WSIU InFocus: Jackson County School Facilities Tax
Voters in Jackson County will be asked next week whether they support a sales tax increase to help fund public schools.
The one-percent sales tax hike would pump money into Jackson County's public schools - but it could only be used for facilities. It could cover new construction, but also maintenance and repairs, paying off bonds, or reducing the need for future bond issues.
Sam Goldman supports the increase. He says it's about priorities.
"This is a value question. What do we value? What do we cherish? If we don't value our schools, if we don't cherish our very beautiful children go, where are we?"
Goldman says schools in Carbondale have seen a population decline - and families in some cases are choosing to move east to Williamson County, which already has a school facilities tax in place.
"If we want people to come here to live, we could talk about taxes all we want - but the very first thing they look at are the schools."
The sales tax proposal would add one percent to most purchases in Jackson County. Similar to Williamson County and Franklin County, which already passed facilities taxes, this bump would not apply to cars or other specific items.
But the business community remains skeptical about the proposal. Carbondale Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Les O'Dell says this isn't the answer to the county's education issues.
"We feel like, as a regressive tax, this unfairly puts the burden on low-income people. And our community tends to have a lot of those, when you think about all the students at Southern Illinois University."
O'Dell says Chamber members aren't against education - rather they're worried about the unintended consequences of a tax hike in Jackson County.
"We feel like that if our sales tax is nine and three-quarters percent here, that's going to drive business outside of the county - in some ways it'll affect the revenue that any schools would see. It's just going to make other communities in our region more attractive for shoppers or folks who go out to dine. It'll also will, we are afraid, drive a lot of business online."
Similar concerns were raised when Williamson County became the first county in Illinois to implement a school facilities tax. In the years since, the money has helped the five districts there maintain and even build new schools - something advocates in Jackson County would like to see happen in their communities, too.
"You know, we have a school district where the kids have to outside the building to go to another building to eat lunch, and then come back into the original building. And during the wintertime, or during the rainy time, that's very difficult - they're not in the same spot."
O'Dell says the Chamber of Commerce membership understands the difficulties school districts are facing - but they'd like to see new ideas on how to solve those problems.
"We also point to the way Carbondale Community High School's new building was funded - through a joint city/school district proposal and program. We think getting creative with taxpayer revenues and funding sources is the best way to go."
Goldman says it's time for people to take a closer look at taxes - not just for schools, but overall.
"What we need to do is look at our overall tax structure, and maybe - MAYBE - eliminate one or two taxes which aren't serving the purpose for which they were originally intended."
But Goldman says given the state's finances, school leaders in this region have to do whatever they can to make sure money keeps coming in.
"The problem we are facing is that so many agencies need money, the state's not providing it, so they are looking to the sales tax. And whoever gets in line first is going to get the sales tax."
O'Dell says business leaders are concerned raising the sales tax to nearly ten-percent will send more people away from Carbondale and Jackson County, rather than bring them in.
"We believe in schools. We believe in children, and know how important this is. We just think this is the wrong way to go about funding school facilities."
And O'Dell and others say it's not always the facilities that make the best educational experience for the students.
"I think we can't judge education simply by facilities. Just because a school has an AstroTurf football field, doesn't mean the quality of education is on par or better than anyplace else. I would stack up Carbondale Community High School as one of the best schools in the state, and I think test scores and successful alumni have shown that."
Goldman, for his part, agrees - and says the students in Jackson County deserve better facilities to help hone their skills and education for the future.
Voters will get their chance to decide on the one-percent school facilities sales tax next week in Jackson County.