Mokena referendum seeks tax hikes for schools

October 29, 2010 4:30:47 PM PDT
A lot of Chicago-area voters will be doing more than voting for candidates next Tuesday. Many school districts are in dire need of more money to keep teachers and programs and they will be asking local voters to approve tax increases.

One of those school districts that needs more money is Mokena School District 159.

On Friday, Mokena elementary students were voting for their favorite pumpkin. Tuesday, their parents will vote on a referendum that could impact everything from bus service to whether their teacher has a job.

"It's terrifying just because teaching used to be a very secure profession," said Michelle Matt, Mokena Elementary teacher.

Matt's early start program will be eliminated if state grants or local voters don't come through. Other classes would grow to 30 students. That's up from 24 just a few years ago.

The district is also threatening to cancel bus service for all 1,700 riders.

"I don't think it's a question of whether the community supports the schools it's whether they can financially support at this time to have their taxes increased," said Charles Vitton, Mokena District 159 assistant superintendent.

At least a dozen area school districts are seeking tax hikes Tuesday. Mokena is asking the average homeowner to pay an extra $290 a year. A deficit is driving the McHenry high school district to ask residents for an average increase of $396. In Lindenhurst, the Milburn School District wants voters to approve a $730 a year tax hike.

Referendum or not, schools are seeing their share of state funding dry up. That means more and more school districts will have to ask local property owners to chip in.

"In the last five years we have literally seen a 70-percent decrease In the amount of state funding that we receive in this district, which means funding has to come from someplace. If the state won't pay, local taxpayers will have to," said Vitton.

The state is still sorely behind in reimbursing schools for expenses. Mokena alone is owed $700,000 from Springfield. Last year, a deficit forced Mokena to eliminate its full-day kindergarten.

Teachers like Michelle Matt know all too well the budgetary balancing act facing voters on Tuesday.

"You still do the best you can for kids but you're always, in the back of your mind, thinking am I going to be able to afford my mortgage, bills," said Matt.

"We know the parents are out there doing the best they can. We need to get the rest of the community behind us. We need this to pass," said Danielle Didrickson, parent.

For kids and their parents in Mokena, the vote for best pumpkin won't be the only one they're watching.

ABC 7 will have comprehensive election coverage Tuesday night with live updates and results throughout the evening. There will be expanded coverage on the news at 10 p.m. You can get continuous results on ABC7Chicago.com. And for viewers on the go, get the latest results on web-enabled phones and wireless handhelds at ABC7togo.com.


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