What April 7 Means for Urbana Schools

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COUNTY RESIDENTS MAY WANT TO PAY close attention to the
outcome of the local election next month. A proposed
school sales tax increase to fund school-based projects for
Urbana schools will be on the April 7 Champaign County
ballot. Should the referendum pass, it would increase the
Champaign County sales tax, which currently stands at
7.5%, by one percent. Projections are that the tax would
bring in an additional 3 million dollars annually for
Urbana Schools.
Proposed projects include installing energy-efficient air
conditioning systems and lighting, with provision to consider
other sources of energy such as solar. Renovations for
Washington Elementary School and district libraries along
with new multipurpose rooms are also included in the
proposed funding.
When people think of school taxes, many think of them as
a euphemism for property taxes. While property tax, paid
by those who own real estate, makes up the basis of local
school funding, the proposed school tax would be based
on the local sales tax. The increase would affect everyone
living in Champaign County, including those not associated
with the Urbana-Champaign area. This factor might
hinder the Urbana School District’s efforts to pass the measure,
according to Urbana High School social studies
teacher, Michael Pollock. “It is more difficult to pass that
type of referendum,” he said. “You have the entire Champaign
County, including rural folks who generally feel that
the tax unfairly impacts them.”
Pollock added that the benefit of having a sales tax
rather than a property tax is that it brings in a lot more
money, which led Champaign and Urbana to lobby the
state for allowing the sales tax to be applied to schoolbased
referenda. “Cities like Champaign and Urbana got
the state legislature to pass a law allowing counties to
increase the sales tax, not
property tax, for schools.s”
That one percent tax
increase, to Pollock, makes
the financial possibilities
endless: “The tradeoff for
this, and a way to sell this
to the public, is that you agree to put it on a sales tax
which affects everybody but is also paid, to a significant
degree, by those from outside the county. For example,
people who come to Champaign-Urbana for ball games or
to see families…when they buy stuff here, they’re helping
to repair our schools.”
Urbana school board member Cope Cumpston, a supporter
of the tax increase, said that the passage of the referendum
could help the district immensely, “There is no
other revenue stream that supports schools in this way;
our funding has been decreasing steadily and school facilities
are deteriorating all across the country.” Cumpston
added that there are a number of factors that have led to
this situation. “Particularly in Champaign County, revenue
formerly available to the schools has been drastically cut
by tax caps… we desperately need the money.” She cited
other counties such as Williamson and Cass which are seeing
“dramatic educational benefits” from passing a similar
sales tax increase.
Much of the money that makes public school possible
comes from the state. However, due to recent state-wide
budget problems, along with stringent oversight laws, many
districts have not been getting the adequate funding needed
to improve school programs. Pollock believes that, “The
problem with school funding in Illinois is that the state has
pledged in its own constitution that they will pick up 50
percent of the cost of public education… The balance of the
cost… is supposed to come out of local initiatives.” But “The
state of Illinois has not fulfilled their 50 percent pledge… so
there is a greater and increasing responsibility for paying for
schools through the local taxes.”
Cumpston cited flaws in the federally-mandated No
Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as part of the reason for the
recent strife the district has
faced. “Our schools have
also taken big financial hits
in the last few years
because of the requirements
of NCLB, which are
not backed up by any funding.”
That view seems to be common in other districts as
well. Many educators have said that the NCLB act has
underfunded its own projected goals by punishing schools
that under-perform on tests. While the Act may have
helped close “the achievement gap,” many advocacy
groups, such as The Forum on Educational Accountability,
have noted that “since its passage, No Child Left Behind
has been chronically underfunded, shortchanging the educational
needs of our nation’s neediest children.”
Both Cumpston and Pollock agree that, while many citizens
outside the district would be paying the sales tax,
their contribution would help the community as a whole.
However, Pollock says that, “some people look at this not
as a community responsibility but as: what am I going to
get out of this?” He said that the school district needs to be
more progressive in getting the word out.
Citing a similar school referendum on last November’s
ballot that failed by 300 votes, he added, “I think it failed primarily
because the school district and the people who supported
it did not do a great job of selling it to the public.”
Both Pollock and Cumpston hope citizens will look to
the benefits of the tax increase. As Pollock concluded, “It’s
not just for the people who have kids in the schools. You
want quality education; you want kids who are growing
up with the ability to go out and contribute to this community.
You have to give them a good public education
and that costs money.”
For more information about the referendum, visit

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