Editorial: Loophole is no way for schools to collect taxes
Schools operate on a set of rules -- students know that if they break them, they face the consequences. Students, however, many times follow the adage that rules are made to be broken.
But what about when school officials decide rules are made to be broken? What are the consequences? When it comes to spending money, none, apparently.
Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin outlines this dilemma for suburban school districts in Wednesday's Daily Herald. Because districts are limited in what they can levy for property taxes for operations without asking permission for more from taxpayers, they've found a loophole. Routinely, districts are taking in more money for transportation costs -- without asking for permission -- than needed to actually bus students. It's a practice that currently is allowed, but is questionable at best.
And so are the justifications.
"All of that extra revenue is being transferred to the education and (operations) funds because we have reached our tax cap limits," Mike Cushion, assistant superintendent for business and finance in DuPage County's Queen Bee Elementary District 16, told Griffin. "Without the transfer, we'd be operating in massive debt, so the only mechanism is to levy in transportation."
One other mechanism is to ask taxpayers to contribute more to the school district by proving the need. Queen Bee took in nearly $4,000 more per student than is needed for true transportation costs -- transferring a total of $2 million to other funds.
Another DuPage district, Marquardt Elementary District 15, transferred $2.5 million in excess transportation taxes.
We sympathize with districts that are seeing a drop in property values and a shaky at best state funding situation for schools. But to make a practice of skirting a rule to continue as is rather than making sure -- and proving -- all belts have been tightened is not good financial practice.
Other districts have made some tough decisions. Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 charges fees for busing. Several area districts don't bus at all. And not all districts are levying more than they need, some levy less.
"We have some parents question the fees when they also pay taxes, but the board of education's philosophy is they want to focus tax dollars in the classrooms and non-madated services be paid by fees," District 57 assistant superintendent for finance and operations Dale Falk told Griffin.
To be fair to Queen Bee and others, District 57, Griffin's report shows, still receives $230 more per student in transportation taxes than it needs.
It's not easy for school districts to make ends meet these days. But neither is it for average property owners. Those taxpayers should be assured that what they are paying to their school districts is absolutely needed and rules set up to limit increases without justification be followed.