Supporters say tax hike 'long-term fix' for Nauvoo-Colusa

Fifth- and sixth-grade students at Nauvoo-Colusa Junior High play floor hockey during a recent physical education class at the school. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Feb. 27, 2014 9:06 am Updated: Mar. 20, 2014 10:14 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

NAUVOO, Ill. -- Spencer Berry is convinced there's a tax hike in the future for taxpayers in the Nauvoo-Colusa School District.

The only question is how much.

Voters will decide the fate of a 55-cent tax increase proposal on the March 18 ballot touted as a long-term fix for the district's finances. If the tax hike fails, the bill stands to be much higher if the district dissolves and merges with a neighbor.

"No one wants a tax increase, but we think we're going to get that no matter what we do," said Berry, part of a community committee working to promote the referendum. "We're kind of in the driver's seat if we pass this referendum. It's certainly not a short-term fix. We think it's a 10- to 20-year fix. This will allow us to be strong and viable for a long period of time."

Superintendent Kent Young said the referendum will generate about $280,000 a year, enough to close an ongoing annual funding gap in the district.

The state considers the district wealthy based on the total equalized assessed value and enrollment factored into the school funding formula, and so it provides only about $410 per student in general state aid -- or just over $2 a day to educate a child. The bulk of the district's funds, 77.1 percent last year, came from local sources, primarily property taxes. The state provided 18.2 percent of revenue, with 4.7 percent coming from federal sources.

The district puts those dollars to work offering what Young calls "a spectacular curriculum," especially at the junior high serving Nauvoo-Colusa and Warsaw students. The Warsaw district houses the high school under an ongoing deactivation agreement.

"We've tried to make some cuts," Young said. "The staff didn't take much of a pay increase. We've cut people down to part time and, for next year, are not replacing a teacher who's retiring. But you can only cut so much and still have a great school district. We need to continue providing the best education for all the students."

If the referendum is approved, the owner of a $100,000 home in the district would pay about $183 a year in additional taxes.

Without more revenue, Young said, the School Board has talked about dissolving the district and sending all 285 students to neighboring Hamilton or Illini West High School and one of its elementary districts. That could happen as early as fall 2015 without voter approval required. Sending all students to Warsaw is less likely because the two districts aren't contiguous.

"We've got an excellent school here. We've got a lot going for us," Berry said. "This is really our only good option at this time, to raise taxes on ourselves. Otherwise, essentially we'll have to turn it over to somebody else, and they're going to raise taxes on us, too. Everybody else in the county has higher taxes.

"After we learned the facts, there's really only one obvious answer ... You might as well keep what you've got, keep your local control."

Voters defeated a tax hike referendum in April, but several residents asked the School Board for a second try.

"We felt the public wasn't informed enough on what the options were," Berry said. "Let's give this another try, see if we can at least educate people on what the options are."

With a son and daughter in the school system, Berry supported the first referendum and he has better answers now for why others should do the same, including continued local control and continued presence of the school in the community, which strengthens businesses and churches.

"There's a lot of challenges ahead if the great state of Illinois continues to cut programs," he said. "We can kind of look at this as a positive. If we pass the referendum, we're in great shape. We don't have to worry about what the state does. We don't have the hopelessness in a way other districts might face someday."