BY KIM LUTTRELL
GEORGETOWN — An overflow crowd attended Monday night’s meeting of the Georgetown-Ridge Farm School Board.
Two important topics on the school board’s agenda brought most of the attendees to the meeting. The first was a truth-in-taxation hearing and the subsequent vote on the district’s 2012 tax levy. The second was the action on an administration proposal to close Ridge Farm Elementary School.
During the truth-in-taxation hearing, which is required by state statute whenever a taxing body plans to raise taxes by more than 5 percent, Superintendent Jean Henigman-Neal laid out the district’s financial position.
According to Henigman-Neal, the state financial support of local school districts has been dwindling for several years.
"Last school year (2011-2012), the state failed to pay us $500,000 of the state funding we are entitled to," explained Henigman-Neal. "We received just 89 percent of what we were owed by the state.
"This year (2012-2013), we are only expecting to receive 85 percent of what the state owes us," she said.
Also, under state law, school districts are required to bus any student who lives more than 1½ miles from the school. Last year, according to Henigman-Neal, the state cut transportation funding by 50 percent, or $40,000, and it is expected to short the district by another 50 percent this current school year, or another $40,000.
Henigman-Neal said those cuts, along with the end of state funding for programs for gifted students, textbook loans, reading improvement and Title IV and Title V programs, meant the district is seeing less overall state support.
Henigman-Neal told the audience the district is facing a $1 million budget shortfall.
"As the state funding for education continues to dwindle, the cost to provide that education falls more and more on the shoulders of local revenue sources," Henigman-Neal said.
According to Henigman-Neal, the main purpose of seeking additional local revenue is simple.
"We don’t want to impact the learning environment of our students," she said.
Henigman-Neal said the financial problems facing the district have been a long-simmering problem for the school board.
"We simply need to meet this head on," Henigman-Neal said.
In her presentation, Henigman-Neal outlined some of the proposals to close the $1 million budget shortfall. Included were the 14.03 percent increase in the property tax levy, which is expected to bring in an additional $322,000; freezing administrators’ pay; closing the Ridge Farm Elementary School at a projected savings of $300,000; and closing the unit district office building.
Many in the audience spoke out against the property tax increase as well as the closing of Ridge Farm Elementary School.
Paul Janosik spoke out against the tax increase.
"I pay nearly $27,000 in property taxes now and don’t like the idea of paying more," Janosik said. "Have you asked the Georgetown-Ridge Farm School Foundation for help?"
Mayor Sharon Simmons of Ridge Farm questioned why the tax hearing notice was not publicized more.
"You only posted it in the (Champaign) News-Gazette. People in this area don’t read the News-Gazette," said Simmons. "It should have been published in the Independent News or Commercial-News."
Simmons also said her village has had to make cuts for several years in order to live within its means.
"Why has the district not been cutting costs before this?" Simmons asked. "We have a lot of senior citizens living on fixed incomes who simply cannot afford more taxes."
Simmons also spoke against the closing of the Ridge Farm elementary building.
"Why were we blindsided by this decision?" Simmons asked. "This is an atrocity against our community. We are a struggling community and now you do this to us?"
Carol Pearson told the audience she was on the Ridge Farm School Board when the referendum to combine the two school districts came about.
"At the time of the referendum, Georgetown school district voters got one ballot to vote on the referendum," Pearson said. "Ridge Farm school district voters got two ballots. The second ballot was to keep our tax levy the same, which at that time was higher than Georgetown’s.”
Pearson said the idea was that Ridge Farm would keep its tax rate higher to fund the cost of building a new grade school building for Ridge Farm.
"We, the Ridge Farm residents, paid for that school building and you agreed to it and now you want to take it away from us," Pearson said.
Norma Davis of rural Georgetown, questioned why not close an older school and move those students to Ridge Farm.
Henigman-Neal said there are 150 students attending Ridge Farm and they can more easily be assimilated into other existing buildings without additional remodeling costs.
Henigman-Neal said that perhaps Georgetown-Ridge Farm had not been prudent about levying as much property tax as it could have in the past, which made it necessary to levy a higher amount now.
After the public hearing portion of the meeting, board members went into closed session for deliberations.
Upon return to open session, board members voted down a motion for a smaller property tax increase of 10.4 percent before approving the 14.03 percent increase. This would increase the district’s tax rate from $4.89 per $100 of assessed valuation to $5.20 per $100 of assessed valuation.
This would make the Georgetown-Ridge Farm school district one of the highest tax rates in Vermilion County. The Catlin school district has a $5.16 tax rate, while Westville has $4.95, Bismarck a $5.06 rate, Hoopeston a $4.60 rate and Oakwood with a $4.55 tax rate.
Immediately after the vote to set the new, higher tax rate, board members — with no discussion — voted to close the Ridge Farm elementary building at the end of the school year.
Those students will be moved to the Pine Crest Elementary school building with the exception of the early childhood development students, who will move to classrooms at the high school.
The district offices, which are located next to Mary Miller Junior High, will be moved to the high school as well. The current unit district office building will be vacant.
Some information in an earlier article was incorrect concerning the moving of the early childhood development students.
Georgetown-Ridge Farm School Board members will meet at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 in the unit office building.