Despite protests, School Board passes levy increase
By Kalyn Belsha email@example.com December 18, 2013 6:34PM
Protesters against the levy increase displayed signs at the Batavia School Board meeting Tuesday night. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 20, 2014 8:15AM
BATAVIA — Batavia District 101 School Board members voted unanimously to approve a $73 million levy on Tuesday night, dashing the hopes of more than a dozen residents who asked board members during a public hearing to give taxpayers a break and reconsider the increase.
Of the $73 million, $62.6 million will go toward operating costs, such as instruction, teachers and transportation, while $10.4 million will go to paying down bond and interest debt.
That’s up 10.9 percent from the $65.9 million the district levied last year. The operating levy is up 12.9 percent over last year’s $55.5 million. Last year’s bond and interest levy was almost identical to this year’s.
“Those are big numbers, but this increase is derived mostly from the dissolution of a TIF district,” said Kris Monn, Batavia’s assistant superintendent for Finance.
Aurora Tax Increment Financing District 2, which was created in 1989, included the Chicago Premium Outlet Mall and other industrial properties along Interstate 88. It expired in 2012, making this the first time Batavia School District can benefit from the property.
When a TIF district expires, the property value that accrued since the TIF district was created can be added back to the tax rolls.
About $92.1 million is coming back on to the school district’s tax rolls from the TIF district, which can be counted on top of the tax cap, much like new property.
A group of Batavia residents rallied together in the weeks leading up to the levy vote to ask school board members not to count the TIF district money in the levy, fearing it would set the property tax bar high for years to come.
They asked that money from the TIF district instead be redistributed to taxpayers. They created a website, lowerthelevy.com, displayed red yard signs around Batavia and wore red stickers at Tuesday’s public hearing.
But the school district said the levy increase was needed to help make up for program cuts the district had made starting in 2009, such as increasing class sizes, putting off capital projects and eliminating full-day kindergarten, elementary Spanish and upper-level building trades classes at the high school.
Officials said those cuts were made in anticipation of TIF funding that would come through next year.
Joanne Spitz, who sits on the board of the district’s charitable foundation, said during the public hearing that the increased spending should not come as a surprise.
“The school district knew about this and so did the community,” she said. “They are not adding new programs, they are trying to stop the bleeding. We were able to deficit spend because we knew the money was coming.”
School officials said the levy money had already been figured into the 2013-14 school year budget in the form of additional teachers, instructional coaches and assistant principals, as well as capital improvements, such as concrete repairs, new lighting and plumbing fixes.
“It’s been a rebuilding year for us, after years of reduction,” said Superintendent Lisa Hichens.
Hichens said if the levy was not passed as is, the district would operate at a deficit this year and have to start looking at more cuts in next year’s budget.
According to Monn, the addition of the TIF money is large enough that the levy hike won’t result in the school district’s portion of the average homeowner’s tax bill going up, because the added TIF money spreads out the tax burden.
He predicted a $28 decrease in the 2014 tax bill for the average taxpayer, which assumes a home valued on the market at about $230,000.
“I strongly believe that offering a small decrease this year… is the best overall strategy,” said Batavia School Board President Cathy Dremel. “I actually believe this plan is a compromise. We’re not looking to go back to 2009 levels of staffing and programming.”
But many taxpayers who spoke at the public hearing said they didn’t want to see the levy go up so much, especially after the district saw a large tax increase in school year 2011-12.
Batavia resident Rose Gustavson, who said she was representing 34 residents at the meeting, said the property taxes on her home had gone up over 11 years from $3,700 to $6,600.
“We live modestly, currently on one income, and it’s a constant battle to make ends meet,” said Gustavson, who has two children in the district. She said a levy decrease would help her fix her van or take care of delayed dental work.
Batavia resident Amanda Davis said refunding the TIF money was an “opportunity to build some trust in the community.”
“A lot of people are upset at the tone,” Davis said, explaining that residents didn’t like that the district had essentially already spent the TIF money.
School Board member Melanie Impastato said the district did not have the power to directly hand over money from the expired TIF district to taxpayers.
“We’re not a bank,” she said, explaining the district would have to collect the property tax dollars and then lower the levy through tax abatement.
Several school board members read prepared statements before the vote, emphasizing that they had read the many — sometimes threatening — emails they received from residents and had thought carefully before deciding to approve the levy.
“Just because you scream the loudest does not mean you are in the majority,” said board member Sue Locke.
The morning after the school board meeting, lowerthelevy.com had a new post, calling on Batavia residents to vote in new school board members who want to lower taxes.
“It was made obvious by the levy vote that the only way to get a much needed tax break in Batavia is to elect members to the school board who have a serious intent to reduce taxes,” the website said. “We have already begun recruitment for the next school board election in 2015 ... common sense, a stiff spine, and upright morals are essential.”