It's easier to spend other people's money than your own.
That reality probably has bedeviled taxpayers since the beginning of modern democracy.
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So when Northwest Suburban High School District 214 had an extra $45 million in its coffers, it's not that surprising that thoughts turned to a swimming pool, music wing, theater renovations, artificial turf, security upgrades, a community help center and other projects, with a "potential" for some funds to be returned to the taxpayers.
We're not going to complain about all the upgrades, which are recommended by a staff task force working with citizen and student advisory groups. But they do raise several issues.
Number one, of course, is whether the school district should have socked away an extra $45 million in taxpayers' dollars in the first place.
That's about one-fifth of the annual operating budget for the six-high-school district, and it's on top of about $116 million more that the board and administration intend to keep in reserve for emergencies.
While administrators and board members point out that they have a balanced budget, have cut costs and have not asked voters to increase the taxing limit since 1971, there's no denying one thing: The school district for years collected more tax money than it needed. The fact that many other taxing districts do the same does not make it justifiable.
That alone is an argument for rebating a significant portion of the funds back to taxpayers.
Let's go back to the improvements, which are spread among all of District 214's schools. We'd rather the process had gone the other way -- the upgrades were planned for and justified to community members first, then a way was found to pay for them. That's a solid way to identify what the students and community really need, want and are willing to support.
District 214 leaders should keep in mind that they're not only talking about spending $45 million that's already in their hands, they're committing taxpayers to operate and maintain some of the new additions and amenities far into the future.
It's hard to argue with some of the recommended spending, like security vestibules for all schools and improving stadium accessibility at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. One other, a help center near the Forest View Administration Center in Arlington Heights to help provide clothes and food to the needy addresses a real community need but seems outside a school district's purview and duplicates other local efforts.
But considering the process as a whole, we think it's worth looking at the list through a different lens: Would each item be there if money had to be found to pay for it? Or did the task force advise spending $45 million simply because it had $45 million to spend?