Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

October 28, 2013

Unit 40 outlines plan to consolidate buildings

Tony Huffman
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — Effingham Unit 40 School Board discussed a long-term plan that would reduce the number of school buildings in the district from six to three while proposing a 1 percent countywide sales tax increase to help pay for it.

     The proposed sales tax increase would be on items that would mostly pertain to tourists and would have to be approved by voters in order to be implemented.

“In Effingham County, 54 percent of (retail) purchases are made by outside county residents,” said Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan, who added the tax wouldn't affect items, such as unprepared foods and prescription drugs.

Also exempt from the 1 percent sales tax would be vehicles, farm equipment and parts and mobile homes.

Doan said such an increase would alleviate property tax burden on local residents by abating bonds owed on Effingham High School, dating back to 1998. The bonds are set to mature in 2019.

The increase, he added, also would provide additional revenue to other school districts within the county but could only be used for facilities. The 1 percent tax is expected to generate $5.3 million for area school districts that have students who reside in the county, with half of that going to Unit 40 School District..

Proponents are aiming to get the tax question on the the March ballot. In order to do that, the school board must approve placing it on the ballot by Dec. 30.

   Doan said the tax would ease the burden of property taxpayers. For example, a person owning a $150,000 home in Teutopolis would see a $230.50 savings per year on property taxes. The overall tax rate would go down .46099 percent.

    Aside from the savings to property owners, Doan said there is an overwhelming need for the additional revenue it would bring school districts.

“There is a need in Unit 40 to become more efficient,” he said, referring to the building consolidation. “If there wasn't a need, I wouldn't be bringing this forward.”

According to Doan, two other options are possible to raise the funds needed. One is an extension of the existing bonds through a referendum, while the other is to raise property taxes. If none of these options are approved, Doan informed the board that the district will have to continue spending its reserves and the quality of education within the district may suffer.

     Although Unit 40 currently has eight buildings, two are not being used by the district. West Side is rented by the Regional Office of Education No. 3 for alternative programs, and East Side is rented by a special education cooperative.

“Sooner or later we have to make a decision if we are going to continue renting these places out,” said Doan, noting the district continues to pay maintenance costs.

     Buildings that are considered for closure are Edgewood School, South Side and the Early Learning Center. Effingham High School, Central School and Effingham Junior High would remain in operation. However, the junior high needs major renovations, so it would either be completely gutted or a new one built, according Doan. The junior high — built in 1930 — is in need of major heating and cooling system upgrade, as well as plumbing.

    “We have a lot of these same issues at ELC and Edgewood,” said Doan. “There are a variety of issues that are going to be addressed.”

     “Our goal long term is to get to three buildings,” said Doan of the 10-year plan.

     Doan said for now the district would not consider a new building as it would be abating taxes for several years.

     “We will decide what to do for the third building as funds allow,” he said.

     Currently, ELC and Southside are full of students, said Doan, but there is a “downward trend in enrollment.”

    In addition to financial savings, Doan asserted the consolidation would create a better learning environment if students didn't have to change schools as often.

     While counties, such as Champaign and Macon, have passed and implemented the school facilties tax, voters have failed to approve the measure  in neighboring Shelby and Fayette counties.

     “We are going to have costs. We need to find the best way possible for our taxpayers to fund them,” said Doan. “Efficiency equals sustainability when it comes to school districts.”

    The issue will be back before the school board at the November meeting for additional discussion, with Doan indicating it would be on the agenda for a vote at the December meeting.

     Tony Huffman can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 138 or tony.huffman@effinghamdailynews.com.