WILMETTE – Whether Wilmette School District 39 should extend its levy is a hot topic among residents in Wilmette.
Numerous residents lined up to speak both for and against the proposed levy — the aggregate levy request is $53,858,546 million, with an overall increase of 4.36% from 2016 — at the school board meeting on November 13. The school board also received numerous letters and emails on this issue.
In response, the community group Wilmette Friends — which originally formed and organized around what they identified as outside activists targeting Wilmette’s local 2017 elections for school board, park board and the New Trier Township board — has re-banded to clarify the facts and to dispel what they call misleading information spread by New Trier Neighbors.
New Trier Neighbors assert that Wilmette taxable property values are down by 17 percent since 2009, while District 39’s property taxes are up by 37 percent. They urge residents to “tell the D39 Board ‘No’ to an Unneeded $2 Million Tax Increase” by signing a petition, writing letters to the school board, and attending the school board’s meeting where they are set to vote on extending the levy on December 18.
In a December 14 advertisement, New Trier Neighbors offers 10 reason why District 39 should not increase property taxes. Among those reasons, the group asserts student enrollment is projected to decline over the next five years, more school spending does not equal better schools — pointing to statistics of other districts that spend less per pupil and receive higher rankings, the state of Illinois has been losing residents due to higher taxes, and when the proposed state property tax freeze and pension shift did not occur, District 39 chose to spend those funds on capital projects such as the Learning Commons.
But Wilmette Friends say that New Trier Neighbors is spreading misinformation. According to the group, extending the levy allows the district’s budget to maintain pace with inflation, as the cost of materials and services increase every year. This year’s school board’s levy includes a 2.1% Consumer Price Index (“CPI”) increase. The Wilmette Friends point out that in 1990, the school board did not extend the levy and the district was forced to cut nurses, special classes such as art and music, and was unable to retain teachers.
The group points to various statistics, that District 39 is a fiscally conservative district with the lowest per pupil spending of the New Trier feeder districts.
Wilmette Friends also maintains that failing to extend the levy would compromise Wilmette schools, because strong fund balance forecasts were made assuming that the school board would continue to approve CPI increases each year. District 39 maintains a fund balance of 30 percent — other New Trier feeder district’s fund balance are at or above 50 percent — which cannot dip below 25 percent or the state will place the district on a financial watch list, according to Wilmette Friends.
The group also points out that if the state were to pass a proposed two year property tax freeze, District 39 will face inflationary cost increases without the funding to keep up.
For the school district’s part, the administration has provide ample information on this issue. A video is posted on the District 39 website, where Superintendent Dr. Ray Lechner explains all of the steps that comprise the tax levy. Slides from his presentation are also posted on the site, as well as a detailed November 13 memorandum from Dr. Lechner, that summarizes three reports on the levy process.
To that point, Dr. Lechner explained that the levy process involves a request for a dollar amount, not a percentage increase or a specific tax rate. Significant changes to individual taxpayers tax bills are related to the value of the property itself, which is determined by Cook County.
According to state law, District 39 funding is limited by CPI increases and new construction growth within Wilmette, unless the District goes to referendum for voter approval to go higher than CPI, as it did in 2011, according to Dr. Lechner’s November 13 memorandum.
For 2017, the CPI estimated amount is 2.1%, which for a $15,000 tax bill, means a $115.35 annual increase, according to Dr. Lechner’s presentation. The levy also includes an estimate of new property growth within Wilmette of $16.5 million for Mather Place (Mather Place underwent extensive renovation and re-opened in 2016 as no longer a tax exempt property) and $8 million for new construction, according to an October 23 memorandum from Gail Buscemi, Business Manager to Dr. Lechner. Cook County will calculate the actual estimate in 2018. The levy also includes a debt service amount of $1.2 million, a 4.57% increase from last year, as well as a $200,00 taxpayer abatement for the 2011 debt service fund.
A school board vote on the levy is scheduled for December 18 at 6:30 p.m., at 615 Locust Road, Wilmette.