Farm Bureau, Chamber urge members to look into vote on Champaign schools bond issue
CHAMPAIGN — As Champaign resident Don Kermath works to put the school district's intent to raise property taxes by issuing working-cash bonds on a ballot, two community groups are also getting involved in the effort.
The Champaign County Farm Bureau has endorsed Kermath's website, http://www.avoiceforschools.com, and encouraged its members in the school district to learn more about the issue and sign or circulate petitions, said farm bureau Director Brad Uken.
Kermath believes the Champaign school district should have to ask voters on a ballot before issuing working-cash bonds. The school district may issue up at $14.5 million in bonds, which would raise annual property taxes about $25 for the owner of a $150,000 house. It would use the money for building improvements around the school district.
To put the question on the November ballot, it would take 10 percent of registered voters in the school district signing a petition in the 30 days since the district advertised its intent to issue the bonds. That's more than 5,900 signatures. The official deadline is March 30.
Uken said the issue was discussed both with the farm bureau's legislative committee and board of directors before deciding to encourage more than 3,000 members to sign petitions.
He said the farm bureau supported the school facilities sales tax and the schools in general, but had hoped it would take longer before the school district started raising property taxes again.
"We just think ... the voters should have input on it, rather than the school board, in this instance," Uken said.
He said the letter the farm bureau sent to its members in the school district encouraged them to contact the district for more information, then go to Kermath's website to learn more about signing and circulating petitions.
"The number-one thing we encouraged our members to do is become educated," Uken said.
He said the farm bureau's board is not opposed to the proposed improvements the school district would make with the working-cash bond money, which include:
— Installing a new geothermal system and upgrading the electrical work at Franklin Middle School.
— Installing a new geothermal system and upgrading the electrical work at Jefferson Middle School.
— New energy-efficient lights at Franklin, Jefferson, Central High School and Edison Middle School.
— Wireless technology in all buildings.
— A new transportation facility.
— New windows at Franklin and Jefferson, possibly.
The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce also released a statement saying 70 percent of members who took a poll on the subject said they'd like to see the bond issue on a ballot. The email also included links to Kermath's website, where members could see where to sign a petition or sign up to have one in their place of business.
Chamber Director Laura Weis was out of the office Wednesday and not available for comment, and it's not clear how many people took the survey.
Kermath said he's set a personal deadline of March 26 to collect the petitions and count the signatures.
As he gathers notarized petitions, he posts the number of signatures they include on his website. As of Wednesday afternoon, his website tallied 941 votes.
Kermath said the farm bureau's letter has increased the number of signatures collected. Those interested in signing can now do so at 25 locations around town, listed on Kermath's website, including three Next Generation School locations.
"Every day we get more in than we got the day before," Kermath said. "Lately, we're starting to build some momentum. Hopefully, we will have enough time to complete the task."
Champaign Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the school district understands the farm bureau's concerns.
"We certainly appreciate the assistance given during both 1 percent (facilities schools tax) campaigns and understand their concern is not how the money is spent but on the process for obtaining it," Wiegand said. "The petition option certainly exists for the public to have input on the process. We just want to be sure citizens have the facts before they make a decision to sign."
She shared a letter that district Chief Operating Officer Gene Logas sent to Farm Bureau Board President Lin Warfel. In it, Logas outlined the reasons the school district hopes to issue the bonds.
"Since Centennial High School was built in 1967, only about $26 million in voter-approved debt was invested in the capital needs of the district," Logas wrote. "Meanwhile, buildings aged, teaching techniques changed and technology needs in the classroom grew dramatically. Our middle schools and high schools, for example, are on average 70 and 60 years old.
"The Board of Education decided to use the $80 million (in bonds sold and to be repaid using money from the school facilities sales tax) primarily at the elementary level, so now we must tend to the needs at our middle or high school levels," he wrote. "Unfortunately, because of the backlog of building deficiencies, (money from the facilities sales tax) wasn't enough to take care of all of the needs in our 18 buildings."