Cairo needs unified effort for new school

Saturday, January 26, 2002

The Cairo City Council and the Cairo Board of Education are locked in a financial tug of war over a tax increase for a new school.

It is the voters who are being yanked around.

The school board decided this month to put a $4.1 million bond issue on the March 19 ballot. The money would fund a new building for kindergarten through eighth grade to replace the 100-year-old junior high and Bennett Elementary School and the 50-year-old Emerson Elementary School.

It's hard to argue against replacing the 100-year-old junior high school building. The problem is funding a new building.

Superintendent Robert Isom says the state of Illinois will pick up the other $12 million for the school. But the bond issue will mean a tax increase that averages out to about $1.27 per $100 of assessed valuation until 2020. The tax rate is already at $5.10, well above surrounding districts. Meanwhile, Cairo is spending more money to educate students and seeing fewer results than most other school districts in Illinois, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

And that's what has city officials, particularly Mayor James Wilson, fighting against the tax increase.

Cairo is a city hurting financially as much as any ever has. Residents point out that one can hardly purchase a pair of shoes in the town because so many businesses have closed down. The last large employer, Burkhart Foam Inc., sounded the death rattle last year after months of layoffs. Wilson watched three businesses close just this week: a lumberyard, a salon and a flower shop.

Meanwhile, many Cairo parents, including the mayor, don't have confidence in the school district. He sent his daughter to Kelly High School outside Benton, Mo., for four years at $4,000 a year, driving her the 45 minutes until she was old enough to drive herself. Others pay $4,800 a year to send their children to Central High School in Cape Girardeau.

Isom concedes he hadn't talked to city officials about his plans for a tax increase. Wilson has aired his complaints to the media, but he intends to send a letter to the school board asking them to rescind its decision to place the matter on the March ballot, and further asking the board to pull together a more comprehensive plan and place it on the November ballot.

Clearly, this should have been worked out prior to the school board's vote. Now the two sides may end up acting more like the town's children than adult leaders charged with improving their quality of life.

Instead, they should come together and discuss how they can work to get students what they need without harming the city any further.

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