Waterloo School Board OKs tax levy

For the first time in several months, the regular Waterloo School Board meeting took place in the high school library rather than the auditorium, with discussion centering chiefly on the 2023 tax levy and several items approved regarding various construction projects throughout the district.

As was scheduled in November, Monday’s meeting opened with a Truth in Taxation public hearing as required by state law when any taxing body plans to request an increase in the tax levy greater than 4.99 percent over the prior year.

Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron led the discussion, sharing with the board and members of the audience three documents detailing various aspects of the district’s budget and proposed tax levy.

The 2023 levy, which would be used to fund the district for the coming fiscal year, is set at $21,573,782, a 7.62 percent increase over the 2022 levy of $20,079,336.

One of these documents listed several items – including tax levy, percent increase in levy, and equalized assessed valuation – and how they have changed from 2008 to 2023.

The chart notes that this is the first time the district has requested an increase in the tax levy greater than 5 percent since 2019.

Another notable item from the chart is the fact the school tax rate has been on the decline since 2016.

Also included in these documents was a list of comparable and nearby school districts and their tax rates.

The Waterloo School District’s tax rate of 4.26 is seemingly middling compared to the several dozen other districts on the list, which ranged from 2.94 to 10.96, with most in the range of 3-6.

During Charron’s presentation, he pointed out that a notable chunk of the tax rate goes toward paying off the Waterloo High School building.

As he explained, of last year’s $4.26 per $100 of assessed valuation, about 75 cents of it went toward paying off the WHS facility that opened in 2009.

This was a fact Charron brought up again when school board secretary Kim Ahne asked about why Columbia’s tax rate had recently decreased.

Charron suggested that reduction was due to Columbia’s payment of its middle school – noting there could be several other reasons.

“There’s a couple factors there that have caused theirs to fall,” Charron said. “And everybody has working cash bonds that they sell or pay off and all those things that make every district’s tax levy and tax rate unique to them. I do always like to point out that, at some point in time, if we were to pay off this school and have no additional debt, then the community would see that tax rate fall by approximately 75 cents.”

A member of the audience questioned how the planned renovations at Zahnow Elementary could affect the district’s budget and how it factors into the levy.

Charron responded saying those planned upgrades are currently part of the regular budget. Though he expressed some concerns, Charron added that the project should be taken care of as the district has held on to capital development reimbursement funds from previous projects.

“Our plan is to have enough money to cover that Zahnow project without affecting your property tax rate,” Charron said. “My concern is we may have to borrow a million or two that we would use our sales tax revenue as collateral such that we would pay that off over five years time, something like that. But I do not anticipate the Zahnow project impacting property taxes.”

The tax levy was also brought up later in the meeting when it was ultimately voted on and approved.

Charron here noted how the tax rate has gone down slightly over the last few years, adding that one of the biggest factors in this rate is ultimately the assessed valuation. He also pointed to new construction in the district as another factor.

School board vice president Neil Giffhorn prompted a brief discussion about keeping the tax rate low for Waterloo residents given ongoing inflation.

“From a simple household economic standpoint, I want to make sure that this is not going to overburden the taxpayers in the community,” Giffhorn said. “And I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s more expensive for me to go to the grocery store, it’s more expensive for our teachers to go to the grocery store, it’s more expensive to keep the lights on in here. Inflation is hitting us all, and that money has got to come from somewhere.”

Charron expressed his agreement, noting inflation has also hit the district hard as a consumer.

Following the meeting, Charron offered a general comment on the tax levy.

“We have thoroughly evaluated the information that is available to us and feel we have proposed a tax levy that balances our desire to keep our tax rate consistent while also meeting the financial challenges we will face in the next fiscal year,” Charron said.

Offering public comment on the tax levy was community resident Tony Grasso III, who frequently attends various governmental meetings.

Grasso, as he has done before, recommended the district sell its real estate and lease it back, saying it was the only issue he took with a district he otherwise holds in high regard.

In other action items taken up by the board, several projects involving FGM Architects were approved, among them improvements to the Waterloo Junior High School athletic fields, Rogers Elementary and Gardner partial roof replacements and various pavement improvements in the district.

Relatedly, the board authorized Charron to sign a letter of intent with Modern Business Interiors for the purchase of furniture for the Zahnow renovation not to exceed $100,000.

The board also approved the adoption of policies from Press Plus Issue 113, an item which prompted some discussion at the November meeting – though such policies are regularly adopted by the board – but was passed this month with little comment.

As part of administrative reports, Charron noted two FOIA requests, one of which led to some discussion of discoloration and mold at Rogers which is set to be cleaned up over winter break.

Offering a sizable presentation was Gardner Elementary fourth grade teacher Lyndsay Ahrens, who spoke about various positive aspects of the school that administration cared to highlight.

Ahrens pointed to several ways the school tries to encourage positive behavior among its students. She also spoke about Students Helping Out Waterloo, otherwise known as SHOW, a sort of charity club which replaced the school’s student council and most recently assisted Monroe County House of Neighborly Service in collecting canned goods and is also selling candy canes to raise money for the Waterloo Rotary Tree of Lights campaign.

She also opened her presentation saying the school recently conducted a survey among students to hear what their favorite aspect of Gardner was.

“According to the survey results, one of the top student responses was that students love the teachers, principal and staff at Gardner because they are nice,” Ahrens said. “The next popular response was the students love seeing and being with their friends. It was a heartwarming moment as each staff member discovered not just their own students’ reflections but also the sentiments of all the other students at our school.”

While no members of the audience came up to speak during the public participation component of the meeting – a somewhat stark change from the past few board meetings – school board member John Caupert took this time to express his appreciation for WHS Principal Lori Costello, who is stepping away as she takes over as regional superintendent of schools for St. Clair County.

Caupert commended Costello for her service over the years, noting how she has played an important role as the school and district have gone through various complications, particularly remote learning and other hurdles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve gotten to know Lori Costello extremely well personally over the last 11-12 years,” Caupert said. “Sitting on this Board of Education for the last 10 and a half years, I have had the fortune to have a front row seat to see this person lead this school and – at times – this community through excruciating times… I truly believe that Lori Costello is the definition of leadership. I think that the schools in St. Clair County are blessed to have her, and I believe that we are going to miss her.”

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web