Herald-Whig View

Voters should approve Quincy Public Schools referendum

Posted: Mar. 8, 2020 12:40 am

THE ONE fact that stands out more to us than any other when considering the Quincy Public Schools referendum on the March 17 primary ballot is where the district's education fund tax rate stands compared with other similar-sized districts in the state. In short, Quincy is dead last. Behind Moline, Galesburg, Jacksonville, Alton and 44 other schools -- last.

In fact, Quincy's $1.84 education fund rate has not changed even one time since it was set by the state in 1988. It is the only district in the 49-member Large Unit District Association that has never increased the rate.

To be fair, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means that school officials for years have held the line on expenses, all while community organizations have stepped up to pay for athletic, music and other extracurricular activities in the absence of district funding.

But the time has come to face facts: It's time for the community to step up and invest in QPS students, staff and administration and pass a 53-cent increase in the education fund rate.

First, we need to make one thing crystal clear. This referendum has nothing to do with the 2014 $89 million building referendum voters approved to build five new elementary schools and an addition to the high school. That money cannot be used to bolster the education fund.

However, the fact the building work is coming in well ahead of schedule and more than $1.8 million under budget gives us some indication of the management of the district. Namely, that it is being run extremely well.

In fact, under the leadership of Superintendent Roy Webb, the district has made living within its means an art form. A districtwide cost-cutting program implemented in recent years has eliminated nearly $2 million from the budget. Almost $900,000 of that was from district administration.

Meanwhile, the district's overall tax rate has continued to drop from $4.13 per $100 assessed value since 2014 when voters approved the building referendum to $3.85 now. So we can clearly see this is not a district simply seeking to spend more.

This fiscal prudence, though, does not change the fact it is becoming more difficult for the district to continue operating.

The state provides about $11 million a year to the district, but based on the state's own formula, it should be paying Quincy about $33 million. At the same time, new state mandates for a $15 minimum wage and $40,000 minimum teacher salary put more pressure on the budget.

The two mandates combined are expected to cost the district $1.35 million through the 2024-25 school year -- enough to push the district into deficit spending in two years if all other costs stay the same.

Should we sit back and wait for the state to cough up full funding? We'd urge you to not hold your breath waiting.

Each year also brings more teacher turnover and more difficulty hiring new certified personnel.

The turnover rate, called "alarmingly high," has been driven by classroom disruptions and a lack of competitive pay. The referendum, if approved, will bring more resources for students and staff. It will bolster the efforts of a teaching staff that has exhibited incredible dedication.

It also will help usher in a new era of cooperation between the district and the union representing district personnel.

A two-year contract extension, tentatively approved by the district and the Quincy Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Personnel contingent on the referendum passing, not only brings the district up to the mandated minimum teacher pay but boosts pay for veteran teachers.

This is important because this relationship has not always been amicable in recent years, but the two sides have worked hard to build a relationship of trust. Approval of the referendum will go a long way to peaceful relations for years to come.

No, this doesn't mean big raises for teachers. What it does mean is more support personnel and help for teachers to reach students who increasingly are dealing with issues at home, such as homelessness, poverty and other problems. One district employee said about 5% of students in a classroom can take up to 90% of a teacher's time. Providing professional educators the resources they need to reach these students without neglecting other students is not just a financial necessity; it's a moral imperative and a move that will pay dividends for generations moving forward.

Now, let's get down to the numbers.

The increase from $1.84 to $2.37 in the education fund is expected to generate an estimated $5.3 million annually. It will move Quincy all the way from 49th on the LUDA list to 47th.

No, this doesn't cover the $20 million or so we are being shorted by the state. Instead, it represents a modest request from a district that has practiced solid fiscal restraint for quite some time. Any business leader knows that to improve any organization's finances, you must do one of two things: raise revenue or cut expenses. As Webb told The Herald-Whig, "There isn't much left to cut."

Of course, raising revenue means raising taxes, an unsavory prospect that we reluctantly support when necessary. This measure certainly meets that criteria, and we think it does it without too much financial harm to residents.

The tax increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $155 per year and the owner of a $142,000 home -- the average sale price of a home in the district in 2018 -- about $220 per year. We think this is a reasonable increase, especially since it comes with reassurance from the School Board that this measure will meet district needs for years to come.

Quincy Public Schools for years have been one of the city's greatest points of civic pride. To continue that tradition, to attract and retain quality staff, to improve classroom conditions and educational opportunities, to provide schools that attract employees for other businesses in the region, to train a competent and cutting-edge workforce for existing industries and to invest in the future of Quincy, we urge voters to approve this referendum. ifeel