A last-minute effort in Riverside to derail the Riverside-Brookfield High School tax referendum was led by one of the village’s elected trustees and likely helped boost voter turnout in Riverside Township.
Riverside Trustee Lonnie Sacchi led an effort to organize volunteers and distribute around 3,500 anti referendum fliers in Riverside, North Riverside and the Hollywood section of Brookfield during in the last few days before the vote. The fliers were prepared by the National Taxpayers United of Illinois (NTUI), a Chicago based anti-tax group.
Sacchi said that he got involved because he was upset about hearing from a variety of sources that RB was using school resources to promote the referendum.
“What I think really turned me against it was all the shenanigans that went on over there and the misuse of school resources,” Sacchi said. “That’s what really angered me more than anything else, coupled with the fact I don’t believe in raising taxes when we’re still in a recession.”
A bad economy and a community that feels it has no more to give in property taxes led to a crushing defeat for the Riverside Brookfield High School District 208 tax rate hike referendum at the polls last week.
More than three quarters of voters said no to the referendum which would have added about $4.5 million to RB’s operating budget. 5,682 people or 76.76 percent voted against the referendum while only 1,720 people (23.24 percent) voted to approve the referendum. The referendum lost by substantial margins in all 28 precincts in the district.
“It’s not a question of the worth of the faculty, the worth of the programs,” said a Riverside woman who declined to give her name because her son attends RB. “Of course we want athletics, of course we want all the programs and of course we want good salaries for faculty and faculty that deserve to be paid well. That’s not the issue. The issue is nobody can afford it any more.”
Voter turnout was high for a municipal election, especially in Riverside, where 44 percent of registered voters turned out to vote despite an uncontested village board race. Turnout was lower in Brookfield and North Riverside, which had contested village board races. In Brookfield, 34.5 percent of voters turned out and in North Riverside 35.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Riverside senior citizens like Nick Cariello and Tony Pecelunas were among the 30 or so people who helped pass out the NTUI fliers. The fliers raised awareness among voters and probably boosted turnout.
“A lot of people didn’t even know there was a referendum,” said Cariello, who said that he passed out about 900 fliers by himself.
On the back of the NTUI flier was a listing of the top 100 salaries at RB. Those numbers apparently influenced some voters, even though the RB teachers union had agreed to forgo raises in their base pay for the final two years of their contract if the referendum was approved.
But some voters still complained about teacher salaries and seemed to equate voting for the referendum with giving teachers a raise.
“I think the teachers already make enough, and the rest of the economy is not keeping up with that kind of pace, and I think it’s unfair,” said Joanne Klepura of Riverside after casting her no vote. “They want too much money. Every place is doing cutbacks and now they want too much money. It’s too much.”
A mailing by an anonymous anti-referendum group and an anti-referendum robocall from a Virginia based conservative political action committee also may have contributed to the referendum’s defeat by a lopsided margin.
It is not known why the political action committee got involved in a local referendum.
Calls by the Landmark seeking comment from Americans in Contact PAC were not returned.
School board member and Vote Yes volunteer MariAnn Leibrandt was angered by the robocall.
“It stinks,” Leibrandt said on Election Day. “It was in very poor taste. They don’t know who we are, and they’re going about telling us to vote no and they don’t know what our issues are. Just vote no because we are fiscal conservatives.’
District 208 Interim Superintendent David Bonnette said that he was disappointed with the result but said that the tough economy made it very difficult to get a tax increase approved.
“Clearly we’re disappointed in the result,” Bonnette said. “In this economy it’s a bit of an uphill climb. I think it was surprising that it wasn’t a little closer. … People are cutting back in many respects and we are too. The district isn’t going to be quite the same next year.”
Bonnette who personally went door to door canvassing for yes votes as did some other RB administrators, teachers, parents and students for four consecutive weekends, said that the defeat hurt.
“You try not to take it personally,” Bonnette said.
The yes campaign contacted about 9,500 voters, but couldn’t convince enough of them to vote yes.
Bonnette said that although the yes campaign had a core group of parent volunteers there were not enough of them.
“We didn’t have the level of parental involvement that was necessary to get your message out,” Bonnette said. “In order to get your message out it has to be parent-driven, community-driven and you have to have a really large number of people that are working to get that message out through a variety of means. The parents that did come forward and organized this community group were outstanding.”
Bonnette said that RB had no choice but to ask the voters for more money this year.
“This was a decision that has been put off for at least five years, going back to 2006 when the board had thought about doing an operating fund referendum at the same time they did the building bond, but elected not to,” Bonnette said. “It couldn’t be deferred any longer. The community clearly expressed its viewpoint and we will have to assess that.”