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updated: 1/30/2014 3:33 PM

Indian Prairie considering referendum to add air conditioning at 20 schools

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Indian Prairie Unit District 204 might look to voters for additional money to pay for air-conditioning units for 20 of its schools that don't have cooling systems.

The school board this week began considering ways to pay the estimated $13.6 million cost of installing units called ductless air conditioners to cool roughly 650 classrooms. Several board members said they think voters should be involved in the funding decision.

"I don't support moving forward with this without voter approval," board member Justin Karubas said. "This is a capital improvement and that decision rests with the voters."

But before the board considers putting a request for funding on the ballot, the district is conducting a facilities assessment. EMG Corporation of Maryland will study the district's 35 buildings under a $116,325 contract approved Monday to determine what type of maintenance work may be necessary.

"I see this air conditioning discussion as a catalyst for a discussion about what are our maintenance needs," board President Lori Price said. "There might be a possibility, with voter approval, to get everything on our wish list eventually, and then how do we prioritize those needs and does air conditioning become the priority?"

Ductless air conditioners have risen to the forefront as the best cooling option for 19 elementary schools and Indian Plains alternative high school because they are a middle ground between more costly full-building air conditioning and potentially cheaper but noisy window units, said Todd DePaul, director of building operations.

The system includes installation of refrigerant lines to move cooled air throughout each building, a fan coil unit in each classroom and a series of condensers on the roof. Equipment would pull in warm air from outside through existing vents, cool it in the compressor units, push it through the schools in the refrigerant lines and blow it into classrooms and libraries through the fan coil units, DePaul said.

"They lower the temperature within the classroom," DePaul said. "It does not have anything to do with the hallways."

Discussions about funding for air conditioning or other maintenance projects is likely to continue in late April or early May, when the facilities assessment is expected to be complete, Price said.

The board could ask voters to approve a tax increase or give the district permission to borrow money, which also would increase taxes. Jay Strang, assistant superintendent for business, said tax increases could result in an additional $11 to $40 a year the owner of a $300,000 house would pay to the district, but officials will look to refinance existing debt to potentially lower the cost.

The board could choose to pay for air conditioners entirely out of its existing funds, but board member Mark Rising said he is unwilling to go that route. Karubas suggested the district use some of its fund balance to show it has "skin in the game" while asking voters for a tax increase to cover the remainder of the cost.

Strang said a referendum will not appear on the March 18 primary ballot, but a question about raising taxes or borrowing money could appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot or during the local election in April 2015.

"We've listened to our options and the next step is to listen to what voters want," Price said. "I think we owe it to our taxpayers to get that input."

Indian Prairie covers portions of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.

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