Smile Politely

Champaign County school tax referendum vote is tomorrow

“Shall Champaign County be authorized to impose a retailers’ occupation tax and a service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a “sales tax”) at a rate of 1 percent to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?”

Students and faculty alike may want to pay close attention to the outcome of the elections on Tuesday.

A proposed school sales tax increase to further fund school-based projects for all Champaign County schools will be on the April 7 Champaign County ballot. Should the referendum pass, it would increase sales taxes by one percent for all residents living in Champaign County. Projections are that the tax would bring in an additional three million dollars annually for Champaign County schools. Proposed projects include installing energy-efficient air conditioning systems, lighting, and considering 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. To see what each Champaign County school has in mind for the increased funding, view this pdf document.

The referendum comes at a time when state money is tight and when the economy is in the midst of a deep recession, causing many schools to find new ways of getting enough money to keep facilities and education running smoothly.

According to literature passed out by the district in support for the referendum, there is currently very little leeway financially for new projects and repairs.

“The school district must operate on a boom-and-bust environment,” read the handout. Moreover, the district said that “buildings must deteriorate almost beyond repair, and only then can the district ask voters for permission,” a gesture perhaps to the idea that the district should go to citizens in not just dire situations, but on a regular basis, too.

Taxing differently

When people think of school taxes, many think of it as a euphemism for property taxes. Property tax is paid by those who own homes, land or otherwise. However, while property taxes still make up the basis of local school funding, the proposed referendum would be based on local sales tax. Sales tax comes from the products each person buys. Items subject to the 1 percent tax exclude qualifying foods; (food eaten on premises is taxed), drugs, farm equipment and parts, cars, trucks, and ATVs, boats and RVs, and mobile homes.

The increase would affect everyone living in Champaign County, causing those not associated with the district to be affected by the increase as well. This factor might hinder the district’s effort to pass the measure, according to Urbana High School social studies teacher, Michael Pollock. “It is more difficult to pass that type of referendum because it’s county-wide not city wide,” he said. “You have the entire Champaign County including rural folks who generally feel that the tax unfairly impacts them.”

Yet Pollock also said that the benefit of having a sales tax over a property tax is that it brings in a lot more money. The concept has been seen as so effective in fact, that Pollock cited recent and successful efforts of cities like Champaign and Urbana lobbying the state for allowing sales tax to be applied to school-based referenda.

“Cities like Champaign and Urbana got the state legislature to pass a law allowing counties to increase sales tax, not property tax for schools, but to allow a sales tax,” Pollock said.

As a way of compromise for those upset over the increase, the district has said the referendum would effectively lower the property tax in exchange for raising the sales tax.

Currently, the county sales tax stands at 7.5%. The tax revenue from an item purchased is then distributed to state, city and county governments. The one cent tax increase the district is lobbying for would simply be tacked onto that, according to Pollock.

That one cent 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 outside the county. For example, those who come to Champaign-Urbana for ball games, who visit while on vacation or when they come here to see families … so when they buy stuff here, they’re helping to repair our schools.”

“We desperately need the money”

Reception to the proposed tax increase has been warm, at least to those involved in the effort. 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.”

Cumpston’s concerns have been echoed by others across not just the state, but across the country as well. The problem of school funding has become so prevalent, in fact, that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama in early March, dedicated an additional 53 billion dollars towards “education and training” across the country, according to At present, however, Cumpston said the school board she sits on has been forced “to make drastic cuts in our budget that seriously hinder the quality of education we are able to offer,” but added “we all want to get back to stronger financial footing.” In perhaps further validation for the benefits that come with increasing the sales tax, she cited other counties such as Williamson and Cass, which are seeing “dramatic educational benefits” as a result from passing a similar sales tax increase.

The state to blame?

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 and peruse school programs.

Again, Pollock believes that a number of factors have led to the district’s campaign to raise taxes for new and continuing efforts.

“The problem with school funding in the state of Illinois is that the state has pledged in its own constitution that they will pick up 50 percent of the cost of public education,” he said. “The balance of the cost, the other 50 percent, is supposed to come out of local initiatives.” But Pollock said that the state has not kept its promise on the funding.

“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 reason for part of 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,” Cumpston said.

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.”

Making it a community issue

Both Cumpston and Pollock also agree that, while many non-district-affiliated citizens 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 this can make it difficult to pass such county-wide measures. He also stated the critical need to inform citizens that “the referendum attempts to get around the state’s unwillingness to provide the proper funding.”

Since the enthusiasm that came with the presidential election won’t be present on April 7, turnout will be lower and even more unpredictable. What was a turnout of almost 80 percent during the November election could be replaced with a 30 percent turnout. Says Pollock: “Will that help or hinder this effort? I’m not really sure. But it’s going to be a smaller pool of people who will make this decision for all of us. And in a sense, that’s unfortunate.” 

He said that the school district needs to be more progressive in getting the positive word out, citing a similar school referendum on last November’s ballot that failed by 300 votes. “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.”

At best, both Pollock and Cumpston hope citizens will look to the benefits beyond past 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.”

Cody Bralts is a Junior at Urbana High School and currently serves as News Editor of the school’s student newspaper, The Echo.

For more information about the referendum, visit

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