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Tax watchdog groups are banding together to stop a state income tax hike being proposed as a way to increase funding for education.
A workshop in Carpentersville drew 60 people, representing 13 tax watchdog groups and other interested individuals from across the Chicago area. The Family Tax Network, based in Carpentersville, and Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes of Harvard sponsored the event.
Bruno Behrend of River Forest was named head of an umbrella group of tax watchdog organizations at Saturday's conference. The umbrella group plans to meet monthly, as well as send regular e-mails, said its new vice chairwoman, Debra Schott, of Palatine.
Behrend told people attending the workshop that it is time to organize like-minded people to speak with one voice to confront taxing bodies when they seek more money. Behrend is the Illinois director of Freedom Works, a national activist group favoring less government, lower taxes and more freedom. He also hosts a weekly talk radio show Saturdays on WIND.
The watchdog's target is Senate Bill 2, "The Education Funding Reform Act of 2005," introduced Jan. 26. The "shell bill" contains only a cursory description and is in Senate Rules Committee.
The bill is successor to last year's House Bill 750, said Mike Van Winkle, policy analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute. Proponents of HB 750 advocated an increase in the state income tax for both individuals and corporations and the expansion of sales taxes for services never before taxed, such as haircuts, miniature golf, movies and many more categories.
Van Winkle called the bill a power grab.
"It's centralizing control in Springfield," he said.
He also noted that proponents of HB 750 called for school district property taxes to decrease in response to the proposed increases in the state income tax and sales taxes.
"This is not an actual tax rate decrease," Van Winkle said. He said there is nothing in the proposal to prevent later referendums by school districts seeking tax rate increases.
Van Winkle said that if the state bureaucracy was slow to pass along increased funding for education, school districts might be forced to increase taxes just to get back to where they were financially before the bill passed.
He urged the watchdog groups to act quickly because the bill could be presented without warning at any time for a quick vote.
Jim McGill of North Pekin said the proposed state income tax funding bill was an attempt to get around the cap on property taxes. He said a state income tax hike would be a tax increase without a referendum.
The forum also covered school choice and vouchers. Behrend said he favors school choice and financial reform of the current education system.
"We need to undermine support for public education," Behrend said. While he has no issue with good teachers, Behrend said, "It's time to stop being nice." The fact that there are good teachers does not excuse the larger problems with the current educational system, he added.
Until school choice is a reality, Behrend said that poor school districts should get the state money that now go to wealthy districts, such as Lake Forest and Deerfield.
George Clowes, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute School, said school choice is also the answer to public school failings. Associate editor of School Reform News, Clowes told the workshop audience that using vouchers at religious schools is not unconstitutional because the money would be given to parents, not to the schools.
"Parents make the decision where to use the vouchers," Clowes said. Parental decision counters the argument that using tax vouchers to attend religious schools would violate the Constitutional separation of church and state, he said.
Clowes said the free-market competition created by school-choice programs would make public schools better and test scores would improve.
Others at the workshop were focused on public school fiscal responsibility and accountability. Co-founder of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes, Jim Peschke of Harvard wore a yellow T-shirt with a slogan that read, "It's a 'Spending' Problem, not a 'Funding' Problem."
Peschke cited statistics from the National Education Association's Web site that rank Illinois third in the country for public school revenue as a percentage of combined state and local revenues for 2002-03. Peschke said school districts should spend more wisely instead of asking for more money.
Mike Wiegand of Family Tax Network, said that organization's Web site, www.thechampion.org, has salary information for all Illinois teachers. He said the information is taken from the Teacher Service Record and is provided by the Illinois State Board of Education pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. He noted that salary information is a great tool for watchdog groups.
Bill Russin of Richmond is chairman of watchdog group called Citizens Against Unrestrained Spending in Education. Russin said the group is supporting a slate of candidates in the April race for school board in Nippersink School District 2, in far northern Richmond.
"Everyone's for education, don't get me wrong", said Russin. "But the superintendent for our three-school district is making $460 a day for 365 days a year."
"The School Board members are probably well-meaning mothers and fathers with kids in school, but they have no experience in administering large sums of money or expertise in dealing with powerful unions," Russin said.
Two workshop participants are running for school board positions. Robert Shelstrom, of Palos Park, is a candidate for a spot on Consolidated High School District 230 board that serves Palos Park and Orland Park.
Richard Conley, from Warren Township, is a candidate in the Gurnee-based Warren Township High School District 121. Conley has been the chief investigator for Citizens for Responsible Government, which he said has been reviewing finances at Warren Township High School.
Conley said that it was his organization's inquiries that prompted the school district to conduct an independent financial audit. Waukegan attorney Daniel Field completed that audit last December.
Forum presenters offered success tips. Bill Huley of Palatine Township, president of Northwest Tax Watch, a 15-year-old watchdog group based in Arlington Heights, said, "Credibility is the key to success."
He advised people attending the workshop to pick their fights. Members' professional skills can be tapped to present arguments. And watchdog groups should be well-organized. He noted that being credible has strengthened Northwest Tax Watch's reputation with the media.
Conley said to use the Freedom of Information Act as often as necessary to get information from school boards. Kurt Giehler of Prospect Heights, vice president of Northwest Tax Watch, said that if a Freedom of Information Act request is denied, then contact the state's attorney's office to file a complaint. He also said to send press releases or hold press conferences about issues.
For more information about school choice, vouchers and charter schools, visit www.heartland.org. For more information about Bruno Behrend's radio show, visit www.extremewisdom.com. For National Education Association's statistics, visit www.nea.org. Other Web resources include www.freedomworks.org and www.illinoispolicyinstitute.org.