During teacher contract negotiations, hundreds of people packed School Board meetings to state their point of view, show solidarity and participate in the process of local government.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if as many of us paid as much attention to all aspects of local government?
The Geneva School District 304 Board of Education will be addressing the 2012 tax levy during its . The meeting is open to the public.
Yes, the topic might sound dry compared to the emotion of a contract dispute, but when it comes to impacting students, educators and taxpayers, the levy decision is where the rubber meets the road.
It's popular these days to label an issue as a "crisis," and it's a word no one wants to apply to School District 304's financial situation. But it's not an exaggeration to say that the budget challenges facing Community School District 304—and the community as a whole—are signficant.
In simple terms, the problem is that Geneva School District 304's tax base is shrinking. New construction has dwindled to a fraction of what it was even 10 years ago, and property values of existing homes are going down.
Between 2010 and 2011 alone, the equalized assessed value of property in School District 304 dropped 5.73 percent.
So if the district spends as much as it did the previous year—without raising the levy even a dime—tax rates will go up and property tax bills will go up, probably sharply, and probably for the next several years.
There's a very good graphic and explanation of the process in a document titled "Tax Levy 101" on the School District's website.
A big part of the challenge is the district's $300 million (principal and interest) debt brought on in large part by school building bond referendums that paid for the construction of new schools and school building additions.
New growth was supposed to keep property taxes from climbing too steeply—but that tax-base expansion not only didn't happen, it went the other direction.
About 84 percent of the Geneva School District's operating budget comes from the tax levy. And the funding sources for the remaining 16 percent—government grants and state aid, for example—are dwindling or at risk, in part because of the state's own fiscal crisis.
At the Oct. 22 School Board meeting, Elizabeth Hennessy of William Blair & Associates offered four scenarios—along with some variations—in which School District 304 might use fund surpluses to pay down the debt. You can read the details in the document Abatement and Refunding Options on the district's website.
Some scenarios include raising the tax levy to the maximum allowed under tax-cap legislation.
There will be no public hearing for the 2012 levy.
The upcoming tax levy decision doesn't determine where money is spent but it does address how much is collected, and for those who care about the future of Geneva schools, teacher salaries and the quality of education, there are few topics more important.