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Last August, Racine Unified School District proposed a referendum that would provided about $10 million in additional funds per year to the district, as well as extend the existing referendum past its 2029 expiration date.

If approved, district officials said, that would allow them to maintain a property tax levy of $10.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

If the referendum was not approved, Unified Chief Financial Officer Marc Duff predicted the tax rate would decrease in 2018-19 from $10.02 to $9.72 per $1,000 of assessed property value. He said he expected it to continue to decrease, notwithstanding the new referendum.

The expected reduction in the tax rate, prior to passing a new referendum, was due to several factors, including the end of a referendum passed in 1997 that paid $1.3 million per year for an unfunded liability for the state’s retirement system.

In the end, district officials decided not to pursue a referendum. At that point it was expected that the property-tax rate would decrease.

But that is not what happened. The rate stayed virtually flat, coming in at $10.00 per $1,000 of assessed value.

In October, the district announced a partnership with Racine County to build a sports complex at Pritchard Park. That partnership was one that the Journal Times Editorial Board endorsed — but the $1.5 million the district is spending this year on the sports complex is only a portion of the $5.2 million the district has levied through the community service fund, according to a report in the April 7 Journal Times.

The $5.2 million includes increased funds for the district’s Montessori program, parent-child oriented classrooms, extended-day programs, a federally qualified health center, community recreation, artificial turf at the REAL School, municipal recreation facilities, and community mental health clinic funds.

While those are all laudable causes, the problem is that the district had said that the levy was going to go down considerably if there wasn’t a referendum.

By figuring out a creative way to keep the levy flat — using the community fund — it appears as though the district is trying to keep the levy artificially high so that it can get a future referendum approved while telling taxpayers that it will not increase the levy.

The Editorial Board asked Unified Superintendent Eric Gallien if the increase in the community levy was made with the intention to keep the tax rate steady so that a future referendum would not cause an increase in the tax rate.

Gallien didn’t directly answer the question. He replied via email: “Fund 80 has allowed us to provide opportunities and services to children and families throughout the Racine community while keeping our tax levy flat. This includes youth mental health, state-of-the-art community recreation facilities like Pritchard Park and the community school model. The recent increase reflects the district’s commitment to strategic partnerships that allow us to work with city, county and local municipalities and organizations to address the needs of the greater community. I believe in working together with these partners to move our community forward.”

It’s good that the district is partnering with other community entities. Strategic partnerships are good for the entire community, but for the most part partnerships should be an opportunity to save money, not spend more.

Unified’s community service fund needs to be scrutinized closely. It shouldn’t be a backdoor referendum.

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