District 200 voters must weigh cost of new school
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Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is seeking voter approval this spring to borrow millions of dollars in tax-backed loans to build a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton and demolish the existing structure.
But even as officials push for a tax increase to fund the project, one school board member says District 200 should hold off on any new construction at Jefferson or major spending to improve any of its aging facilities.
About this series
About this series
This is the second of a two-part series examining Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's April 9 ballot question concerning the future of the Jefferson Early Childhood Center. The first installment took a closer look at the conditions in the existing school and the district's plans for a new building.
Jim Gambaiani was the lone "no" vote in January when the school board voted 6-1 to place a referendum question on the April 9 ballot asking voters whether the district should borrow $17.6 million to finance the cost of building a new Jefferson at 130 N. Hazelton Ave.
Supporters of the proposal say Jefferson, which opened in 1958, is aging, outdated and inadequate to house the district's preschool program. The school has reached its capacity of 289 students, ages 3 to 5, many of whom are dealing with disabilities.
Meanwhile, about 70 preschoolers and their teachers have been shifted to satellite programs in the district's elementary schools.
Gambaiani doesn't deny Jefferson is "dated," but says he's concerned about adding to the district's debt at a time when state lawmakers are talking about shifting teacher pension costs to downstate and suburban school districts.
"This was not about Jefferson," Gambaiani says. "This is really where we are financially as a district, and where we could potentially be going in the future because of all the daunting and unknown financial impacts that could occur within the district."
He says he supports a wait-and-see approach to "find out over the next 'x' number of months what's truly going to happen in this state financially."
"I just believe we are expected and have an obligation to the District 200 families to be more frugal and more cautious with our spending," he says.
If voters approve the proposed tax increase, officials say the district's principal and interest payments on the debt would cost a total of about $23 million over 11 years.
"The referendum is $17.6 million, but at the end of the day the real cost is $23 million to the families of District 200," Gambaiani says.
He also says the state's cost-shift plan, if approved, could lead the district to ask voters for another tax increase in the near future.
"My concern then is they (voters) say, 'Well, we're not going to support that,'" Gambaiani says. "Then it comes back to the district and we have to possibly cut staff, increase class sizes and cut programs."
If voters approve the tax increase for Jefferson, the owner of a $300,000 house will pay an additional $30 a year in property taxes to the district for 10 years, and then a much larger amount in the 11th year. The Jefferson-specific impact for that homeowner would be an estimated $344 in additional property taxes to the district in the 11th year, or on the tax bill residents receive in 2024.
Robert Lewis of PMA Securities says the district assumed a 3 percent annual appreciation in home values, so a house valued at $300,000 at the start of the 11-year period would be worth about $404,000. He said the estimated tax increases also could change as a result of several factors, including interest rate shifts or new growth in the district.
Without a Jefferson loan on the books, property taxes to the district are set to drop in levy year 2023 (for tax bills received in 2024) as the district pays off earlier loans — resulting in a decrease of $708 for the owner of a $300,000 home, according to district documents.
A presentation to the school board in January showed taxpayers would see less of a drop in levy year 2023 if voters back the Jefferson proposal. Under that scenario, the owner of a $300,000 home would see a decrease of only $364 in property taxes to the district.
School board President Rosemary Swanson says the district should not wait to pursue plans for a new Jefferson.
"The community needs to invest in itself to keep moving forward," she says. "We have to make sure we are keeping ourselves in good order and investing in ourselves."
Gambaiani isn't the only one raising questions about the district's funding plan.
Other opponents argue the proposed bond issue for Jefferson could be much smaller if the district simply used part or all of what's left of a $14.4 million construction grant it received last year from the state Capital Development Board.
The district applied for the grant in 2003 to fund classroom additions at Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South high schools. When it finally arrived last year, the school board approved using a portion of the money — about $2.8 million — to pay off a lease for network upgrades, including the addition of wireless Internet access in all district schools.
That leaves the district with $11.6 million from the grant, and some referendum foes say that money could be put toward a new Jefferson instead of asking taxpayers to foot the entire bill.
But district officials say they want to use the grant money to bolster their fund balance to protect the district against unseen emergencies and perhaps to address other building needs. Having strong reserves also helps impress credit rating agencies.
"In the event we don't get our money from the state on time, or there's some catastrophic — maybe not even catastrophic — some unknown expense that crops up that we must take care of in the interest of the district, we've got that additional money sitting there in the fund balance to be used," Gambaiani says.
Swanson says the district's fund balances have been low because the district used them to finance many projects in the 1990s rather than asking voters to approve tax increases.
"It was a different economic time and, because of that, our fund balances are low," she says. "We struggled with that for a number of years."
By keeping the remaining grant money, Swanson says, the district's fund balance now stands at 27 percent of its annual revenues.
"It's not extraordinarily high," she says. "It's right about where it should be, really, almost at the low end of where it should be."
Superintendent Brian Harris was one of those who urged the board to ask voters to approve the full amount for a new Jefferson so the district could keep the remaining grant money in reserve because of other existing facility needs.
The district, for example, hopes to address roof issues at the former Woodland School in Warrenville, currently a storage facility.
Swanson says the board is taking a "one step at a time" approach when it comes to its other aging facilities.
Jefferson, however, long has been near the top of the district's to-do list. The school opened in 1958 and its design for elementary students isn't necessarily appropriate for preschool students, officials say.
In 2006, when the district was looking at design plans for a new Hubble Middle School, officials also explored possible renovations at Jefferson and pegged the cost of remodeling at $13.4 million.
Officials say the estimate is higher now partly because plans by Chicago-based Legat Architects are more detailed after conducting site visits at similar facilities in other districts and fielding feedback from Jefferson staff. The additional study prompted planners to add 9,824 square feet to the final design to address student needs.
"It was a rough sketch," Jefferson Principal Stephanie Farrelly says of the 2006 plans. "It really wasn't a team of individuals really looking at the needs and making a program-driven decision to the extent that we did this time."
Another design option presented to the board estimated the cost of renovating Jefferson within its existing footprint of 26,507 square feet at roughly $8.3 million. Remodeling, plus building an addition, had an estimated cost of about $15 million.
"When you start looking at a cost of $15 million to sort of work around the space that you've got, add some space on and still maybe not end up with the ideal, and you're only a couple million dollars away from what would make a good space, plus it's newer so it will last longer, it just seems like the better value to the community is to look at new construction rather than to be trying to change up the old structure," Swanson says.
Meanwhile, board meetings on plans for a new Jefferson have drawn parents and representatives from area nonprofit organizations such as Little Friends Inc., who argue that some students who receive special-needs services at an early age may no longer require therapy and other programs later and, thus, could ultimately save the community money.
District officials say 90 percent to 95 percent of students exiting the early childhood program go on to their neighborhood school, although some still require special-needs services.
"You get a much bigger bang for your buck the younger you go in terms of investing in the programs and services for them compared to later on," Swanson says. "If that's true even with regular students, it's even more true for students who need some additional support."
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