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updated: 4/9/2013 11:40 PM

District 200 voters reject early childhood center

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Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a proposed tax increase to finance a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center.

With all precincts reporting, unofficial totals show 59 percent of voters opposed the measure that would have allowed the district to borrow $17.6 million to fund construction of a new Jefferson in Wheaton.

Open since 1958, the existing Jefferson houses the district's youngest students, ages 3 to 5, but was originally designed as an elementary school. Enrollment has reached the facility's capacity of 289 students and forced officials to add satellite sites at Madison and Johnson elementary schools.

Officials say the 26,507-square-foot Jefferson, where two-thirds of the students have special needs, lacks instructional space. Some students receive therapy in converted storage closets, while others use equipment set up at the end of hallways. Not all of the entrances and bathrooms are accessible for students in wheelchairs and walkers.

The new Jefferson would have covered 59,198 square feet with a capacity of 400 students, according to preliminary plans.

School board President Rosemary Swanson did not rule out the possibility of going back to voters with a proposal in the spring 2014 primary.

"The building needs to be attended to in a major way that can't be done through existing district funds," Swanson said. "So we're going to have to go back to the voters and ask them to support getting that building into the shape that it should be to support the program that's in there. We'll definitely have to revisit the voters again."

Dan Wagner, who served as co-chairman of a group called Friends of the Schools -- Yes to the Jefferson Early Childhood Center Referendum, said low turnout and sluggish economic times could have factored into the defeat.

"We'll continue to pursue making sure that we're going to have a better school for the kids that need it the most," he said.

Some referendum opponents argued the district should finance a Jefferson project with all or part of the remainder of a $14.4 million state construction grant it received last year. The district applied for the grant in 2003 to fund additions at two high schools. The school board has approved using about $2.8 million of the grant to pay off a lease for network upgrades.

But officials say the remaining $11.6 million reinforces the district's fund balance, protects against emergencies and perhaps can be used to address other aging facilities.

The ill-fated Jefferson proposal would have cost the district $23.4 million in principal and interest over 11 years.

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