Unity Point School

Unity Point School in Carbondale.

CARBONDALE — When Jackson County voters approved a 1% school facilities sales tax in November 2016, D.W. Presley heaved a sigh of relief.

“We were getting close to crisis mode,” remembers the Unity Point Elementary school board president.

Illinois was in the midst of a 2-year budget impasse, and school funding was coming in below state projections, with payments often arriving months late, Presley said. And in mostly-rural Makanda, property taxes weren’t enough to make up the difference.

“As educators, not politicians, we have to ask for this,” said Unity Point Elementary Superintendent Lori James-Gross, at the time. “For our students and our communities, period.”

Three years later, the tax is seen as a game-changer by many Jackson County educators.

“It’s allowed us to do the big ticket maintenance projects that we’d put off for so long,” said Nathaniel Wilson, superintendent of DeSoto Grade School, which has received about $250,000 from the tax since its ratification. “It keeps maintenance projects out of my personnel and education funds. I don’t have to think about what staff can I do without in order to accomplish these projects.”

The tax’s revenue is distributed according to school enrollment, and can be used only for facilities and infrastructure projects.

Unity Point, which received $523,931 in Fiscal Year 2019, has used the funding to secure loans for new roofs, HVAC units, and eco-friendly LED lighting, plus safety improvements like new door locks that teachers can lock from the inside and a camera-protected main entryway.

But this summer the funds filled an especially urgent need, when an air conditioner failure over the 4th of July weekend allowed mold to develop in 30 classrooms.

Mold causes Unity Point in Carbondale to push back school start date to Aug. 28

By its nature, and particularly in a school environment where safety is paramount, mold abatement is expensive, Presley said.

The area must be sealed off and hepa vacuumed.

Everything that can’t be cleaned beyond a shadow of a doubt is discarded, including every ceiling tile and other porous classroom materials, Presley said. Independent industrial hygienists must visit the school to test air and surface cleanliness both before and after.

The work was covered by the school’s insurance, but its mold remediation policy has a deductible of $100,000, which it has well exceeded, with costs tallied around $385,000 so far, Presley said.

Had the school not had its sales tax funds, it would have paid the deductible out of its building fund, which holds about $455,000 a year to pay utilities and other everyday expenses.

“It definitely would have caused a hardship in our normal budgetary planning,” Presley said. “This wasn’t something we could delay.”

Across the state, county school sales taxes have grown in popularity in recent years.

Fifty-six of Illinois’ 102 counties now have a school facilities tax on the books, with Union and Fayette counties approving theirs in April.

The taxes generated about $135,000,000 during the 2019 Fiscal Year, according to data from the Illinois Department of Revenue, including $5,171,578,13 in Jackson County.

In deep Southern Illinois, most counties have one on the books. Gallatin County, however, has been resistant to the measure, with voters twice rejecting it at the ballot box, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Alexander, Pulaski, Johnson, Pope and Massac counties have never considered such a tax.

To Presley, the growing popularity signals confidence that the tax is money well-spent.

“Unlike the feelings people have about some other taxes, they are knowing and putting trust in schools and school boards that we are using the money for the reason the tax is levied,” he said. “And the money is used for what it’s intended for. This allows us to take care of infrastructure without diminishing educational opportunities for the children."

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