Suburban schools hoping for tax increase approval

January 25, 2010 3:26:15 PM PST
Several school referenda will be on the ballot in next Tuesday's primary election, including one in the south suburbs that is up for consideration again. For the third time since 2007, voters in Lansing and Lynwood are being asked to approve a tax increase to help keep Sunnybrook School District 171 running. The district has already cut all extracurricular activities, and officials say a failed referendum will bring even more cuts.

There are still music classes, but there is no more band in the Sunnybrook school district. The instruments are on shelves. Band was discontinued last year after voters in south suburban Lansing and Lynwood rejected a school tax increase. Student council, art club, tech club and the National Junior Honor Society were also mothballed. The referendum is back on the ballot next week, the third time in three years that grade school district 171 has tried to pass a tax increase. If this one fails, tithe cuts will go beyond extracurricular.

"We've been cutting since 2004. The only thing left to cut now is bodies in the classroom," said Supt. Joe Majchrowicz, Sunnybrook District 171.

As many as 15 staff positions would be cut -- a significant blow to a school district of nearly 1,200 pre-Kindergarten to 8th graders.

"We're not asking for the moon. We're just asking to give these kids what they're accustomed to having and what they deserve to have, because they are our future," said Sheryl Black, parent.

Black is a parent leading the referendum effort in Lynwood and Lansing, two communities that are a mix of blue and white collar. Unemployment, foreclosures, and seniors struggling on fixed incomes are powerful issues in a vote that could raise property taxes by roughly $200 on a $200,000 home.

But, apart from the referendum, school district 171, and many others like it are facing what the superintendent calls "a double whammy". State school aid payments, which are supposed to be sent out once-a-month, are now running over 100 days late, and it means that school districts -- most of them already budget challenged -- have to draw down their reserve funds.

"We can rely on our fund balances we have left, but once that money is gone, and there's no state help, it'll mean dire circumstances. I'm not sure what would happen," said Majchrowicz.

What would likely happen are more layoffs, larger class sizes and lowered bond ratings. Because of the real uncertainty over timely state funding, district 171 officials can't say with complete certainty that the extracurricular cut last year would be restored if next week's referendum passes. They hope and believe that will be the case but will have to wait on Springfield.

The referendum in the Sunnybrook district two years ago failed by a large margin. Last year it lost by a couple hundred votes. It is hard to predict how this one will turn out.