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Property tax issue would aid R-12

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Shall Springfieldians pay higher property taxes for improvements to Springfield R-12 schools? That is what voters will be asked April 7, as the school district of Springfield has two ballot items that propose an increase to the operating tax levy and the issuing of general obligation bonds.

The school district has also certified the names of five candidates for two open seats on its school board.

The school district is proposing that it issue general obligation bonds in the amount of $54.5 million, resulting in about a 23 cent per $100 of assessed valuation increase in county property or "school taxes" for residents in the R-12 District.

The bond money would be used to fund "bricks and mortar" type projects such as improvements to buildings and the addition of a sixth high school, said Dr. Arnold Greve, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools.

The second item is an increase in the operating tax levy of 63 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which would raise the total adjusted operating levy of the school district to $3.57 per $100 of assessed valuation.

That money would go toward academic improvements, such as programs for at-risk students and increases in teaching salaries. It would also take care of some of the district's other academic needs, such as increasing the availability of technology to students, Greve said.

This request of voters comes after about three years of consideration among school officials about what the district could do to enhance its overall education system, Greve said.

Several needs were identified by various planning committees during that three-year period, he added.

Overriding concerns that emerged were with the amount of money Springfield teachers are being paid with regard to surrounding districts and the fact that many school facilities need repairs.

Overcrowding at Kickapoo High School was also a factor, Greve said. The school district is also not receiving the level of state funding it once did. State money now accounts for less of the school's overall budget than does local funding.

Local money makes up about 48.5 percent of the school's budget while state funds make up only about 29.4 percent.

To make teachers' salaries competitive, the school would spend about $10.2 million of the money the increased levy would generate. The increased levy would generate about $1 million in state aid contributions and $13.3 million in local property tax revenue, Greve said.

About $1.5 million would be spent for instructional technology and about $1.3 million will be spent to operate a new high school, to be located in southwest Springfield and to house about 1,000 students.

One of the key issues is dropout prevention and help for at-risk students, Greve said. About $916,460 of the levy increase has been identified for those programs. At-risk students are identified by the state as those students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.

"Our school district now has a significant number of at-risk students 75 percent. It is vital that we implement programs to deal with this group of students and that we get our teachers' salaries competitive so as to attract and retain the best possible educators to our district," Greve said.

David Harrison, who co-chairs the campaign committee for the issues, said that he hopes to turn the conversation in the community from one about a "sharp increase in taxes" to one about "sufficient support of our schools."

"We've been explaining to groups and individuals that this decision was made over a three-year period and that the idea is not coming from the district but is a community-based referendum," Harrison said.

The owner of Glenstone Block Company, Harrison said he is also concerned about the business community's response to the election.

He said he has

not yet heard of any organized opposition to the issue, and is now at the point of disseminating

information about the election issues.

"The average age of our school's buildings is 50 years. As a community, we have to pay for our students to have good facilities for getting an education," Harrison said.

The general obligation bonds would pay for updates to many of those facilities, he added.

Teacher compensation is also an issue Harrison is concerned about.

"We've slipped from our top position in pay for teachers. There are now five other districts in the immediate area that pay more for teachers' salaries," Harrison said.

Karen Geary of the Battlefield Mall met with several officials from the school district, including Harrison, to iron out some concerns the mall's administration had about the tax increase.

"It's difficult for us in the retail business because schools are an important part of the community, but it is a challenge for us because that kind of increase is a significant one, and one that will ultimately be passed along to consumers," Geary said.

The Battlefield Mall is not organizing any opposition to the issue, she added.

The technology component of the proposal would add a permanent fund-

ing mechanism for adding computers to classrooms and updating current equipment, said Dr. Emmett Sawyer, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Right now, the ratio of students to

computers is running at 7.24 students

to one computer, Sawyer said. The initiative is to reduce that to 4- or 5-to-1. Some area districts, such as Willard, with 5.9-to-1, and Strafford, with 4.1-to-one, are already operating at that desired level, he added.

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