Since January 2010, when you buy a pair of pants or a refrigerator, put gas in your car or eat out at a restaurant in Champaign County, you've paid 1 percent more in sales tax.
That school facilities sales tax has generated almost $20.78 million for school districts to use to build new buildings, update the ones they've got or pay off building bond debt.
Look around some of the school districts in the county, and you'll see new buildings going up, windows being replaced, and geothermal systems being installed. Unity High School has a new greenhouse. Rantoul Township High School resurfaced its track. A wind turbine is to be installed at Prairieview-Ogden South Elementary School.
The building boom would not have been possible without the money districts are receiving from the sales tax, officials say.
And take a look at the tax levies for some of the districts and you'll see they are levying either less or nothing at all for building bond debt.
The following are some questions and answers about how the sales tax has worked so far.
1. How much money has been distributed to school districts?
The 1-cent sales tax went into effect in January 2010. Through June of this year, it had generated almost $20.78 million for school districts.
The sales tax money is collected and sent to the state first, before then being sent to the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education, which distributes it monthly to 24 school districts. The tax money is distributed among the districts according to enrollment.
The Champaign school district, the largest in the county, had received $8.2 million from the sales tax as of June.
There are several school districts outside the county, with some land and a handful of students within Champaign County, that get a small share of the money. For example, the Atwood-Hammond school district has just three students who live in Champaign County, said Assistant Regional Superintendent Barb Daly. The district receives less than $200 per month in sales tax revenue.
2. How are districts spending the money on school buildings?
The school facility sales tax can be used for new construction, building maintenance or paying building bond debt. It cannot be used for operations, such as teacher salaries or materials for the classroom.
This summer, the Champaign school district installed new energy-efficient windows at Westview, Bottenfield, Robeson and Kenwood; added window air conditioners at South Side Elementary School; increased electrical capacity at Jefferson Middle School; replaced lockers throughout the district; and put in a new boiler, replaced an elevator, installed new exterior doors, improved football field lighting and resurfaced the track at Centennial High School.
"We are really, really busy," said Gene Logas, chief financial officer for the Champaign school district.
"None of this would have happened if voters would not have passed the 1 percent increase," Logas added.
Without the sales tax money, "The major renovations would be very difficult to do," he said, and the district would have fallen further behind on deferred maintenance for its buildings.
The sales tax money the Champaign school district receives goes into two funds. One is for expenditures promised to voters when school administrators were seeking voter approval of the new tax. They include: building a new Booker T. Washington Elementary School; expanding and renovating Garden Hills Elementary School; renovating four other elementaries — Westview, Bottenfield, Robeson and Kenwood (including adding geothermal systems at all but Kenwood, which is getting a new boiler/chiller system); building a new elementary school in Savoy; and buying land for a new high school.
The district issued $83 million in bonds for those projects February 2010, and the $5.5 million from the sales tax needed to make payments on the bonds each year is put into the first fund.
The other $1 million or so the district receives annually goes into the second fund, to be used for deferred maintenance such as this summer's projects.
Logas noted the new heating and cooling systems and energy-efficient windows at Westview, Robeson, Bottenfield and Kenwood schools are saving the district money on energy costs.
"(That) allows us to put more money into education," he said. "That's a real side effect of being able to do all these bricks and mortar improvements."
The Rantoul Township High School district issued $4 million in bonds last December. That has paid for remodeling the main office, resurfacing the track and installing a new camera system. This summer, the district is using a portion of the money to replace windows and repair roofs. The district is considering adding a geothermal system next year, as well as tuck pointing and replacing an elevator.
Without the sales tax, "We would not have that revenue stream to bond for that money. There's no way we would have been able to do that," said Superintendent Scott Amerio.
He said the district would likely have to "squeak by with the minimum repairs and capital improvement projects that you can do.
"We would have just been scraping by, and doing what was minimally necessary," he said. "The projects we are doing right now are very important to the student learning environment, and so it's nice that we're able to do those. If we didn't have that money, we would be able to get by, but it would not be as conducive a learning environment for the students."
The Prairiview-Ogden elementary district is using sales tax money to abate the payments on a $1 million bond issuance that paid for a geothermal system at its south elementary school, and new lighting, windows and doors in all three of its buildings, said Prairieview-Ogden Superintendent Vic White. It receives about $15,000 monthly, and $9,000 of that goes toward bond payments. The rest is saved for other maintenance projects.
The Mahomet-Seymour school district issued $2 million in bonds last year to buy land and build a new administrative and early childhood center on 77 acres just off of U.S. 150.
The district is also updating lighting and replacing ceiling tiles at Lincoln Trail Elementary School and repaving the high school parking lot. It has used sales tax money to refinish the high school gym floor, repair a boiler at Lincoln Trail, and update the interior of the bus garage, and one-third of its sales tax money goes to pay off bonds issued in 2004 and 2005.
The Urbana school district sold $17.5 million in bonds last December. The money is being used for an 18,000-square-foot addition to King Elementary School, as well as remodeling the existing building; renovating the district's athletic fields just south of the high school, with synthetic turf for the football and soccer fields, a new track, new bleachers and concession stand, and an entrance with a "walk of fame"; renovating the high school auditorium; air-conditioning the older portions of the high school; and improving the commons areas at the middle and high schools.
The Urbana school board has also approved going forward with a new early childhood building, to be built on East Washington Street, just east of Prairie Elementary School. Board members will hear about financing options when they meet in August.
Would all these projects be underway without the sales tax revenue?
"Absolutely not," said Carol Baker, business director for the district. "We didn't want our taxes to go up. We were trying to hold our rate constant. There's no way we would have done all that."
3. How has passage of the sales tax affected property taxes?
While school officials are proud of their new and updated buildings, all those districts with building bond debt pledged to abate property taxes by using a portion of the sales tax money to pay off the debt. In seeking support from voters for the sales tax increase, school officials portrayed the new sales tax as a tradeoff for lower property taxes.
While overall tax levies generally increase every year, school districts using the sales tax to pay off building debt will be levying less property tax money for that purpose, meaning their tax rates will be lower than they otherwise would be, say school administrators.
The Urbana district pledged to put $1 million of its sales tax money toward its building bond debt every year. The sales tax is helping pay off bonds issued to renovate Leal Elementary School and Urbana middle and high schools, and build the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center.
"After that abatement is done and these are paid off (in 2018), we will be debt-free," said Baker, although the district does issue short-term working cash bonds periodically for smaller building projects.
The Champaign district is using the sales tax money to pay off the debt from a 1998 bond issuance, used to build Stratton and Barkstall elementary schools and renovate Central High School. It received $1.56 million in property taxes for bond payments from its 2009 levy. The district levied no money for bond and interest payments for 2010.
The Prairieview-Ogden elementary district is using sales tax money to abate all of the payments on a $1 million bond issuance that paid for a geothermal system at its south elementary school, and new lighting, windows and doors in all three of its buildings.
All of the Gifford school district's share of the sales tax revenue goes to pay its debt from $1.74 million in bonds issued in 2007 to build a new gym. The district is not levying any property taxes for building bonds now, said Superintendent Rod Grimsley. It received almost $114,500 in taxes for its bond debt in 2009.
"In the long run, it does benefit the taxpayer," Grimsley said of the sales tax. "You've got a higher sales tax, but at the same time, there is less property tax that has to go to the schools.
"One thing I like about the sales tax is, a lot of people flow through Champaign County that aren't from Champaign County," he continued. "They're helping pay for facilities for local schools."
The Rantoul Township High School district is using some of the approximately $45,000 per month it receives in sales tax money to pay off 2003 bonds, used for the west wing of the high school building, as well as for the new bonds issued late last year. The district is not levying any property tax money for its bond and interest fund now. It collected $325,000 in property taxes for its bond fund from its 2008 levy.
"By removing that, we really are saving the taxpayers money," Amerio said.