Many Champaign residents are angry about a planned school property tax increase. But can a grass-roots effort find them in time?
For a man who just declared war on the local school board, Champaign resident Don Kermath was feeling pretty good on Tuesday.
"Fantastic," was Kermath's description of his mood.
"That's generally my nature," he said.
Come March 30, people will see if Kermath is still as chipper. That's the legal deadline for his effort to secure 5,918 legal signatures on petitions that would force the Champaign school board to ask voters to approve a $14.5 million spending program for school improvements.
The school board voted last week declared its intent to issue bonds to raise the money, a slippery move authorized by the Legislature to allow school boards to raise property taxes without voter permission.
The law allow voters only a 30-day window to gather enough signatures to force a vote. State legislators and school board members are betting that citizens can't get organized fast enough to get that done.
Kermath intends to prove them wrong, but he concedes he has his hands full.
"(The plan) is very simple. It's just hard to implement. Execution is the key," he said.
Kermath said the goal is to get 300 petition circulators to gather 20 signatures each. He's also inviting businesses to solicit patrons to sign petitions.
Thirty days from the March 1 start day is a limited time. But Kermath said it's a blessing as well as a curse because of the emotions involved.
"I'm finding opposition to what the board did wherever I go," he said. "I think we can keep people engaged for 24 (more) days."
The school district, however, is pushing back. Chief operating officer Gene Logas insists the improvements are needed and well worth the cost to taxpayers of an extra $40 a year for the owner of a $150,000 house.
He may well be right. Indeed, Logas' claims sound like exactly the sort of thing that voters should judge in a referendum campaign.
On the other hand, however, if the planned improvements are really, as Logas claims, "urgent realities that affect the learning environment," it's fair to ask why they weren't included in the ongoing $80 million school building improvement effort the board approved after county voters passed the one-cent sales hike for education.
It's our hope that Kermath is successful in his effort to force a vote on the issue. This planned tax increase is nothing short of a political fast one — both an abuse of the concept of working cash and a willful evasion of the school district's accountability to the public.
Kermath said it's strictly a "grass-roots" effort that has no budget and will rely on volunteers. He's embracing social media with a Facebook page and a website (avoiceforschools.com).
But the law is such, and intentionally so, that the deck is stacked against him. How angry are voters? People will know March 30.