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posted: 10/30/2017 5:30 AM

District 200 could build a new Jefferson school after all

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  • Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board members are considering a plan to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center with a new building on the existing campus off Manchester Road.

    Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board members are considering a plan to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center with a new building on the existing campus off Manchester Road.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Teachers have worked with Jefferson Early Childhood students in what used to be a storage closet -- one example of the space constraints in the 1950s-era building.

      Teachers have worked with Jefferson Early Childhood students in what used to be a storage closet -- one example of the space constraints in the 1950s-era building.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, March 2017

 
 

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 could move ahead with construction of a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center after all, but it would not ask taxpayers to dig deeper to pay for the roughly $17.3 million building.

The district has a new plan to replace the 1950s-era Jefferson on the existing campus off Manchester Road -- a project twice rejected by voters, first in 2013 and again last April as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for building repairs and renovations at all but one of the district's schools.

But instead of seeking a property tax increase, the new plan calls for the district to pay for a new Jefferson by dipping into reserves and borrowing money through so-called lease certificates for a term of up to 20 years.

In such a transaction, the district would retain ownership of the land, but the new building would be owned by an underwriting firm or bank and leased to the district. The district would take ownership of the building once the debt is paid off and the deal is terminated.

School board members have not authorized the funding, but have initially discussed contributing about $5 million from the district's fund balance directly toward the project.

Any use of reserves would be done in compliance with a board policy that calls for keeping at least 25 percent of annual operating revenues in the district's fund balance, Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. The school board next month will receive a 2017 fiscal year audit that is expected to show the district's fund balance grew to just more than 30 percent of operating revenues.

The debt would finance the rest of the costs of building a new Jefferson. The district would repay the loan through operating funds.

If the district borrowed $12.5 million and chose to retire the debt in 10 years, interest payments would total about $1.6 million, according to the district's financial consultants. A 20-year loan for the same amount would cost nearly $5 million in interest, the analysis shows.

Lease certificates are not an entirely new concept in the district, Schuler said. But the district is now in a financial position to absorb such an annual debt payment.

"The work the board and the district has done over the last four years has really put itself in a financial position to be able to consider this funding option for this project particularly," Schuler said.

If voters last April had approved the referendum request, the district would have borrowed $132.5 million and increased property taxes to pay off the debt in 19 years. The previous board also had pledged to set aside $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets to fund the rest of the plan.

The district would have set aside $16.6 million to replace Jefferson. Originally an elementary school, the building was never designed for the services that educators provide for Jefferson students. Accessibility is among the problems facing preschoolers, two-thirds of whom have special needs, officials have said.

In the months after the election, officials had been in talks with their counterparts in the Wheaton Park District about a land swap that would provide space for an addition onto Monroe Middle School to house Jefferson students.

But the school board recently scrapped that proposal, which was strongly opposed by neighbors who took issue with the addition disturbing 2.4 acres of green space in Graf Park. The Monroe addition, plus the relocation of a playground and other expenses, also was estimated to cost about $18.5 million.

By contrast, building a new Jefferson on district-owned athletic fields just south of the current childhood center would disrupt 1.5 acres.

District officials envision keeping two satellite programs at other schools, meaning the new childhood center would contain 14 classrooms -- two fewer than the total proposed in the April referendum question.

At a meeting Nov. 8, the board will discuss a timeline that shows the yearlong project breaking ground in summer of 2018 so the new Jefferson could open at the start of the school year in August of 2019. The old building would be demolished.

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