CHERRY — Cherry Grade School is too far gone to be saved, said school board member Jim Lower.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the well more than 100 concerned residents who filled the tiny school gymnasium Thursday to hear school officials explain why their district of 60 students doesn’t have enough money to stay open beyond the 2014 school year and must consolidate with a neighboring school district.
“This board busts its butt for this school,” Lower said after a few in the crowd erupted. “We tried making cuts. We’ve borrowed money. It’s just not working.”
The death knell for the district began when the recession of late 2009 struck. The mortgage crisis caused property values to sharply disintegrate throughout the nation during the recession, but due to about an 18-month lag in the property assessment/tax cycle, the effect of that financial wake didn’t fully hit schools and other government bodies fully until 2011.
Additionally, state funding has continually been pulled from school districts annually and there is no reason to expect Springfield to change.
The combined result meant Cherry Grade School lost $200,000 in revenue for its education fund from 2010 to the end of last fiscal year. And if projections hold true as expected, the district may find that fund impossibly in the red by as much as $800,000 by the end of 2016.
School board members had tried to stave off what many had seen for years as the inevitable.
Cuts were made to physical education, a special reading program, music, and the board turned a full-time custodian position into two part-time jobs, and then hired a part-time administrator instead of paying for a full-time position. It also borrowed money using working cash bonds to pay bills and keep the district’s financial profile in good standing with Illinois State Board of Education.
But school districts are only allowed to borrow so much money as determined by the district’s property value. Soon, Cherry Grade School will reach a point where no one will sell the district bonds because the district won’t be able to pay them off.
“In 2014, the deficit will start to snowball on you,” explained ISBE regional financial consultant Brent Appell to the crowd. “A school district budget is no different than your budget at home. Using working cash bonds is like using your credit card. But now, the bond salesmen won’t allow you to borrow enough to pay your bills.”
Raising taxes is off the table as well, explained superintendent James Boyle.
A recent property sale of a typical home in Cherry went for $63,650. Using that sales price as a guide, that homeowner will pay $1,068.72 to the school district in property taxes based on the district’s current tax rate of $1.98 per $100 of equalized assessed valuation.
If voters passed a referendum allowing the district to completely max out its tax rate to $6.28 per $100 of EAV, that would mean the homeowner in the example would pass an additional $555.60 per year in taxes.
But Boyle said that still wouldn’t be enough to help the district’s long-term financial outlook. Nor would an accounting irregularity that shows the district is somehow owed $119,000 in lieu of property taxes. Boyle said he, Appell and the board are investigating the issue.
“It’s very heart-wrenching to experience giving up your school district,” Boyle said. “This school has been through five wars, a mine disaster and a depression. The children who’ve walked these halls, their spirit will always remain here.”
School board members are researching and exploring consolidation options. The two most likely candidates are Ladd Community Consolidated School District and Dimmick Township CCSD.
Residents were encouraged to attend Cherry Grade School’s next board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28 where they will hear about possible consolidation plans with Ladd school officials. That meeting will be in the gym if needed.
Another similar meeting with Dimmick School officials will be at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25.
“Right now, we’re doing our homework on consolidation,” Lower said. “We don’t have the information to talk about consolidation yet. We hope to get that in the next couple of board meetings.”
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932.