McHenry County school districts heard something from voters Tuesday evening that they do not hear often regarding referendums: Yes.
Voters approved four of five referendums, the first election since March 2002 that more than one passed. Referendums in Woodstock District 200 and McHenry District 15 passed by comfortable margins, according to preliminary vote totals. A bond referendum and an education fund tax rate increase referendum both passed in Carpentersville-based District 300, with the education fund increase winning by a narrow margin.
Pro-referendum groups in Woodstock and McHenry accustomed to defeat - District 15 passed on its sixth try - attributed their victories to aggressive community outreach.
"I think the difference this time was the entire package deal," said Kate Halma, co-chairman of the Citizens for District 200 Committee. "There wasn't a quick strategic planning session or an open house that not many people went to. This was a 2 1/2-year research effort. The answers weren't dictated to the residents of District 200. The answers were developed by the residents of District 200."
But referendum opponents who have organized over the years argue that the referendums passed because developers and vendors bought them with campaign contributions, and school boards threatened draconian cuts if the referendums failed.
"Why wouldn't the people resent the fact that developers who are putting a lot of homes in the community, certainly for their profit, are interested in promoting a tax on the community?" said Jack Roeser, founder of the Family Taxpayers Network, who spent about $18,000 of his own money for anti-referendum signs and mailings.
Halma rejected the notion that developers bought the election.
"The developers' contributions helped us print fliers," Halma said. "The developers' contributions did not help raise the passion of Woodstock citizens."
Tuesday's victories buck a years-long trend - three school referendums passed and 21 failed between 2003 and 2005. Seven of eight school referendums failed in the March 2004 election.
Districts 200 and 300 will embark on large-scale school construction programs to accommodate growth. District 15's vote will add more teachers and stave off program cuts. District 300 received some criticism for proposed activity cuts, which added up to 1 percent of the district's budget.
"There have been a lot of new threats lately, and the people charged with caring for the students and the citizens have instead been threatening them," said Jim Peschke, co-founder of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes, an anti-referendum group in Harvard.
The sole referendum failure Tuesday was District 46 in Prairie Grove, where voters soundly defeated a building plan that school officials said would not increase the tax rate. Prominent village residents such as the village president, a school board member and the president of the district's Parent-Teacher Organization opposed the referendum.
Woodstock's and McHenry's victories snapped long-time losing streaks fueled in part by ethical issues that tarnished voter trust.
District 200 acquired land for a new high school in 1991, despite two advisory referendums against the idea, landing the district and the former superintendent in trouble several years later with then-State's Attorney Gary Pack. District 15 exploited a legal loophole in 1993 to raise taxes a year early following a successful referendum.
"Part of the education process was helping [voters] understand what happened that year," said Bonnie Simon, co-chairman of the District 15 group Our Children, Our Investment. "As much as it seemed like an under-handed decision, it really was the best decision at the time. And it was 13 years ago - we really have to move on and base the decisions on today, not what happened back then."
Peschke called Tuesday's vote a temporary setback because homeowners sooner or later will run out of money to pay teacher salaries.
"The reason I say so is because the system can't continue," Peschke said. "You can't raise taxes faster than inflation. When the people get burned by these districts, they will learn. I was hoping they'd learn the easy way."
By KEVIN P. CRAVER
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By the numbers
4 of 5 school referendum questions passed Tuesday .
7 of 8 school referendums failed in March 2004.
16 school referendums have passed since 2000, while 29 have failed.*
2 districts, Districts 15 and 50, have approached voters in 6 elections since 2000. District 15 won on the sixth try on Tuesday.
4 out of 5 referendums have passed in District 300 since 2000, the most of any area district.
Only 5 of the county's 19 school districts have not held a tax referendum since 2000.
* Three districts since 2000 have asked two ballot questions in a single election: District 19 in Hebron in April 2005 (both failed), District 50 in Harvard in April 2003 (both failed) and Carpentersville-based District 300 on Tuesday (both passed).
** The above figures include districts with all or a significant percentage of their assessed valuation in McHenry County.