METAMORA — The day after Metamora Grade School’s carnival last week, hallways were still awash in the bright colors of student art work posted on the walls. Along with the school’s regular art program, the art teacher organizes parents to give monthly art lessons.
“It’s one of those programs we hope would not be eliminated if we have to make cuts,” says Wendy Vogel, a kindergarten teacher who has been a driving force behind the grade school district’s efforts to get out of debt.
As promised, the district is asking voters to approve a property tax increase in the April 4 election. The grade school’s vowed a second try if a referendum on last November’s ballot failed. It did, by about 400 votes.
Then, as now, officials say they have three choices to solve the current budget crisis, none of them good. All of them revolve around the district’s education fund, the largest, and arguably, the most important of the four major funds in any school district’s operating budget. Salaries, benefits and the major costs of educating students come out of the education fund.
Metamora Grade School’s education fund is in the red, to the tune of about $230,000 this year, though administrators have whittled it down from as high as $500,000 in previous years.
“We’ve been in deficit spending since 2010,” says Superintendent Marty Payne.
One of the primary culprits is an outdated property tax rate, he says. While enrollment and the building grew steadily — 10 additions since 1953 — local income generated by the education fund tax stopped growing with the school, Payne says.
The tax rate in the education fund, $1.52 per $100 assessed valuation, hasn’t changed in almost 30 years. The district’s education fund tax rate is the lowest in Woodford County, the overall tax rate is among the lowest of all K-8 districts in Tazewell and Woodford counties.
Metamora’s grade school district relies on local property tax revenues for about 65 percent of its budget. With the uncertainties of state funding, locally generated funding is crucial, according to Payne.
Increasing the education fund rate by roughly 20 percent would bring about $500,000 a year in new revenues, enough to assure manageable class sizes, buy new textbooks and maintain art and other extracurricular activities, according to Payne and Vogel. The district could also begin to rebuild its reserves and chip away at an overall education fund deficit of $2 million.
A 20 percent increase translates to an increase of 31 cents in the education fund tax rate. The rate would rise to $1.83 per $100 assessed valuation. The district’s overall tax rate would go from $2.71 to $3.02. The owner of a $150,000 home would see a property tax increase of about $136 a year, lower for homeowners who qualify for senior citizens exemptions. Landowners would see an increase of about $25 per 80-acre plot on land with an equalized assessed value of $100 an acre.
Deficits have evolved over the years because of the district’s desire to maintain good teachers and low class sizes. In turn, teachers have been among a core group of volunteers campaigning for the referendum.
Another options for reducing the deficit include issuing working cash bonds, which would eventually cost the district $700,000 in interest charges alone. Or the School Board could consider cuts to staff, arts, and extracurriculars, none of which would be in the best interest of students, Payne says.
For their part, teachers have already agreed to some cuts to health care and reimbursements for education. “We feel it’s important to help in any way we can,” Vogel says.
They will have a pork chop cookout from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at IGA to raise money for the pro-referendum campaign.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.