Rochelle schools hold informational meeting on county schools facilities sales tax ballot item

Potential 1-percent sales tax: 'Ultimately this is a direct democracy question'


ROCHELLE — On Monday, Jason Harper, superintendent of both Rochelle school districts, made an informational presentation to the community on the county school facilities sales tax referendum item that will be appearing on the March 19 election ballot.

About a dozen people attended the meeting at Lincoln School. The presentation was given later that evening in Spanish as well. It covered the basics of the county school facilities sales tax, answers to frequently-asked questions, and a question and answer session was held.

A law passed in 2007 to allow for a county-wide sales tax in Illinois to benefit schools for expenses including facilities, security, mental health services and school resource officers. The sales tax must pass in a county by referendum during an election. That has not taken place in Ogle County, and the measure failed on the ballot locally back in 2013. There are 57 counties in Illinois that have the county schools facilities sales tax.

The referendum would have to pass on the ballot county-wide. The sales tax would be an increase of one percent. Ogle County currently has a seven percent sales tax, and after the potential increase, it would be eight percent. 

The additional sales tax would apply to items that are already taxed, with the exception of vehicles and unprepared food. Based on the most recent numbers, a county schools facility sales tax could net the Rochelle elementary district $813,202 per year. It would net the high school district $443,491 per year, the Kings School District $46,181, the Creston School District $42,259, and the Eswood School District $26,082. The money is based on students in Ogle County, of which the Steward School District has none, so it would not see any new funds. Steward does receive county schools facilities sales tax funds from Lee County.

The Rochelle elementary school district has seen large expenses recently as it deals with aging buildings. Tilton Elementary School was built in 1949. Central Elementary School was built in 1939 and May Elementary School was built in 1959.

The elementary district is currently in the process of pursuing renovations at Tilton School. The board plans to pursue $14-16 million worth of needed upgrades at the school after finding in a health life safety evaluation that an estimated $7.8 million worth of work is required at the school for those issues. The district plans to issue bonds for that money and wants to utilize an additional $6-8 million from its reserves for other improvements involving security and spatial concerns including its pick up and drop off areas.

It was said at the Rochelle Elementary School District’s November meeting that it could leverage that hypothetical $813,202 a year in new sales tax funds into about $8.8 million in projects.

Along with facilities, security, mental health services and school resource officers, the money can be used to abate property taxes and make rates lower for property owners within the district.

Harper said that while the elementary school district would utilize the funds for school safety improvements, SRO funding, mental health and facility improvements, the high school board would use it to abate property taxes until it saw needs arise for other designated uses of the funds. Rochelle Township High School is about 20 years old and does not have a current facility improvement need.

"The RTHS board's immediate plan if the referendum passes would be to do a lesser tax levy of about four percent," Harper said.

For school resource officers, RTHS currently has one SRO and the elementary district has one SRO between all of its buildings. Harper said the districts have "ongoing and regular conversations" with the Rochelle Police Department on SRO needs, but RPD does not currently have the staffing to dedicate another officer to a school, Harper said.

Based on public data from May 2022 through April 2023, 55 percent of the county's sales tax revenue came from the Rochelle area. However, Rochelle schools account for about 30 percent of Ogle County's total number of students.

"There is a discrepancy there," Harper said. "That is a question I've received out in the community. And if Rochelle doesn't pass it and everybody else in Ogle County votes for it, it will be put into place. The majority of Ogle County voters will decide it."

The language on the March 19 ballot will read:

“Shall a retailer’s occupation tax and a service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a ‘Sales Tax’) be imposed in Ogle County at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes, school resource officers, and mental health professionals?”

The county schools facilities sales tax has no sunset clause or end date for counties it’s passed in by referendum. But if no district has obligated funds to future bond payments, a county board could put it back on the ballot to be repealed in the future.

Harper did not take a public position for or against the county schools facilities sales tax, and only presented information to the community at the meeting.

"Ultimately this is a direct democracy question," Harper said. "We're all going to go to the voting booth, shut the curtain and make a decision. And whatever that decision is, the majority will rule. And then the school boards in Rochelle will react based on that."