LANSING | In a surprise, the Lansing Elementary District 158 School Board on Wednesday voted for a zero percent increase for the 2012 tax levy.
With the exception of board member Anthony Arens, the entire board had approved a tentative property tax levy in October that called for a 2.9 percent increase over the total 2011 tax levy extension. The goal of that increase was to add about $500,000 to a total levy of almost $17.28 million.
Arens spoke before the vote was taken Dec. 19 and said the district had raised taxes eight of the last 10 years.
"We can't keep asking the taxpayers to tighten their belts until we start to tighten ours," Arens said.
Board member Robert Bonifazi said that Arens' claim is somewhat misleading.
"If you add the last five years together, there's still a reduction in the overall taxes that people have paid over the last five years," Bonifazi said. "I think it's unfair to look at it one year at a time"
Arens said he decided to run for election to the board primarily to address the tax issue, a point for which he was chided by board Vice President Charles Taylor.
"I applaud you for admitting that you got on the board because of your taxes," Taylor said. "It bothers me that that seems to be the only reason why you're on and why you're active."
Board member Brian Stewart said he struggled with how to vote, in part because of unfinished schools and a new curriculum for which funds are needed.
"And on the other hand I hear from the public about their tax bill," Stewart said.
Board President Robert Wood gave an impassioned speech before the vote and said approving a zero percent increase would provide no guarantee taxes in District 158 would not go up anyway and that there is no certainty that a 2.9 percent increase would mean more money for the district.
"We are all held hostage by the assessor of Cook County," Wood said. "Regardless of any action we take tonight, the bottom line won't be certain until that state equalizer multiplier has been determined."
Wood railed against state legislators and said state contributions per student have been reduced to a point where Illinois is ranked dead last of the 50 states in that regard.
"They are seriously considering in lame duck to pass legislation that will allow the state to further default on the promises that they've made to pensioners, passing the burden back to local districts who have already made our contributions," he said.
While claiming the vote taken Wednesday was mainly "symbolic," Wood explained why he decided to vote for the 2.9 percent increase.
"I think, as a board member, I am bounded to do what is best for the district and that is to say that we can use that 3 percent," Wood said. "But don't expect to get it."
Ultimately, only Wood and board member Jerome Kern voted for the 2.9 percent increase, which failed by a vote of 5-2.
Bonifazi then made a motion for the zero percent increase.
All voted for that levy except Kern.
Following the meeting, Arens questioned the intent of his fellow board members.
"They either agreed with me that they're out of control on spending or they voted no because all the people that voted no, besides me, are up for election this election," Arens said.
In other district news, Superintendent Cecilia Heiberger said a residency hotline has been on the district website since Nov. 28 but that it has not generated any notices.
The intent of the hotline is to provide people an opportunity to leave tips if they suspect a student who lives out of the district is attending school in District 158.
Heiberger told the board five students have been removed from the district this school year due to residency concerns.
*Editor's note: This headline has been corrected from an earlier version.