D159 Consultant Suggests Fourth Referendum Try: VIDEO
A consultant hired by Mokena 159 said recent cuts will eliminate the district's deficit, but that a referendum could let the district undo its reductions.
A strategic consultant hired by Mokena School District 159 said the word that divided the town three times before—referendum.
"My only personal point of view is if—if—you want to return to some of the previous standards, the only way you can get there from here is with a referendum of some sort," Larry Heidemann of StratPlan Consulting told the board during a special meeting Thursday night.
If the board follows Heidemann's suggestion, it would be the fourth go at a referendum in the last few years.
This brings back a familiar, emotionally charged and some say false divide in Mokena: "What about the children?" versus "What about the taxpayers?"
"I'm sorry if I was too much of an advocate for the kids," Heidemann said at one point while fielding board questions after his presentation.
"We're all for the kids. Don't go there," board member Pat Markham replied.
District Heading Into Black
This time the threat wouldn't be financial insolvency, Heidemann said. District cuts put a deficit that once reached $2.7 million down to less than $200,000. The consultant's figures put the district back in the black next year.
"To achieve that, we're not doing any technology upgrade, we're not doing any textbook replacement we’re not doing any capital upgrades," board member Joe Spalla said.
Heidemann said referendum money could let the district bring back services while staying deficit-free.
"Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to push an agenda here," Heidemann said. "I'm offering my heartfelt opinion that if you want to return to some of the previous parameters, you can't get there from here by nibbling around the edges."
L-Way Feeders Raised Taxes, Still Hurting
At $2.10, Mokena has by far the lowest tax rate of the five Lincoln-Way feeder districts. The other four range between New Lenox at $2.85 and Manhattan at $3.34.
"Mokena is the only district that has managed to work its way through the last two decades without any tax increase," Heidemann said.
But board President John Troy said those referenda didn't save other districts from the current financial crisis. He alluded to Summit Hill's vote this week to close Mary Drew Elementary, despite Summit Hill's 33-percent higher 2008 tax rate.
"The surrounding districts that are at a higher tax rate are also in this financial shift," Troy said.
State Rules Change
In addition to the statewide school funding crisis, Mokena was also hit by the fact it got wealthier in the Illinois' eyes, Heidemann said.
Each school district in Illinois fall in one of three categories based on how rich it is. The richer a district, the less state money it gets per student.
The value of homes in Mokena 159 recently moved the district to the second-highest category.
This and several other factors meant the district's general state aid dropped to $952,000 last school year from $1.9 million the year before.
Heidemann estimated changes in how the state pays Mokena cut about $3 million over the last three to five years.
"You've lost $3 million through no fault of your own, through no fault of previous boards or previous administrations," Heidemann said.
According to the most recently available ISBE records, the state provided 17.3 percent ($3.2 million) of the district's revenues during the 2009-10 school year.
By Heidemann's figures, the state is providing 9.1 percent ($1.6 million) of Mokena's money this year. Figures for last school year weren't readily available Thursday night.
Not Asked for Recommendation
Heidemann has been a consultant with the district on and off for seven years, since he was first hired to make a strategic plan, Troy said.
Troy said the board asked Heidemann to update the plan after teacher contract negotiations were resolved last month. He said Heidemann was paid for a financial snapshot of the district in its new situation, not to make recommendations about referenda.
"We've had a lot of things change," Troy said.
Meeting minutes show an $8,000 contract for Heidemann to update the strat plan software used for this report was approved at the Nov. 10, 2011, board meeting. The new teacher contract was approved Jan. 21, 2012.
"There were some preliminary discussions," Superintendent Steve Stein said.
Heidemann said he is often called in to consult by school districts seeking referenda, but in this case offered the referendum idea as his personal opinion.
"Typically what happens is, when (school districts) need a referendum, they contact me," Heidemann said. "(The districts say) 'We think we have some trouble. We need a referendum; help us with the timing and amount.'"