As we go the polls in a week to vote either in favor of or against the school referendums on the ballot, the question that keeps nagging at me is whether our schools are differentiating between their needs and wants.

In particular, District 95 is asking for a lofty increase of 47 cents per $100 of assessed valuation per home. Last spring, District 95 asked for a 38 cents per $100 per assessed valuation per home, and that referendum failed.

There is no doubt in my mind that District 95 needs money to support its quality educational services that we as a community have come to expect. But the question that keeps coming back at me is how much money? This is where the school board keeps me guessing.

But in my mind, even after attending one of the board’s referendum forums, I find myself asking more questions than I find answers for. The board presented a nice package of wants, even to the extent of showing an education fund balance in excess of $1 million dollars at the end of 2010.

Why does a school district need to accumulate that kind of money in its education fund? There is a working cash fund that supports the need for contingencies. That fund currently has a hefty balance of about $3 million dollars because the district refinanced its debt [and sold $3.6 million in bonds] a couple of years ago. The district should be balancing its budget and not turning a profit at taxpayers’ expense.

So I ask, is the district pursuing this referendum to support wants or needs for the schools? There is no doubt our children need a good quality education these days, but what kind of tax dollars from the community does the district need to support its programs?

I think a more thorough financial analysis is necessary in order for taxpayers to make a wise decision. What is the impact of a referendum of this magnitude on the overall financial picture?

I see cash being stockpiled and for what purpose? Which programs should be more self sustaining vs. taxpayer supported? Where has the district tightened its belt in these tough economic times and come to us saying we’ve done all we could to contain costs, can you the taxpayer help us now?

I cannot support a 47-cent tax hike, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would support something that shows me the budget is being balanced, fund balances are kept at a required optimal level and costs are being contained.

Another referendum on this spring’s ballot is Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208, and I wonder, too, whether they have differentiated between needs and wants.

In light of the fact the building itself needs much infrastructure repairs to the tune of about $28 million and that those repairs are totally unfunded mandates by the State of Illinois through their life safety inspection, the district can and will increase our taxes without seeking voter approval.

So for another $30 million, and this amount is not pocket change, the district can do all the life safety work, with additional enhancements to the science labs, the pool, the athletic facilities and parking.

The question that keeps popping up for me is whether all the enhancements to our athletic facilities are wants or needs? One can certainly see the need for the enhancements to the science labs as it directly correlates to our children’s education.

Another question is whether the actual cost to the taxpayers is indeed an accurate reflection of what will actually be levied. Will there be cost overruns? The district is issuing bonds and, depending on interest rates and other factors affecting the bond markets, our taxes could vary year to year.

Another consideration is the district has indicated it will more likely than not be coming to taxpayers again in the near future for an education referendum.

Despite the financial uncertainty with District 208’s referendum, I feel the board and current administration have done an admirable job of being sound fiscal managers of our tax dollars, and I feel the improvements to the infrastructure of the building are necessary to maintain the high school’s competitive edge for our children. I believe this referendum should be supported.

Ten years ago District 208 was not the same school it is today, and I believe the board and administration are to be commended for their sound fiscal policy.

 LaGrange Park resident Kathleen Howe-Hrach is a former District 95 board member.