COVID tax extensions put St. Clair County schools on watch

Three of the six Illinois school districts to receive the lowest designation for their state

Three of the six Illinois school districts to receive the lowest designation for their state financial profiles this year are in St. Clair County.

Delays in receiving property tax payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic account for the low rating, the superintendents say.

Lebanon School District 9, O’Fallon Consolidated School District 90 and Whiteside School District 115 were designated as “financial watch” in 2021. Financial watch is the lowest of four designations for the school district financial profile.

Last summer, St. Clair County pushed back its timeline to collect property taxes by one month to provide financial relief for those struggling because of COVID-19. The bulk of property taxes go toward public schools.

Whiteside Superintendent Mark Heuring said the district needed to take out a line of credit for short-term financing to “bridge the gap.”

“It was kind of unfortunate timing,” he said.

Last year, Whiteside received the second-highest designation, “financial review,” as did O’Fallon 90. Lebanon 9 was designated “early warning,” one tier above financial watch.

Between 15% and 20% of Lebanon 9’s budgeted money came in three months later than expected, Superintendent Patrick Keeney said. The district made up the difference with a loan from its working cash fund and some local borrowing.

“We literally borrowed the money for 30 to 45 days before paying it back,” he said.

O’Fallon 90 Superintendent Carrie Hruby said in an email that her district was also impacted by the delay.

Of the 27 school districts in St. Clair County, 11 saw their designation drop at least one tier between 2019 and 2020. Three increased their designation rank: Grant Consolidated Community School District 110, New Athens Community Unit School District 60 and O’Fallon Township High School District 203.

This trend was unusual, compared to other Illinois counties, most of which saw school districts hold steady or improve their financial designations.

The three school districts not in St. Clair County on the financial watch list are Calhoun Community Unit School District 40, Tri Point Community Unit School District and North Mac Community Unit School District 34.

Most counties in Illinois were eligible to grant residents an extension on their property taxes under a public act, including Livingston County, where Tri Point CUSD is located.

For comparison, Madison County granted a two-month extension for residents to pay their first property tax installment, and is one of only two Illinois counties to break up property taxes into four installments, rather than two.

St. Clair County collected nearly 99% of its property taxes in 2020 and even increased its rate slightly compared to the year before. While districts experienced delays in some funding, they eventually were paid near the full amount the amount levied.

“We had one of our best collections in recent memory,” said Andrew Lopinot, St. Clair County treasurer. “Typically, we might see around 5,000 properties go to the tax sale, and it was closer to under 4,000 properties in our tax sales. We had a high collection rate this year.”

Lopinot said a handful of other county treasurers offered tax payment extensions or delays, but not all of them.

School districts were granted federal funds to help with the transition to remote learning in the fall, but many districts needed those funds to buy devices like Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots for students.

The school district financial profile is intended to monitor the finances of school districts and identify which are moving toward financial difficulty.

The state uses five indicators: fund balance-to-revenue ratio, expenditure-to-revenue ratio, days cash on hand, percent of short-term borrowing ability remaining, and the percent of long-term debt margin remaining.

School districts put on financial watch are more closely monitored by the Illinois State Board of Education and will be reviewed to determine whether they meet the criteria to qualify for a state-appointed financial oversight panel, such as the one implemented in East St. Louis School District 189.

This story was updated at 12:20 p.m. on Thursday, April 29 to include information about O’Fallon 90.

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