Taxpayers will have to dig deeper in their pockets if the Champaign school board gets its way.
School board members in Champaign may have sparked a taxpayers' revolt with their decision earlier this week to approve a $14.5 million school renovation plan without voters' consent.
The emphasis is on the word "may" because it is not certain that opponents of the plan will be able to force a referendum on the issue. Gathering the necessary 6,000 signatures in a 30-day period is a big job, and the ardor of petition organizers may wane in the face of political realities.
But they deserve public support. School administrators and board members are showing a real tin ear for public opinion. Not only are they proposing a property tax increase on beleaguered citizens in the midst of a painfully slow economic recovery, but their decision also represents a collective abandonment of the pledge the board made in order to persuade voters to pass the 1-cent increase in the county sales tax for education in 2009.
Indeed, this entire plan reeks of the sort of duplicity in which public officials, ranging from the Legislature to the school board, routinely engage.
The school board plan calls for raising property taxes to sell $14.5 million in working cash bonds and using the money for a variety of school improvement projects. It's another spending program, but one designed to evade taxpayers' approval by giving it the "working cash" label.
The only way taxpayers can play a role is if they force a back-door referendum by gathering nearly 6,000 signatures within a 30-day period. Catch the drift here — it's easy to raise the taxes but quite difficult to put it to a vote.
For starters, the proposed bond sale has nothing to do with a working cash fund. The Legislature approved working cash funds decades ago as a means of allowing school districts to raise funds to bridge cash-flow crunches. Further, money borrowed from the fund had to be repaid. Establishment of the fund was intended to be a one-time only minimal tax hike to prevent costly borrowing during the cash squeezes taxing districts sometimes confront.
But over the years, the Legislature has so degraded the rules surrounding the establishment of working cash funds that they are little short of slush funds that can be established by taxing districts to escape limits on their taxation authority. The Champaign school board plan represents Exhibit A in how taxpayers can be abused under this new model.
As for the idea of raising property taxes, it's a breach of trust on the part of the board.
When the proposed 1-cent sales tax for education was first put to a vote in 2009, it was defeated. In planning for a second vote on the issue, former county board member Alan Nudo met with school district representatives and won their agreement to trade property tax cuts for the 1-cent sales tax increase.
School districts, including Champaign, agreed that they would use the initial revenues from the sales tax to pay off outstanding bonds. Nudo said this week "that was a quid pro quo to get" the sales tax passed. He called it "trading the property tax reduction for the sales tax increase."
Now that it has the sales tax on the books, the Champaign school board wants to raise property taxes again.
It's not as if the school district is hurting for funds. The sales tax has provided a cash windfall for Champaign, to the extent that the board issued $80 million in bonds backed by sales tax proceeds to pay for a wide variety of school improvements.
But in a display of government's unquenchable thirst for tax revenue, board members now say the windfall is not enough.
Given that posture by the board, it's no surprise that there's potential push-back.
Local businessman Don Kermath said he's leading a referendum drive to force the board to put the issue to a vote and believes he can get it done.
"I don't know any better. So I'm confident I can do it," he said.
Kermath said he's already attracted roughly 100 volunteers "of all persuasions" and that the petition drive will be carefully conducted in anticipation of a legal challenge to the validity of the signatures.
Kermath was careful to state that he's "not objecting to what the school board wants to do with the money" but rather the process it's using to avoid having to win voters' assent.
It takes a lot of provocation by public officials to raise active resistance from the voters, and school board members may yet avoid having to account to the public for this attempted cash-grab. But their decision invites rebuke.