By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
The Quincy School Board is considering a proposal to ask voters to approve a 36-cent increase in the district's special education tax rate.
If the board proceeds with the idea, the tax issue could be placed before voters as early as the Feb. 26 primary election or the April 9 general election.
The tax proposal was discussed publicly for the first time Tuesday morning at the School Board's Finance Committee meeting.
The committee chairman, Stephanie Erwin, said the proposed tax increase would generate about $2.9 million a year to help finance the district's special education program.
This fiscal year, Erwin said, special education is expected to cost the district nearly $10.8 million while revenue from local, state and federal sources totals only about $5 million. The resulting $5.8 million deficit will be taken out of the district's education fund.
"This is a mandated program that is severely underfunded by the state," Erwin said.
The district's tax rate for special education currently stands at 4 cents per $100 assessed valuation — the maximum rate allowed without a voter-approved increase. That tax rate generates only about $310,000 in revenue.
Passing a 36-cent tax increase would put the special ed tax rate at 40 cents. While this still would not generate enough revenue to cover all costs, it would effectively free up $2.9 million currently being taken out of the education fund and would let the district use that money for other needs — particularly technology.
Erwin said the district is woefully behind in meeting the technology needs of students and teachers.
"Our technology is just prehistoric," she said.
No public school in Quincy has wireless Internet access, and the district's computer offerings for students are nowhere near where they should be, Erwin said.
"We are just way behind in that area, and we need to start budgeting how we are going to resolve that," she said. "Our students are falling so far behind."
Joel Murphy, the district's business manager, said the district would need at least $1.2 million initially to start getting the district's technology offerings up to speed. He said $300,000 alone is needed to improve the technological "infrastructure" that would allow the district to install wireless capability in all schools, then another $300,000 would be needed for the wireless technology itself.
On top of that, Murphy said, the district would need to spend nearly $700,000 to buy a minimal number of laptops or tablet computers on carts that could be made available to students in the various schools.
More technology would then have to be bought and maintained in subsequent years, which would represent an ongoing cost, he said.
"Things are changing so rapidly when it comes to classroom instruction," Murphy said. "We can't just sit on the sidelines."
Rich Marcolla, a member of the Finance Committee, noted that first-graders at St. Peter School in Quincy are now using iPads in their classrooms thanks to donations from parishioners.
"I love the idea" of getting modern technology into the hands of Quincy's public school students, Marcolla said. "It's a need that's definitely out there."
The full School Board didn't address the proposal at any length during its regular monthly meeting Tuesday night. Board President Bill Daniels said the board might hold a special meeting to discuss the proposal along with other ideas for addressing the ongoing underfunding of special education.
Daniels said the board would have to take action by Dec. 7 to get a tax issue placed on the ballot in the Feb. 26 primary. He said the board would face a Jan. 8 deadline to get a tax issue added to the April 9 ballot.
Murphy said if a tax increase is approved in February, there would be sufficient time for the district to get the higher tax added onto tax bills payable next summer, which would generate revenue by next fall.
If the measure gets approved by voters in April, however, the tax increase wouldn't be added on to property tax bills until 2013, Murphy said.
Erwin said a 36-cent increase in the special ed tax rate would cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $180 more a year in property taxes. The increase would cost the owners of a $75,000 home about $90.
Erwin said if the board decides to put the tax issue before voters, the board would likely hold a series of public forums to provide the community with specifics on why the money is needed and how it would be used. Similar forums were held earlier this year before the March referendum in which district voters agreed to pass a measure to issue $6.2 million in working cash bonds.
"We would definitely want to do that before the voting takes place," Erwin said.