Gavin Elementary District 37 officials are asking voters to approve a request March 20 to generate tax dollars needed to make life-safety improvements at two Ingleside-area schools.
However, opponents argue that what the district really wants is a "revolving line of credit" that will put it forever in debt.
Voters will decide the merits of District 37's ballot request to establish the "debt service extension base" of $500,000 for "all subsequent levy years," including 2018.
A "debt service extension base" enables a district to sell bonds without going to referendum but limits the principal and interest a district can levy against taxpayers to repay those bonds. Under its ballot issue, District 37 would have to cap bond sales and repayment at $500,000 annually for a maximum term of 20 years.
Officials say approval of the request would mean the district could raise $5.96 million for repairs at Gavin Central Elementary on North Ridge Road and Gavin South Middle School on Route 134.
At Central, the district is looking to reshingle the roof, replace chillers and asphalt, update digital controls, work on the heating and air conditioning systems and build an elementary STEM lab for students. At the middle school, officials want to add air conditioning to classrooms that do not have it, replace asphalt, the gym floor and a boiler, remove asbestos in the school hallway and remove showers in the locker room.
Superintendent Julie Brua said homeowners would not see an increase in property taxes if the request is approved because the district is prepared to pay off bonds used to build Gavin Central School. If voters say "no," the owner of a house valued at $100,000 will see a decrease in property taxes by about $85 annually.
Several schools in Lake County have a debt service extension base, Brua said. Antioch Elementary District 34 approved a similar measure one year ago to fund its life-safety improvements, she added.
But Chesney Shores resident Alex Politanski said while the improvements are needed, the referendum question gives the district the ability to borrow money for school improvements into the future without having to ask voters for permission.
Politanski, a certified public accountant, said the ballot question does not include a total amount District 37 is borrowing or when the borrowing will end. So, he said, the district will be able to issue bonds, repay those bonds, then issue new bonds for another purpose without the need for another referendum.
For example, if District 37 borrows $5.96 million this year and pays off half those bonds in 10 years, the district will be able to issue $2.98 million more in bonds for another reason without seeking voter approval, Politanski explained.
"This is not a referendum about school improvements," he said. "It's about putting the district into permanent debt and voting for a permanent tax increase."
District officials disagree.
Brua said the district would need to notify the public 30 days in advance and hold a public hearing should officials intend to issue bonds on the debt service extension.
"Residents will still be able to weigh in on the issues if they are not comfortable," she said.
School board member Joe Loffredo said schools should be allowed to operate without having to worry about seeking referendums to address simple issues, such as fixing a roof or other work to keep a school operational.
"We are conscientious about the money we spend here," he said. "We question every nickel and dime and we don't abuse it."
Politanski said the district should ask for $5.96 million in bonds to be paid back over 20 years.
"I'm not against improving our schools," Politanski said. "What I'm against is how they (Gavin) are going about it."