Evanston taxpayers will decide Tuesday whether to raise taxes for their public schools, one of several communities in the Chicago area looking to take matters into their own hands as state lawmakers debate changing how to pay for public education.
School districts in Evanston and in three other Cook County suburbs are pushing property tax hikes on Tuesday.
It’s a tough sell.
In the last five years, 40 school districts in Illinois have asked voters to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, as Evanston/Skokie District 65 will on Tuesday. Only 30 percent passed, according to the Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Unlike typical school referendum, which raise money for new buildings or better technology, these four ballot measures on Tuesday are mostly about boosting taxes to keep schools going as they are.
In north suburban Evanston, a well-organized campaign is underway to convince voters to generate $14.5 million for the area grammar schools. District officials are threatening major cuts if the referendum fails.
Driving around the area, it’s hard to miss the yard signs peppering people’s lawns.
On the block where Andrew Ross lives, there are close to a dozen of the blue ones with “Vote Yes for District 65 Schools” emblazoned across them.
“There’s an art to putting the signs up,” Ross said on a chilly March afternoon.
Ross threw his support behind the referendum as soon as he heard talk of budget cuts. He moved here from Chicago for the schools just over two years ago. In the city, his daughters went to a popular public school on the North Side with large class sizes.
“We don’t want to bring those Chicago class sizes to Evanston,” Ross said. “We just don’t.”
Ross is part of the campaign, Save Evanston Schools, which launched to spread the word about what could happen if the referendum fails. They even created videos with parents and teachers laying out what’s potentially at risk: cutting elementary band and music, eliminating middle school sports, increasing class sizes and even closing a school in the future.
A key message: It’s up to Evanston to rescue itself.
“The calvary is not coming to save us,” Ross said. “We’re going to get not more help from Springfield. We’re going to get probably less help.”
State lawmakers continue to talk about changing the way Illinois funds schools. In nearly every scenario floated, District 65 would get less money because it’s a district with high property wealth. In addition, Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to push for a property tax freeze, and there’s the ongoing discussion of making all districts pay the costs of their own teachers’ pensions. Chicago is the only district in the state required to make direct payments into its teacher pension fund.
None of this bodes well for Evanston, said Paul Goren, who is the superintendent of District 65, which includes small parts of Skokie. He said the community’s schools face a troubling math problem.
“We have increased by 1,500 students over the last 10 years,” Goren said, And revenues haven’t increased at the same rate. Evanston spends about $14,000 per student, meaning they need roughly $20 million to maintain current programs, he said.
District 65 increased local property tax revenue by $17 million during that time, budget documents show. But expenses have grown by about $30 million. Goren said they’ve balanced the budget in recent years, but the gap between revenues and expenses is projected to get worse.
Evanston gets three-quarters of its $125 million budget from local property taxes. But annual property tax increases are capped at the rate of inflation, which has been historically low in recent years. At the same time, staff salaries and other district expenses have been increasing at a quicker pace.
Andrea Mainelli has a 9-year-old son at one of the district’s magnet schools and supports the referendum.
“With the wacky, completely nonsensical funding formulas we have really across this whole country, your taxes are going to go up at some point if you want to maintain the quality of schools,” Mainelli said. “That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be arguments for efficiencies, which I hugely believe in, and that’s one of the big conflicts I have about what’s going on.”
The district hasn’t always been well-managed financially, Mainelli said, but the schools are in much better shape than in many other communities.
“We want to keep what, I don’t even think our citizens realize, is a fairly gold-plated experience,” she said.
Evanston’s school board already approved $5.1 million in budget cuts for next school year in case the referendum fails. Layoff notices went out to nearly 50 people last month. Several assistant principals are slated to lose their jobs, and class sizes are set to increase by three to five students per room.
Some have said the district is using scare tactics to drum up yes votes.
In addition to the cuts already approved, the district has floated more drastic measures, like closing a school, eliminating full-day kindergarten and ending a guaranteed spot for students at the school closest to home.
There isn’t any organized opposition, but a few signs urging people to vote “no” have popped up recently.
A candidate running for Evanston’s City Council said she runs into opposition when knocking on doors.
“There are a lot of people who can’t afford it, even though they want their kids to have a great school experience. They just cannot afford to pay more, and I think there’s a lot of people who also, their kids aren’t having a great experience,” said Cicely Fleming, who is running for 9th Ward alderman. “We still have a huge achievement gap by race.”
There is indeed a large, long-standing achievement gap between white and black students in District 65. Superintendent Goren said they’re working hard to close it and seeing some progress.
Aaron Masliansky has a son in first grade and a 4-year-old daughter. He’s also a real estate agent and understands it can be a tough sell for people without children in the schools.
“I think we have to take into account current events and the current state of the Illinois budget and, you know, realize that this is a pill we have to swallow in order to maintain that high level of quality of life,” he said.
Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation.