Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 will seek voters' permission in April to raise taxes and issue $17.6 million in bonds to finance construction of a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center.
In a 6-1 vote, the school board agreed to place a referendum question on the April 9 ballot asking voters whether the district should issue bonds to fund the total project cost at 130 N. Hazelton Ave. in Wheaton.
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The issue pitted dozens of supporters who wore "Jefferson Yes!" stickers against opponents who voiced financial concerns during Wednesday's board meeting.
District 200 officials say the existing Jefferson facility is aging and outdated. They say they have identified substantial instructional and physical challenges at the school, where two-thirds of the students, ages 3 to 5, have special needs.
Not all of the bathrooms or entrances, for example, are accessible to students who use wheelchairs and walkers. Some students receive therapy at the end of hallways and in converted storage closets at the 1950s-era building, originally designed as an elementary school.
If voters approve the $17.6 million bond issue, officials say the owner of a home valued at $300,000 would pay an additional $30 a year in property taxes to the district. The tax increase would take effect in 2014.
The district's total principal and interest payments on the debt are pegged near $23 million, Superintendent Brian Harris said. The bond sale also would not extend the length of the district's current debt service schedule past 2024, he said.
Several supporters blasted comments made last month by Jan Shaw, a candidate seeking a seat on the school board in the April 9 election.
"Don't build a magnet that's going to be pulling more special-needs children into the district that we're going to have to educate the whole way through," Shaw said Dec. 12.
Parents and several representatives from local nonprofit organizations such as Little Friends Inc., however, argued that some students who receive special-needs services at an early age may no longer require therapy and other programs later.
"Many of the children that go to Jefferson have minor speech and motor delays and being able to treat a lot of these children at a very early age ... actually can save taxpayers down the road," Bill Babiarz said.
His 3-year-old daughter, Cameron, has Rett Syndrome and attends Jefferson.
"I am not a burden. I am a blessing," she told the board through an assisted speaking device. "(...) Please vote 'yes' to accept the referendum and give me a chance to show you what I can do."
Shaw framed the issue as a financial one.
"I have nothing against these children," Shaw said. "We all want the best for all of our children. It really is about the money. It's also about homeowners being able to afford the home in which they live."
Board member Jim Gambaiani was the lone "no" vote. He raised concerns about the district's debt burden and uncertainty about a proposal by lawmakers to shift teacher pension costs from the state to downstate and suburban school districts.
Gambaiani said the "real cost will be an additional $23 million of financial burden to this district."
"Because of these financial dynamics that exist today, I believe that a more prudent approach would be to delay any building referendum or capital spending until the board has a full understanding of the financial impact that teacher pension reform might have on the district as well as future revenue challenges," said Gambaiani, reading from a prepared statement.
But board member Barbara Intihar said the decision should be up to voters.
"If the voters of the district feel that we are not in good shape, that we need to be alarmed, that we shouldn't take out more debt, they will tell us that in this referendum," Intihar said. "It's not our decision to make."
School board President Rosemary Swanson agreed.
"I don't think that our will to move forward should be held hostage to the gridlock of the federal and state levels," Swanson said. "The only way we move forward as a community is to continue to invest in ourselves."
If voters approve the April referendum question, construction could begin in March 2014. Demolition of the current, 26,507-square-foot Jefferson could begin in May 2015. Students would move into the new facility in August 2015.