Voters question Morton’s $10.5 million referendum

UPDATE on Election Day: The people of Morton passed the bond referendum described here, 58 to 42 percent, the Peoria Journal-Star reported early Wednesday morning.

District 709 Superintendent Lindsey Hall posted a note on the district’s website on Election Night:

“The Morton District 709 Board of Education wishes to thank our voters this evening for supporting the much needed additions and improvements to all six of our school buildings through the passage of the $10.5 million bond issue. This bond issue addresses urgent needs, as identified by our BOE, due to our growing enrollment, daily requirement for physical education, and needed capital improvements.

“As we move ahead through the construction process, we are committed to keeping our community/taxpayers informed throughout the project. We will seek efficiencies and cost savings measures when warranted, and look forward to continuing the excellence in our classrooms that the Morton Schools are known for. We encourage our community to stay engaged, to ask questions and to communicate with the school board on an ongoing basis as we move ahead with various decisions that need to be made regarding all aspects of the Morton Schools, not just facilities.”

Voters in Morton, Illinois, School District 709 could vote to raise their taxes in the primary election next month: the district is seeking a $10.5 million loan for expansion to all six schools and would pay it off over nine seven years by raising the tax rate 27 cents per $100 equalized assessed valuation.


Morton High School Marching Band in the 2011 Pumpkin Fest Parade (Doug Pieper / Flickr Creative Commons)

The district will conduct an informational meeting on Monday, February 29, at Lincoln Elementary School. The meeting starts at 6:30 PM, although times and places are subject to change without notice on these pages. Video here.

UPDATE March 5: Four people spoke at District 709’s board meeting on March 1, all of them speaking in favor of the referendum, suggesting that a vote for the referendum would not only help the schools but help the community and property values as well. “Yes, this is investment in our students and our buildings,” said Aaron Seaman in a public comment section of the meeting. “But it’s also an investment in our homes and our property values as well. Study after study has shown that good schools lead to good property values.”

Taxes for homeowners would go up by about $74 a year on a $100,000 home, $119 on a $150,000 home, and $164 on a $200,000 home.

One expansion would remodel the band room at the district’s high school. The school’s marching band had about 130 students three years ago and 160 in the fall 2015 season. It’s expected to expand to about 220 when this year’s freshmen are seniors, three years from now.

Under the leadership of Jeff Neavor at the high school, the band program has excelled, coming from a last-place finish at a Bands of America competition in St Louis in 2004 to a semifinalist band at the Grand National Championships in Class 2A in 2010. The band seems to win its enrollment class every year at the Illinois State University Invitational as well. With a program like that, there’s going to be interest: kids like that sense of accomplishment.

Combined with increasing enrollment in the district, this heightened interest in the high school’s championship band program has created needs for the band program at the junior high.


Population growth in Illinois, 2000-2010

First, the enrollment numbers from the Illinois Report Card show a total district enrollment of

  • 2,804 in 2011
  • 2,817 in 2012
  • 2,857 in 2013
  • 2,884 in 2014
  • 2,911 in 2015

The district’s website lists enrollment this year at 2,945, an increase of about 5 percent in five years.

This is consistent with a higher-than-average growth in Tazewell County, as shown in the map at right. Over all, the growth rate for the state of Illinois is stagnant, having grown just under 1 percent between 2000 and 2010, but growth in Morton and the surrounding area has surpassed Illinois’s average several times over.

Next, Superintendent Lindsey Hall said some of the upgrades are needed urgently, including the junior high band room expansion. The space is all but busting at the seams when the band holds practices. Director Katrina Fitzpatrick has to squeeze in the percussion section up near her podium, even though the band conducts its rehearsals in shifts in order to fit in.

The junior high bands have 57 eighth graders, 61 seventh graders, and 102 sixth graders, according to the Peoria Journal-Star. The band room’s capacity is supposed to be 38.

A few classrooms would be expanded at the junior high as well, and an outdoor storage building used for maintenance at the high school would be built, according to a flyer. The total cost for the high school and junior high renovations and additions would be under $1 million.

There’s also a need, which the district has identified as urgent, to expand gymnasiums at the elementary schools for physical education classes and other activities. Illinois law requires all students to have PE every day, and the schools have had to conduct the PE classes in spare classrooms because there’s not enough room in the gyms.

District 709 March 2016 Tax Referendum

School (primary use of funds) Estimated expenditure
Lincoln Elementary (mostly gym) $3.797 million
Grundy Elementary (mostly gym) $3.361 million
Lettie Brown Elementary (mostly gym) $2.566 million
Jefferson Elementary (windows) $1 million
Morton High School (mostly band, choral) $0.437 million
Morton Junior High (mostly band, classrooms) $0.341 million

Voters have accused the district of spending money foolishly, proposing upgrades that aren’t urgently needed with the majority of the funds here after wasting needed money on real property that isn’t benefiting students here and now.

CORRECTION Feb. 22: The characterization of the grassroots movement in the next paragraph, quoted from what Voxitatis believes to be a reputable news organization, the Peoria Journal-Star, has been removed, because it was considered inaccurate. See the comments. Note that Aaron Seaman, who is listed as the chairman of “Morton Schools Matter for District 709 Referendum,” the political committee set up to encourage a ‘yes’ vote on this referendum, spoke to the District 709 board in September, telling them that investing millions of dollars into the current junior high building would be an “irresponsible use of taxpayer money.”

The band room expansions, some say, could have been paid for with the $4.5 million the district spent a few years ago to purchase farmland, writes Michael J Smith, a machine repairman from Morton, in the Peoria Journal-Star. He claims a “multi-media campaign to get out the vote for this upcoming referendum” has been launched. “School Board members and union members and sports and band boosters have been out in force, using emotional appeals to guilt all 709 parents into voting yes.”

He believes a second referendum will be necessary down the road, raising taxes again, to build a new high school and convert the current high school to a middle school.

“More people are on fixed incomes in Morton than ever before,” he writes. “Caterpillar is laying off thousands. … Morton District 709, like many other governments in these tough times, needs to live within its means and pull from its savings instead of recklessly spending money on items that aren’t needed.”

About $1.5 million of this $12-million project will, in fact, be drawn from the district’s cash reserves. As to whether the new money is being recklessly invested, voters will decide that question, or at least speak their mind on the issue, next month.

Tax referendums have widely mixed results in Illinois history. Lately, though, voters have been rejecting any increase in taxes that they can control at the ballot box.

A referendum in Batavia during the November 2014 election answered a question that was considered only advisory. As we reported, a $15 million loan the district was seeking to take out for facilities upgrades, including an artificial turf field, would be paid back over 20 years with existing funds and revenue streams.

Although the district would have had the authority to raise taxes, school officials told voters they had no intention of raising taxes because of the new loan. Whether voters didn’t believe the district would keep its promise not to raise taxes or didn’t think a facilities upgrade was a worthwhile investment, more than 70 percent of them voted ‘no’ on the question.

District 709 would also replace windows at Jefferson Elementary, add classrooms at Lincoln, Grundy, and Lettie Brown elementary schools, remodel the choral rooms at the high school and junior high, and renovate five classrooms at the junior high. Finally, restrooms and storage spaces will be added at three of the district’s elementary schools.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

5 Comments on "Voters question Morton’s $10.5 million referendum"

  1. This article contains a lie that was originally published in the PJStar. Morton District 709 has put together no “thinly veiled grassroots movement”….that’s a lie by Mr. Smith that can be corroborated by either calling the District, or talking to Aaron Seaman, who runs the grassroots movement Morton Schools Matter (check http://www.mortonschoolsmatter.org, or search for them on Facebook) This organization, and it’s financial records, are publicly searchable.

    [Editor’s note: Article corrected by strikeout, 9:11 PM Feb 22.]

  2. I am the treasurer of the grassroots organization Morton Schools Matter for District 709 Referendum. We are an independent organization. All applicable reports have been filed with the state board of elections. I do not appreciate that you printed this blatant lie about our organization without any fact checking.

    [Editor’s note: I corrected the article by striking the part of Mr Smith’s quote that may have been printed in error by the Peoria Journal-Star. I apologize for not digging deeper about the origin of the organization and believe the case has been made for why the district needs the money, both in the article here and on the website for your committee. -Paul]

  3. Additionally, there have been multiple letters to the editor in support of the referendum, and yet you only chose to print the one letter in opposition. Please report both sides of the story.

    [Editor’s note: Our selection is limited to the paywall policy established by the Peoria Journal-Star. I also thought the district made the case on its side quite well and needed no further elaboration. Please follow up with a description of how well the district presents “both” sides at its “informational” meeting next Monday. -Paul]

  4. Thank you for recognizing your mistake. If you know that something is false, why not remove it completely from your article? Even though you “corrected by strikeout”, the lie is still in print. I would appreciate it if you would remove it.

    The op-eds are available online. Links are: here, here, and here.

    Also the bond issue is for 7 years, not 9 as you state. There would be 2 bond issues, one for 2 years and one for 7 years. They would run concurrently, so at the end of 7 years both bonds will be paid off.

    [Editor’s note: Done. Thanks for the correction. Also, I think our misinformation about this ballot question merits a deeper understanding, which will have to wait until after the vote next month.]

  5. Thanks for your corrections. And thanks for highlighting our great band program!

Comments are closed.