In the November elections, Christian County went solidly for Donald Trump. It's not the kind of environment where taxes for public services are popular. Nevertheless, the Taylorville School District is asking voters to raise their own property taxes, and the district has put everything on the line.
The district hasn’t had a tax increase in 38 years, and is now operating with a $1.3 million annual deficit. If the referendum fails, the district will eliminate all extracurricular activities and all elective classes.
Melisa Livingston — one of the leaders of the referendum campaign — is a substitute teacher and a mom.
“I’ve got three boys. Our oldest is 21, he’s a junior in college. And then we have twins that are 16 that are sophomores in our Taylorville High School,” she says.
Her twins play basketball, and as we chat, Livingston keeps an eye on the time. We’re sitting in the school cafeteria, which is serving as the concession stand for the basketball game. Livingston doesn’t want to miss the tip-off. But if her kids are her top priority, the referendum seems to be a close second.
Livingston says as property values have risen, people in Taylorville feel that they’re paying more money in property taxes. And although that’s true, the rate they’re currently paying — 3.42 percent — isn’t as high as similar communities.
“Actually, it’s very low,” she says. “But when we discuss it in our community that our property tax rates are significantly lower than Pana and Kincaid, that’s an eye-opener for our friends and neighbors.” The referendum proposal is 85 cents per $100 of net assessed value of each individual’s property, and would bring Taylorville up to 4.27 percent, which is still below rates in Kincaid, Chatham and Decatur.
The cuts proposed by the Taylorville school board are drastic, but Livingston says that’s because they’ve already made all the less-painful cuts.
“Over the last 10 years, we have had three (school) buildings closed. We’ve 103 positions eliminated. There’s nowhere else to cut,” she says.
The board has approved a plan to phase out all extracurricular activities and all elective courses if the referendum fails.
“The band program, the FFA program, the student council, our yearbook, and junior varsity athletics all the way down,” Livingston says. “The only thing that would be retained is varsity sports, for one year, and then in 2018, varsity athletics are gone as well.”
I ask Livingston what life in Taylorville would be like without those activities.
“That’s the whole educational experience,” she says. “It will be devastating. My kids are looking at having a senior year with courses available that they’ve already taken.”
As for their prospects for playing college basketball? “Oh, that will be gone,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”
But after a deep breath, she comes up with a different word: “It’s motivational,” Livingston says. “We’re making every possible speaking engagement, addressing everybody we meet. A trip to the grocery store takes longer now than it used to because people approach me. And that’s fine! It has to be fine, because this has to pass.”
She heads back to the gym to watch the game, and with no more crowd at the concession stand, I ask the adult supervising popcorn sales about the referendum. Her name is Bridget Drea, and she’s the junior varsity cheerleading coach. She says she’s heard that some large property owners are against the referendum.
“I know a lot of restaurants… it is a big expense for them, because they do own larger properties, like a lot of the farmers around here. If you own 100 plus acres, that adds up really quick,” Drea says.
She’s not sure her opinion counts, because she doesn’t personally pay property taxes. Just 22 years old, she’s living with her mom.
“At first my mom was not for it, because we do own farm ground, so for her, it is a big tax increase,” Drea says. “But the more she’s looked at it, now she’s kind of shifted her views just because she doesn’t want to see these programs get cut, because when she was in high school, spring sports actually did get cut for a couple of years, so she actually has seen this before and now she’s kind of like taken herself back and she’s like no, the money’s worth it as long as kids get to do stuff that’s still fun for them.”
Back in the gym, I found a teacher willing to miss halftime to chat with me in the hallway — Tonya Goodroe, who teaches PE and coaches at Taylorville junior and senior high schools. “Probably more importantly,” she says, “I have a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old in the school district.”
She fully supports the referendum, but what about other people in town?
“A lot of people I’ve talked to, nobody wants it, but like our signs say: Check yes for the kids, check yes for the community. I think that most people that I’ve talked to totally understand that,” Goodroeo says. “It’s when you get on our local paper, we have a ‘speak out’ column that people get on and Facebook, those type of things that people really put their opinion out on, and me personally, it’s hard to read, because they don’t understand why teacher salaries are so big. That’s the big thing. And you know, when somebody says teacher salaries are getting paid too much, you know they don’t quite understand school finances.”
In the student section of the gym bleachers, I found Reese Bergschneider, a junior at THS and president of the student council. He runs cross country in the fall, track in the spring, is a member of Key Club and is performing in the school musical. He’s also part of Purple Reign, the student spirit club that attends every sporting event. In short, his senior year depends on passing this referendum.
“I just honestly can’t even imagine it,” he says. “It would be terrible not having these clubs and organizations. It would be unbearable. Completely unimaginable.”
He’s hoping to become a chemical engineer, and says his prospect for getting accepted into a good college would also be affected.
“It would decrease them extremely,” he says. “Without all the extracurricular opportunities I have right now, and all the leadership opportunities I have, I wouldn’t be up to the same level as any other person applying for any college.”
As we talked, another student was crowding Bergschneider, desperately trying to get to the mic. His name was Gabriel Goodroe. He’s the son of that PE teacher I spoke with earlier.
Gabriel is a freshman at THS, and active in the music department.
“I do marching band in the fall, concert band for some of the winter and spring, and we start all over again in the summer,” he says. “I play the trombone this year, but in cadet band I played the trumpet.”
I asked him what he would do if these programs are cut.
“I would have no idea what to do if things were cut next year, if the referendum doesn’t pass,” he says.
I notice his mom watching him, from a different part of the bleachers, and with her thumbs and her eyebrows, she uses mom signals to ask me “Is he doing okay?” After Gabriel goes back to his seat, Goodroe tells me her son is mildly autistic.
But that’s not the only way he’s different.
“He has perfect pitch. He started out in fifth grade playing the trumpet, but as an eighth grader he picked up the trombone, and within two weeks, he was just playing,” she says. “He was playing like he’d been playing for years. He loves music. Music is who he is. Without music, I’m not sure what we would do.”
The Taylorville Tornadoes won their game that night. As for the bigger fight, it appears on the April 4 ballot.