Alden-Hebron school tax hike possible, despite referendum loss

By Gregory Harutunian For Chronicle Media

The Alden-Hebron school building stands in the distance, as footings for permanent football field lights were poured in 2015. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

A gap of nearly 600 votes halted approval of a $20.3 million build bond issuance in the Alden-Hebron School District 19 to construct a new facility for middle and high school students, according to the unofficial April 2 consolidated election tally.

District taxpayers, however, could still see an increase in their property tax bill, if a board of education study deems reorganization as the solution.

At issue is the age and needed repairs of the current building, located at 9604 Illinois St. in Hebron, where middle and high school students are housed in the same structure and drove the referendum question initiative. The district’s board of education has reviewed potential remedies, including reorganization, with the most likely form taking the shape of annexation to a neighboring school district for its high school students.

The question lost 824-244. The official totals will be certified after April 16, after the remaining mail-in and provisional ballots are counted.

“The district had provided information regarding the referendum on its website,” said Debbie Ehlenburg, superintendent for Alden-Hebron School District 19, when contacted. “The school district cannot and are not allowed to campaign, by law. The Booster Club was supportive of the referendum. They and the community raised all the proceeds and donations, including money, time, and services for the lights for the football field.”

In 2015, the community rallied together in bringing permanent field lights to the grounds and opened the team’s schedule Aug. 28 against Rockford Lutheran. A local high school was replacing its lights standards, and Phil Walters, of the Hebron-based Walters Farms, made the journey to retrieve them. A word-of-mouth volunteer effort sprung up with donated materials, funding, labor and a $54,000 approximate cost, easily defraying a larger amount.

Now, the community was vocal during a March 20 informational meeting that sought to explain and possibly gain support for the bond referendum question. One point centered on building a new facility for a total enrollment of 211 middle school and high school students. Referendum approval would have translated to a $150,000 property owner incurring a $913 increase in their annual taxes for the life-term of the bonds.

“At this time, the next steps for the board of education and administration will be to re-visit our options as well as take the opportunity to reach out to the Alden-Hebron School District 19 community to understand their goals and objectives for the future of our school district,” she said.

“While we are disappointed with the results of (the) election, we are still committed to providing the highest educational standards. We as a school board and administration, along with community stakeholders, will need to develop a plan to improve our physical educational environment to include addressing the security issues, health/life safety issues and building issues with the aged facility.”

Ehlenburg had noted that the most likely form of reorganization would be annexation with a nearby school district, along with a correlated and detailed study to find whether any of the school districts “were agreeable to be part of the study.” If study results recommended reorganization, a referendum question would need to be placed on the election ballot and gain approval by voters in both school districts.

Ultimately, that approval is tantamount to a tax increase for residents within the District 19 boundaries.

“Due to the fact that Alden-Hebron’s tax rate is the lowest of the four districts (Harvard, Woodstock, and Richmond) … Alden-Hebron would take on the tax rate of the district that it was annexed into, not including the outstanding long-term debt of either district.

Harvard and Woodstock are unit school districts, as is Alden-Hebron. With annexation, “Woodstock or Harvard would have all the decision-making power as to what buildings they would open, where all Pre-K through 12th grades would attend school, the curriculum that would be followed,” said Ehlenburg.

“If the annexation with Richmond-Burton High School District 157 occurred, the taxpayers would be responsible for two tax rates, one for Pre-K through 8th grades (new Alden-Hebron school district), and the tax rate of District 157. The same would be true if the board deactivated the high school and reached an agreement with any of the three districts.

Ehlenburg also said another factor in moving the high school students to another district is that they are presently still housed together in the same building.

“The needs of the building repairs are still there. The ultimate goal is to deliver a safe and secure environment and one which fosters 21st century learning for students and staff.”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for April 16.