Despite the city’s failure to pass a half-cent general merchandise sales tax increase, Livingston County school districts are still considering the possibility of seeking a 1 percent increase that could help replace funds the state is no longer providing.
Toward that end, Pontiac Grade School Superintendent Kevin Lipke said recently that although it is still under consideration, he would be asking the District #429 Board of Education Thursday to approve the measure for the April 9 ballot.
“We need to have all the paperwork in line in case we do decide to pursue it,” Lipke noted.
Currently, the county’s sales tax rate on general merchandise items and restaurant foods is 6.75. The increase to 7.75 percent would add $1 more, to a $7.75 tax on every $100 spent. McLean County and Streator sales taxes are currently at 7.75 percent. The increase would not affect groceries, prescription medications and titled vehicles and farm implements.
If approved by voters, the increased money could only be spent on facility improvements and disbursement of funds would be based on school populations, with Prairie Central the largest district, followed by Pontiac #429 and Pontiac #90.
“For District #429, we think we’d see a little over $500,000, which is becoming critical for aging buildings we’ve been patching. There are much-needed repairs on hold, but the buildings are not getting any younger, or better.”
Some of those funds would free up other money, which could be used to offer property tax relief, he said.
The superintendent stated that sales tax within the county is paid by multiple sources, with about one-third residents; one-third tourists; and one-third repeat visitors who live near the county.
“The kids and the communities deserve better schools,” he added.
Lipke said he is in favor of this measure because it will bring more funds to the district, while offering property tax relief.
Unlike the defeated measure in Pontiac, this measure would be countywide, with various school districts opting to take part or not. Any districts that span multiple counties would only receive funds for the students living within the county of the sales tax increase.
The superintendent noted that several districts have already approved placing the measure on the April ballot for the General Consolidated election.
“I would prefer all superintendents in the county be on board, but I don’t know what every community is facing. Speaking for #429, we can survive without it, but it will be tight. I plan to be very transparent on this issue. I will talk to anyone who has questions,” he said.
Similar measures on November’s ballot failed in LaSalle and Marshall counties.
“When people are making cuts in their own budgets, who don’t have jobs, I can see this wouldn’t be popular. We care about families in our district, but we are losing more and more state money every year. It would be a big benefit for our schools here.”
The district is also trying to find a way to bring back programs previously cut.
A program committee formed to look into bringing back full-time physical education, art and music classes has met twice and been very productive, Lipke said.
“The committee was formed of parents, teachers, administrators and a couple of board members. This committee was formed so that it’s not solely the superintendent saying which programs are cut or which are brought back.
“However, before we can bring any back, the district has to be on sound financial footing.
We’ve got some financial figures of where the district is, but there is a lot up in the air, concerning state funding.”
There are about 17 people serving on the committee and several options are being considered. The end goal is to bring back programs and a longer school day, Lipke said.
Currently, there are no music or art classes within the grade school, and limited PE classes. Students in kindergarten through fourth grades have PE one day a week, while junior high grade levels rotate PE for six-week blocks twice a year.
“Right now we can’t afford to run PE every day, so we meet state requirements through recess. But we’d like to bring full PE back. We’d like to bring all the programs back.”
“We’d like to extend the class day again and get it more in line with the high school. “
Currently, students are in school from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Lipke would like to see it back to an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. day, with perhaps staggered times so parents taking multiple students could get to the schools.
“We’d like to be in a little longer than the high school so that older kids could be home, waiting there for younger siblings.”
“We’ve lost a lot from the state: $300,000 this year and it’s looking like another $300,000 next year, too.”
He said the committee would hopefully be able to present something to the board of education by January or February, when a clearer financial picture emerges.
At the high school board meeting, it noted District #90 Superintendent Jon Kilgore would be working with Lipke on bus transportation.
“We probably will have to stop transportation for students who live a mile and a half or less out from the schools,” Lipke said. “It means some of those children will have to walk and that could be a distance for them, but we really have no choice. Transportation is extremely expensive and the state is looking to put more of that cost locally.”
Currently, the district provides transportation to students who live a mile out, but the district also takes into consideration four-lane roads, railroad tracks and the Vermilion River.
“(Former District #429 Supt. Steve) Graham and the city’s Chris Brock did a great job of working together to get kids to school safely by recommending and putting in sidewalks.
“Limiting transportation is not easy, it will be a tough call, but we have to be fiscally responsible, especially when the state is not.”
Lipke will also bring up the possibility of joining a fuel consortium, along with the high school, at Thursday’s board meeting.