Back to the 'drawing board' in District 200 after second referendum defeat

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials are taking a "step back" to try to determine why voters shot down a funding request for the second time in four years.

More than 54 percent of voters opposed the measure seeking to borrow $132.5 million as part of a $154.5 million plan for building projects at all but one of the district's schools. The district also sought a property tax increase to pay off the 19-year loan.

Officials say the plan was the product of a community outreach effort launched in the wake of the overwhelming defeat of a 2013 referendum question that called for just one project: a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center.

Residents in those sessions contended that the push to replace Jefferson was too narrow a focus in a K-12 district with roughly 13,000 students.

"'Don't just come back to us with early childhood,'" board member Brad Paulsen said of the feedback. "'Tell us what all of our needs are.' We spent two-plus years doing that."

But critics suggested the latest proposal was too broad and costly.

"Where that happy point lies (with voters) is to be determined," said Paulsen, who supported the funding request and won a second term to the school board Tuesday.

The property tax bill for the owner of a $322,300 home would have increased by $180 to $295 annually for debt service for the first nine years of the loan. After existing debt came off the district's books, that same owner then would have paid $531 annually in additional taxes toward the retirement of the new loan, expected in tax year 2036.

"I have a sense that a lot of the voters thought that the amount we were asking for was just too much for them and too much of a tax impact," school board President Jim Vroman said Wednesday.

If the request had prevailed, the district would have used about $83.6 million to repair or replace roofs, plumbing, mechanical systems and other infrastructure.

Paulsen said the district still must confront "critical" capital needs. But it's unclear how the district will now pay for that work. And officials won't yet say whether they would consider going back to voters with a different plan.

""We've got to go back to the drawing board," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said.

The district plans to earmark about $2.5 million out of the operating budget toward capital projects in the tentative 2017-18 budget. That funding is based on the Sherman Dergis formula - a methodology adopted by the school board and used by taxing bodies nationwide.

Without the loan, the formula suggested the district may need to use $6.5 million in annual operating funds for those projects as early as the 2019 fiscal year. District officials have said they could look to reallocate money from programming budgets.

When asked whether he would have done anything differently, Schuler said he wasn't going to second-guess the district's "communication campaign."

"The community ultimately voiced their opinion through the vote yesterday, and so we need to respect that and take a step back," Schuler said.

As part of a funding plan voted down Tuesday, the district would have built a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center, shown in a rendering by Legat Architects. The existing building would be torn down along Manchester Road. Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200
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