 house for the next 20 years, and the school district would use the money for building improvements around the district.
The school board voted 7-0 at its Monday meeting to approve the bond issue.
But Champaign resident Don Kermath told the board during public comment that he had 71 volunteers lined up to gather enough signatures to put the issue to a vote.
Working-cash bonds allow school districts to raise property taxes without taxpayer approval.
However, if 10 percent of registered voters in the school district sign a petition in the 30 days after the school district takes out an ad in the newspaper, it will become a question on the ballot in the November election. That ad is expected to run sometime this week, said Gene Logas, the district's chief operating officer.
In the Champaign school district, more than 5,900 people would need to sign a petition to make that happen.
Kermath said Tuesday that he was gathering with "a small group of activists to formulate a plan."
"It's not rocket science, however," he said. "We have to get about 200 signatures a day to meet the minimum of 5,918 in 30 days. We've created petitions already with 20 signatures each. So we have to fill 10 of them a day."
The board's vote means $14.5 million is the maximum the school district can issue in working-cash bonds, but Logas said the board could decide on a smaller amount.
The school district would spend the money on improvements on various buildings, including:
— About $3.5 million for a geothermal system and electrical upgrade at Franklin Middle School.
— About $3.5 million for a geothermal system and electrical upgrade at Jefferson Middle School.
— About $868,000 total for new energy-efficient lights at Franklin, Jefferson and Edison middle schools and Central High School.
— About $2.3 million for wireless technology in all buildings.
— About $1.3 million for a new transportation facility.
The school board could also decide to buy new windows for Franklin Middle School, for about $973,000, and Jefferson Middle School, for about $947,000.
That became a more viable option when Logas told the board Monday that the school district would not buy laptop computers with money from working-cash bonds. Instead, Unit 4 will use its savings to purchase laptops that administrators decide on after studying the school district's needs.
There will also be a cost to the district to issue the bonds.
Logas said the district won't start any work during the 30-day petition period, and if enough voters sign petitions, the question would appear on the ballot in the November election.
Or, he said Monday, the school board could decide to drop the bond issue altogether.
Kermath asked the school board Monday why the school district couldn't use money from the 1 percent facilities sales tax to pay for the improvements.
But that money is budgeted — the district sold $83 million in bonds to pay for construction of the new Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, the Carrie Busey Elementary in Savoy and remodeling of some of its elementary schools. It also plans to pay for the land for a new high school with this money.
It also uses sales tax money to catch up on deferred maintenance of its buildings and to pay off construction debt from Barkstall and Stratton elementary schools, Logas said.
That has resulted in a savings of $40 a year in property taxes for the owner of a $150,000 house, said district spokeswoman Lynn Peisker.
Kermath said that while he found the projects on the district's list of improvements to be "mostly worthwhile," he told the board he was concerned about the way the district is going about getting the money to pay for them.
"I would like to see this go to a proper referendum on the November ballot," he said.
Board President Sue Grey said she thinks now is the time to complete the improvements.
"I think we have put off long enough the things our kids need," Grey said, especially because the adults in the school district are in a position to provide for those needs.