Warren District 121 community rallies for newest property tax increase request
Local leaders, more than 50 area business owners and a large group started by district parents all have expressed support for Warren Township High School District 121's proposed property tax hike, which will go to voters in the June 28 election.
If the measure passes, property taxes would increase 60 cents per $100 of taxable assessed value to generate about $13.25 million in for the district annually, and the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay about $500 a year more.
Matthew Schultz, of Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America, said the organization opposes the tax increase.
"These school districts spend, spend, spend and expect taxpayers to foot the bill," Schultz said. "We're naturally against it."
Schultz said had it not been for the recent death of the group's founder, Jim Tobin, Taxpayers United would have helped run an organized opposition to the proposal. There does not appear to be organized opposition locally, Schultz said.
Proponents of the tax hike said the reason the district needs more funding is not about spending but about a lack of revenue.
"If people want the school to live within its means, that means cut and cut and cut," said Aaron Fleming, a co-chair of the community group Yes for WTHS.
Warren Township High School has the lowest per-pupil tax revenue and the highest student-to-teacher ratio, as well as the highest student-to-administrator ratio, of all Lake County high school districts.
District leaders have long said that if voters reject this tax hike, all athletics and activities as well as 20 additional employee positions will be eliminated as early as the 2023-24 school year. Additionally, students would have only a seven-period school day instead of the eight periods they have now, and many elective courses would be gone, including programs for music, art, world languages and industrial technology, according to the district presentation.
Beth Pope, a co-chair of Yes for WTHS, said the cuts would send the school district into a death spiral.
"It would be very difficult for the community to recover from that blow," Pope said of losing so many class, program and athletic offerings. "A generation of kids will be missing a large chunk of the high school experience."
A similar attempt last year to ask district voters for a property tax hike was rejected by a vote of 4,700 to 3,753.
Fleming said he and other parents learned about the district's dire revenue situation during a community engagement session shortly before the 2021 referendum effort failed.
"For the first attempt, we had two and half months to do it during COVID," Fleming said.
The additional time this time has allowed the group to form a coalition that includes people from the entire district community, including people without children in the district, Fleming said.
The group has distributed about 1,500 blue yard signs to residents across the district, which covers more than 50 square miles and includes all or parts of Beach Park, Gages Lake, Grandwood Park, Grayslake, Gurnee, Millburn, Old Mill Creek, Park City, Third Lake, Wadsworth, Waukegan and Wildwood.
Also, more than 50 businesses in the area have allowed the group to post "Vote Yes for WTHS" signs, and the referendum effort has gotten endorsements from prominent local figures like Gurnee Mayor Thomas Hood.
Hood, who graduated from Warren Township High School in 1978, endorsed the tax increase during a March 2022 board meeting, saying the need was critical.
"From my perspective, we don't have a choice," Hood said at the meeting. "I think it's the right thing to do."
District 121's last approved tax-rate hike was a 12-cent increase in February 2001, and the only other time voters approved a tax increase was in 1972. Proposed tax increases were rejected in April and November 1995, November 2000, February 2003, April 2007 and last year.
School district officials have given more than 30 community information presentations on the proposal and have a few more planned before the June 28 election.
For information on upcoming presentations and the district's financial data visit d121.org/referendum.