Voters and homeowners in the south and southwest suburbs have their work cut out for them in coming weeks.
People who care about high property taxes ought to read up on candidates running for school boards in the April 6 election.
Property taxes are a huge burden throughout the region. Education spending is main reason.
“Local schools account for 60% to 70% of property tax bills,” said Guy Gattone, taxpayer advocate for city of Oak Forest.
Gattone’s job is an elected post, the first of its kind in Illinois. Oak Forest residents created the position in 1997 to help people appeal their Cook County assessments and property taxes.
Gattone said he wished more citizens paid attention to local government. If they did, he said, they might better understand why property tax bills are so high.
“When I talk to people I explain to them that the biggest part of it is school taxes,” Gattone said. “If you want to complain about your taxes, I would go to school board meetings and tell them what your feelings are.”
Questioning representatives about spending takes time and effort, however.
“A lot of people don’t do that,” Gattone said. “People have to start voicing their opinions.”
Local school board elections every two years provide another opportunity to hold elected officials accountable. In many districts, unions representing teachers endorse candidates seeking board seats.
School board elections every two years provide another opportunity to hold elected officials accountable. In many districts, unions representing teachers endorse candidates seeking school board seats.
“When the union endorses candidates, that’s their goal, they want to get the right people on the board to agree with what they want,” Gattone said.
This may seem like an obvious point, but the topic deserves consideration. The situation is nuanced. On one hand, many would agree that teachers are good people. Unions are good organizations. Endorsements are a form of protected speech.
On the other hand, some may say school districts spend a lot of taxpayer money. Most costs of education pertain to wages, benefits and retirement compensation for educators. Unless more is done to control costs, people might get taxed out of their homes.
Illinois has about 850 school districts. Typically, teacher unions collectively bargain terms with school districts and elected school boards approve contracts. Salaries and benefits can vary widely among ZIP codes.
Voters need to know whether their school board candidates are more inclined to favor generous compensation packages for educators or whether fiscal restraint is a greater priority.
As recent debates over school openings have shown, unions play a vital role in advocating for workplace safety and other concerns. Potential homebuyers often rank quality of public schools among top considerations when scouting property in various communities.
“Everybody wants good schools, obviously,” Gattone said.
Unions have a right to engage in the political process by endorsing and financially supporting candidates with campaign contributions. However, other voters in the community may not share the same priorities. Households with no children or with kids who have grown up may be more concerned about their property tax bills.
If it becomes too expensive to provide a quality education, a community cannot sustain its tax base. If taxes get too high, neighborhoods may experience more residential vacancies. Overall home values may decline. It’s a delicate balance.
Serving on a school board is a thankless job for the most part. Positions are unpaid. The ideal public servant would weigh concerns of all constituents, including children, parents, teachers, taxpayers, senior citizens and businesses.
Voters should do their homework and be mindful of endorsements. U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are known for criticizing financial institutions and calling for more regulation of the industry. Should anyone be surprised when Wall Street banks endorse and financially support their opponents?
Voters are responsible for educating themselves about candidates and assessing whose interests they represent.
“Unions represent their members,” said Ben Silver of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center. “They are organized to operate to that effect. That’s their purpose, to support those interests.”
In many instances, unions publicly share candidate endorsements on social media pages. Some campaigns can afford to print literature mailed to homes that might mention endorsements.
People can research public information about campaign donations available through the Illinois State Board of Elections website.
“We always support things like full disclosure of political contributions,” Silver said. “We want to make sure everything is out in the open so voters have the ability to objectively assess the interests involved.”
Researching candidates and their supporters is good advice for voters in any election. Understanding positions of school board candidates is particularly important to homeowners concerned about high property taxes.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
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February 18, 2021 at 05:06PM