After voting 4-3 at its Dec. 13 meeting to decrease its tax levy by 25%, or over $416,000, the Joppa-Maple Grove School Board met again Monday, Dec. 20, in a special-called meeting to consider amending that decision.
After just over two hours filled with many questions from the nearly 80 in attendance, the board reached a compromise, voting 6-1 on a tax levy of $1.5 million with a decrease to the extension of about 15%.
At its meeting Nov. 22, Superintendent Dr. Vickie Artman presented the board three sample spreadsheets illustrating a tentative tax levy for 2021 payable in year 2022. The examples included explanations of how each would affect the tax rate and tax payers. The examples included one increase and two decreases in the total amount of the extension.
Tax extension is the actual dollar amount to be generated by property taxes. It is the prior year’s extension plus the consumer price index (CPI) plus new property.
Around 30 people attended the Dec. 13 meeting where Artman and district bookkeeper Justin Miller gave a recommendation for a levy of $1,657,050, an extension decrease of $115,196.88, explaining this option would not cause the tax payers an increase in property tax. Several of those in attendance addressed the board prior to Kevin Castleman’s motion to accept the recommendation.
When that vote failed with four board members voting against it, Corey Willenborg made the motion for a 23.489% drop in the levy, which would drop the extension from $1,772,246.88 to $1,355,959, a net loss of $416,287.88. The motion passed 4-3 with Danny Burnett, Rachel Henson, Willenborg, Denise Meyer voting for it, while Peggy McNeill, Castleman and Chris McGinness voted against it.
Two days later, a special-called meeting to consider amending the levy was scheduled for Monday, Dec. 20.
The tax levy is the amount of money a taxing body requests to be generated from property tax. It is an estimate based on revenue needs and what is entitled by law. It is slightly overestimated to include any unknown new property. If new property is missed, it cannot be recovered the following year. The levy is adopted and certified by the county clerk for the following fiscal year. Locally, the request is due to the Massac County Clerk on the last Tuesday of December each year.
In addition to the school board — McGinness attended via phone — Miller was present at the Dec. 20 meeting. Dr. William Phillips, a consultant with MidWest School Consultants at the University of Illinois-Springfield, attended through Zoom. The district’s attorney, Barney Mundorf, attend via phone.
Comments from the public to the board addressed the closeness the district’s students not only have with each other but with their teachers and the schools’ staff. Voicing the $416,000 cut would close the district, they questioned why such a large deduction was voted on and asked the board to wait until the results of its three feasibility studies are released.
J-MG is currently in three separate feasibility studies with Massac County Unit 1, Vienna High School and the Century School District. Artman said during the meeting the Massac and Century studies should be ready by March and Vienna in May.
Stacey Reames, a JHS graduate and a former school board member, said she was “really shocked” at the Dec. 13 meeting, which she attended, four members “voted for a tax levy that was not only against the superintendent’s and the district financial consultant’s expert opinions, but would not provide enough revenue to continue to operate long term. This means the whole district, including Maple Grove, would not be able to operate. As board members, you have a responsibility to all stakeholders in the district. The definition of stakeholders is not limited to taxpayers. Stakeholders of this district include students, staff and the community.”
Those three, she said, are something she’s heard “very little” discussion about.
“You’re board members of a school. You’re supposed to provide the children of this district a quality education to help them become successful students and adults,” she said. “Over the last few years, I’ve heard several of you make the statement that you’re here for the kids, but your actions don’t necessarily support that.”
Reames commended Artman and Miller for their “hard work in finding a compromise that would benefit all of these stakeholders. You proposed a plan, based on meetings with the county assessor, that would not raise the tax rate but still give you enough funds to operate. I think that’s an excellent comprise.”
Reames suggested the one-time ESSER funding, “if used responsibility, can help sustain the district until the feasibility studies the board approved can be completed and reviewed, allowing everybody more time to make sound future decisions for all of our stakeholders.
“We don’t know what other future costs we could incur — labor negations, insurance, inflation, big-ticket maintenance issues,” she continued. “The cut you made was just too deep. … Could your business survive on 25% less? To put it in perspective, the average income for Massac County is $40,000 a year, that’s a $10,000 reduction in gross wages. … I encourage you to ask questions so you fully understand the issue and the ramifications of your vote before you cast it.”
Willenborg said he is not trying to close the school, that he had talked with Miller and Artman for hours about the figures presented at the Nov. 22 meeting, noting their showing a balanced budget was his reasoning behind his Dec. 13 motion and vote.
Phillips said in his 40 years of working with school systems across the state, he has never seen a district ask for a decrease in its levy, much less one of nearly 25%. Miller and Phillips emphasized once that cut is taken, it is almost impossible to gain back, especially since Massac County is a tax-capped county. The tax cap, or PTELL, limits the increase in property tax extension to the CPI or 5%, whichever is less. Phillips used the example of having $1,000 in taxes and cutting it by 25% for the following year. From that following year forward, he said, future numbers are based on that $750, not the original $1,000.
The public pleaded with the board to fight for the district’s students.
“This school provides a lot for our kids,” said Monica Little, who as a high schooler moved to Joppa from California in 2004 and now has four children attending the district. “Our tax dollars are just dollars. We want this school to stay open. Are you guys really thinking about your pocketbooks or are you thinking about these students? Because it really doesn’t seem like you guys are thinking about our students. You guys are free to move wherever you want to. I made sure my house was in the district. My kids started pre-school here and will be finishing up sixth grade, they should be coming over here for junior high next year. If you’re here for any other reason than our kids, you don’t need to be here.”
Minutes before the board voted, Maple Grove teacher Amanda Rivera said: “If you do this, you are essentially setting up the district for failure whether you say it or not. We also need text books coming up that we’ll use that excess (money) to purchase; you are not thinking about that. We have several teachers who are going to be retiring in the next few years. What are you going to do (to replace them)? It’s already tough to get teachers, what are you going to say to get them to come to our district when we’re setting ourselves up for failure? Teachers are not going to stay here to be part of a district that’s dying. I love your kids and I want see their growth, but I have my own family I have to worry about. You are going to lose good teachers because no teacher is going to come or stay in a district that is eventually going to close their doors in the next few years.”
Castleman made a motion to set the tax levy at $1,657,050, with an extension loss of $115,000. It failed 3-3-1 with McNeill, Castleman and McGinness for; Burnett, Willenborg and Meyer against; and Henson abstaining.
McNeill then made a motion to consider amending the 2021 tax levy, which all voted to do.
After further discussion amongst the board, Castleman made another motion to set the tax levy at $1.5 million, an extension loss of 15%. It passed 6-1 with Meyer against and McNeill, Castleman, McGinness, Burnett, Willenborg and Henson in favor.
In other business at its Dec. 13 regular meeting, the board:
• Approved the employment of certified special education teacher Jennifer Larrison.
• Approved the employment of part-time long-term substitute teachers Beth Whitney and Melissa Bound.
• Approved the resignation of certified employee Lacey Wright, effective Jan. 6, 2022. “With great sadness, the board accepted the resignation. She is leaving education to help with her husband’s business. We wish her the best,” Artman said.
• Approved the annual Property Tax Relief Grant application and its submission to the Illinois State Board of Education.
• Approved closed session minutes for the last six months (June 2021 to November 2021) to remain closed.
• And, approved the first reading of a partial list of Press Plus Policies — Issue 108.
The Joppa-Maple Grove School Board’s next regular meeting will be 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in the JHS library.