The majority of District 196 residents surveyed this spring said they would support a local property tax increase to avoid additional budget cuts and preserve the quality of educational opportunities offered by District 196 schools.
Survey results were presented at the May 13 School Board meeting by pollster Peter Leatherman of The Morris Leatherman Company, which also conducted community surveys for the district in 2013, 2015 and 2018. This year’s scientific telephone survey was conducted in late April and early May, and includes responses from 625 randomly selected residents who are representative of the district’s key demographics.
Residents were asked about a $400 per pupil increase to the district’s operating levy, which would cost approximately $17 per month or $200 per year for the owner of a $300,000 average-value home in the district. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would support the levy increase, with 26 percent indicating they would strongly support the referendum. That compares to 20 percent who oppose it, 12 percent who strongly oppose it, and 4 percent who were unsure.
“If we look at the intensity in support versus opposition, it’s better than two-to-one strong support versus strong opposition,” Leatherman said. “Folks are ready in this district to have a conversation and consider a potential operating levy for 2019.”
District 196 is facing a projected $25 million budget shortfall over the next three years due to years of less-than-inflationary funding increases from the state and chronic underfunding of mandated special education services, to the tune of $29 million last year in District 196 alone. In February, the School Board approved $7 million in budget adjustments for the 2019-20 school year to begin to address the shortfall. The cuts include 31 teaching positions and 15 administrative and clerical support positions, reduced funding for instructional supplies and increased fees for students to participate in cocurricular activities. Without an operating levy increase, the district will need to cut another $18 million for the following two years.
Survey respondents identified lack of funding and large class sizes as the two biggest issues facing the district. “These top two issues really combine into a discussion of an operating levy focus,” Leatherman said.
Respondents were presented with program improvements that could possibly be funded with an operating levy increase, including increased mental health support for students, maintaining or lowering class sizes, enhanced academic opportunities for middle school students, reinstating transportation for after-school activities, and expanded preschool programs. There was majority support for all six, with three-fourths of respondents indicating that mental health support, lower class sizes and middle school opportunities would make them much more likely to support a levy referendum.
On questions related to financial management:
- 73 percent of respondents agree District 196 spends tax money effectively and efficiently, compared to a norm of 55 percent for metro districts;
- 68 percent agree the district has spent past referendum funds responsibly, compared to a norm of 52 percent;
- 64 percent agree the district asks voters for a tax increase only as a last resort, compared to a norm of 52 percent;
- 94 percent agree the community receives good value from its investment in district schools, and
- 61 percent rate the district’s financial management as excellent or good, compared to a norm of 50 percent.
Ninety-three percent of respondents rate the quality of education provided by District 196 as excellent or good. “Compared to the metro area, you have an extraordinarily high quality rating,” Leatherman said. “You have twice as many residents rating the quality of schools as excellent (42 percent) compared to other districts (21 percent).”
On other questions related to quality and performance:
- 92 percent of respondents agree the district does a good job preparing students to be college and career-ready upon graduation;
- 93 percent agree the district provides a safe and secure environment for students;
- 90 percent trust the School Board to do what is right for children in the district;
- 83 percent agree the district does a good job involving parents and citizens in decisions about the schools, and
- 94 percent rate the quality of District 196 teachers as excellent or good.
“What people are thinking about first is the good quality of teachers in the district and next are the high academics,” Leatherman said. “Your district has a clear priority, it’s personnel, the teachers, and it’s the high academics happening in the classrooms.”
For more information about the community survey, click here to view the School Board PowerPoint presentation.