What is a referendum? Why will it matter to us?

At the school board meeting on Wednesday, September 14th, the board approved an April target date for an education fund tax referendum vote.  According to Superintendent David Bonnette, the need for a referendum comes from the state of Illinois not adequately funding public schools. 

Bonnette said, “The state promised huge funds and hasn’t paid all the money they promised. The expenses have gone up faster than money is coming in from revenue.”  

RB receives its income from several sources, most notably local property taxes and funding from the state of Illinois.

The board voted 7-0 to approve the referendum, which would allow residents to vote to raise their property taxes to add revenue to the school.

“This is not something we haven’t anticipated.” School board president Jim Marciniak said. “This is something that’s been facing us for years.” 

According to Marciniak, the last time the school district received a tax rate increase at the polls specifically for operating the school was in 2000. The tax rate increase in 2006 was for the building renovation project. That money could only be used on the renovation.

Also, according to Marciniak, most of the money spent in the school budget is on personnel expenses.  80% of the budget is spent on salaries and benefits.

“We have been cutting down on things such as copy paper, printing, etc.. Areas where we can economize, we have been. Our text book budget is negligible at this point,” he said.

At the same meeting, RBEA President Tom Fuller, an English teacher at RB, presented a proposal from the teachers to the board.  According to the proposal, if the referendum is approved, teachers agreed to freeze their base salaries for the next two years. While some raises for experience and education will still exist, teachers will not receive a guaranteed yearly raise.

Some community members have commented negatively about the prospect of a referendum on the Riverside Landmark’s articles about the referendum and the RBEA proposal. Several of the commenting community members would like the teachers to take cuts to their salaries and benefits.

Sarah  Johnson, a teacher at RB and a community member whose taxes will be affected by the referendum, said, “I think we need teachers to do their part and I think the school needs the referendum. We don’t want to change our programming either and we would like the community to vote on that.”

Fuller agreed with Johnson and said, “It’s a partnership between the community, the teachers, the parents and the students. It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together to find solutions to the financial issues.”  

If the referendum does not pass, RB will have to make very difficult decisions regarding future finances.  Social studies teacher Mark Gouwens said, “At some point they will have to cut things. Sports and band and those sorts of things are not as important as what we do in the class room. They are important to a high school, but at the end of the day it’s an academic institution.  So if the referendum doesn’t pass there are going to have to be cuts.” 

The referendum could also have affect on other aspects of the school. Fuller said, “Class sizes will increase, classes to choose from will be limited, it will probably have a significant impact on student learning.”

 The referendum could potentially impact the reputation of RB in a negative way. Fuller said, “Students don’t want their options to be limited when it comes time for college, access to teachers, class offerings you can take. This is a quality high school, we have a comprehensive education, our students do quite well when they go off to college, and we want to be able to continue to have those types of programs available.” 

As of now, RB offers 24 Advanced Placement courses, and there are 19 honors classes available to students. 

If the referendum is not approved Marciniak said, “There will be a reduction in class courses. There will not be enough teacher resources to be able to put those courses on.”

The board plans to meet on Tuesday, October 19th, to review three scenarios to balance the school budget if the referendum fails.