Breaking with past practice and the actions of most school districts and other bodies of local government, a closely divided Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education voted 4 to 3 at a special meeting last night not to raise taxes at all next year.

School board President Mary Rose Mangia cast the deciding vote and broke a 3-3 tie in first voting down a proposal to increase the district’s property tax levy by 1.7 percent and then voting to approve a flat, no-increase levy.

“I thought it was time to offer the taxpayers some relief,” Mangia said after the meeting. “We’ve asked them to be generous. We’ve been able to renovate five schools, and I felt this year we could offer them some relief.”

Joining Mangia in voting for the flat levy were Randy Brockway, Rachel Marrello and Michael O’Brien.

Brockway, Mangia and Marrello were all elected to the school board in April and had campaigned against the so called “tax to the max” policy that most school districts and other local governments follow. O’Brien, who was elected to the school board in 2011, has consistently opposed property tax increases ever since he has been on the board.

Voting in favor of a 1.7 percent increase in the levy were Lisa Gaynor, David Kodama and Art Perry.

Before the vote, Gaynor, Kodama and Perry spoke in favor of the levy increase in an attempt to sway their colleagues during a 15-minute discussion.

“I think that in order to keep the programs and the quality of educational programs that we have here in District 96 going that this is critical,” Perry said. “Over time, we’re going to have to maintain a fund balance just to keep our financial house in order.”

Gaynor said she was concerned that the flat levy would result in increased class sizes in the face of rising enrollment, which she said has grown by about 40 percent in the last 10 years.

“I’m concerned because I don’t see that trend going in the other direction, and I believe that this district also relishes its small class sizes, and if we don’t continue to bring in the revenue, changes will have to be made,” Gaynor said.

Kodama read a letter from a D96 resident, who asked him to vote for an increased levy.

Marrello wasn’t convinced.

“I don’t think all is lost,” she said before the vote. “It’s just one year.”

Marrello cited a Heartland Institute study that said Riverside ranked fourth highest among suburbs in Cook County in the rate of increase in property taxes.

“That’s just attributed to District 96,” she said.

The flat levy is expected to cost the district nearly $400,000 in forgone revenue next year. Illinois tax cap laws limit property tax increases this year to no more than 1.7 percent plus the value of any new construction.

The district administration had recommended approval of the maximum levy.

In an email to staff and parents sent out Wednesday, Supt. Bhavna Sharma-Lewis said the district would have to amend this year’s budget to compensate for the $400,000 in lost revenue.

However, the district still maintains large reserves. Even with the flat levy, the district is projected to finish the current school year with reserves of a little more than $19.6 million.

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