With a late January deadline looming to get a tax levy increase initiative on the municipal election ballot, the St. Clair R-XIII School District Board of Education made no decision during its December meeting on the issue, but continued discussing whether a tax hike would fly with voters during a tough economy.
According to information distributed to board members, the 2013 election calendar includes a Jan. 22 deadline to provide notice in order to place a tax initiative on the April ballot.
“If we decide we’re serious about this, we need to take some time to do it so it doesn’t come across as a last-minute deal,” board President Dave Berkel said during the R-XIII December meeting late last year.
“No one is ever excited about a tax levy increase,” Superintendent Mike Murphy said. “But, we have to look at the long term of what we want our school district to be. We have to be committed to the process, otherwise it’s a waste of time.”
Currently, the school district’s overall tax levy is $3.37 for every $100 of assessed valuation, but Murphy said the 62-cent debt service levy is not in this mix, leaving the $2.05 incidental, or operations, levy and the 70-cent teachers fund.
Murphy said that St. Clair R-XIII currently has established the operations tax levy at the state minimum $2.75. Figures tossed around during December’s meeting were a 30-cent hike, which would bring about $440,800 into R-XIII if assessed valuation would remain about the same, or a 25-cent increase that would add about $367,300.
Murphy has provided information to board members in the past that showed St. Clair R-XIII currently has the lowest operations/teachers fund tax levy in the area. The operations levy has remained the same since the 2004-2005 academic year.
Any increase in the operations fund would have to be approved by voters with a simple majority needed for passage.
During December’s discussion, only board member Mike Drewel outwardly spoke in favor of a levy hike.
“I can’t continue to see us continuing to operate on a path of zero,” he said. “Zero is not the right number year after year. ... I don’t know what the right number is, but I know it’s not zero.”
A couple of board members gave differing viewpoints.
“I understand all that, but I also understand all the phone calls I get,” Dave Hinson said. “I wish we had a booming economy. ... But what we would be doing (with a tax levy hike) is dumping our burden off on others facing the same problems we have. ... Until we see we’re actually going backward, it’s a tough sell because some people already are going backward.”
Andy Geisert also chimed in.
“My biggest concern is how much do we really need?” he said. “People want to know precisely how every penny will be spent. Will (an increase) be spent on salaries, insurance, capital improvements? People want to know.”
Murphy said the board decides how money is spent within the district.
In providing an updated financial snapshot of the school district, Murphy showed the board that the district had an ending balance of $6.06 million at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, according to the secretary of the school board report. That amount, however, was significantly lower than in the past four years, which ranged from $12.36 million to $13.14 million.
“We’ve been able to accomplish a sense of balance,” Murphy said. “But the downside is we have slipped with our competitiveness of salaries. ... My (budget) design has been on sustaining programs but not on competitiveness of salaries.”
This past July, a one-step increase was approved for district employees, which amounted to about a 1 percent pay increase. The year before, the district was under a pay freeze. In the spring, Murphy accepted a three-year contract extension that increased his salary about 10 percent from $127,000 to $140,000 with another $5,000 pay hike added in each of the next two years.
A first-year teacher in R-XIII makes about $31,000 annually.
Berkel addressed the balance issue.
“We have done a very good job with what we’ve (financially) had, but will we get to a point where it will start hurting the kids?”
“We have to ensure we look at all angles while looking at expenditures and cuts already made,” Murphy said, adding that there are no indications of an increase in revenue under the current financial numbers. “Do we have to take a position to hurt our kids before we take the position to help our kids?”
The discussion ended with Murphy saying at some point, the public will need to be surveyed about a potential tax increase.
“We have to have a general pulse of the community on this before we determine an initiative,” he said. “I will take the direction of the board on this.”
The issue does not appear on the January R-XIII board of education aganda. That meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday.
Currently, according to additional information shared in November, a home valued at $100,000 in the district would pay an additional yearly operating tax of $47.50 if a 25-cent increase was approved. That computes to an extra $3.96 per month. A $150,000 home would see an increase of $71.25 per year, or $5.94 a month. If a home is valued at $200,000, the increases would be $95 and $7.92, respectively.
At 30 cents, a $100,000 home would be assessed an additional $57 per year or $4.75 per month. Figures for a $150,000 home would be $85.50 annually or $7.13 monthly. Increases for a $200,000 home would be $114 and $9.50, respectively.