Controversy surrounds school referendum

Controversy surrounds school referendum

By Scott P. Richert

By Scott P. Richert

Freelance writer

On Tuesday, Jan. 8, the Rockford School Board voted 5-2 to place a 10-year, $23.2 million alternative revenue bond referendum on the March 19 ballot. Board members Stephanie Caltagerone and David Strommer cast the dissenting votes.

The money would be used to repay taxpayers who protested the levying of tort taxes from 1991-1999 to pay for desegregation remedies ordered by federal Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney. Last year, the Illinois State Supreme Court declared those levies illegal. Under an agreement reached with attorney Michael O’Brien, the district can pay protesters the full amount that they are owed ($29 million) over the course of three years, or it can pay them 80 percent ($23.2 million) if the payment is made by June 30, 2002.

The administration and the current board majority favor the 80-percent solution.

The vote came at the end of a meeting marked by hostility. At one point, board President Michael Williams seemed to single out board member Stephanie Caltagerone for criticism, in apparent violation of board rules. When board member David Strommer raised a point of order, noting that all comments are to be addressed to the chair, Williams replied that he would address his

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comments to himself. He then continued to criticize Caltagerone by name, stating that “Mrs. Caltagerone does not speak for the board.”

Williams dismissed Caltagerone’s claim that the board has “no intention” of making budget cuts if the referendum passes. As evidence, Caltagerone points out that, in previous years, the board “used to get month-to-month budget figures, but the only year-to-date financial information that this board has received was received on Monday, Jan. 14, and it only covers the period from July 1 to November 30.”

The financial statement for the first five months of the fiscal year shows that the school district’s year-to-date revenue is $2.3 million lower than last year at this time, while expenditures are $1.7 million higher. As of Nov. 30, the district is over budget by 50 FTE (full-time equivalent) positions. “Lord only knows how much more money we’ve spent since then,” Caltagerone said.

The controversy surrounding the referendum did not end at the board meeting. On Thursday, Jan. 10, board members received a fax from Superintendent Alan Brown’s office that stated, in part, “Please be advised that a referendum organizational committee meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. this Saturday, January 12, 2002 at Hinshaw & Culbertson, 100 Park Avenue, Rockford, IL.” State law requires that public notice of any meeting be posted 48 hours in advance if more than two members will be attending. Williams confirmed that no notice was ever posted.

According to Caltagerone, ”When I called the superintendent’s office on Monday to question the legality of the meeting, I was informed that Jay Nellis, Mark Burns, and Mike Williams were in attendance.” Williams confirmed that he, Nellis, and Burns all showed up at Hinshaw & Culbertson’s office, but he dismissed one of the board members before the meeting began so that the meeting could be conducted without violating state law.

The district plans to use revenue from corporate replacement taxes to repay the $23.2 million in alternative revenue bonds over the next 10 years, at a cost of approximately $3.125 million per year. However, the district currently uses that money to cover its contributions to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, Social Security, and Medicare. (Williams, Caltagerone, and Superintendent Brown did not know what percentage of the corporate replacement taxes goes to the retirement fund, Social Security and Medicare; calls to Finance Director Tom Hoffman were not returned.) Seventy percent of any remainder currently goes to the education fund, and 30 percent, to operations. In order to repay the bonds, Superintendent Brown said, “We would have to make reductions in both of those funds [education and operations], although we would also look for additional sources of revenue, either from Springfield or the federal government, to lessen the reductions necessary.”

Caltagerone raised a third possibility not mentioned by Brown. “This gives the board the opportunity over the next 10 years to raise our taxes if the corporate replacement tax revenue is not sufficient to repay our debt,” she said. “And that leads us into the trust issue.”

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the publication of The Rockford Institute.

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