District 73 hopes voter education push leads to 'Yes Twice'

Officials in Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn Elementary District 73 are banking on a retooled strategy as their request to borrow $48.7 million to renovate and expand schools nears the finish line.

Voters in April 2017 soundly rejected a similar request for funding, leaving the district to regroup and reconsider its message. The idea now is to get clearer information to more people and let the facts speak for themselves.

"I just hope we've been able to communicate our need and it's been easy for people to absorb," said school board President Sonali Patil.

Voters on Nov. 6 will decide two separate questions to address crowding in schools.

Besides authorizing a $48.7 million bond issue to build a kindergarten center and expand or renovate the six district schools, voters also will be asked to increase the tax rate to generate about $1.3 million a year to operate those facilities.

The district says schools currently are at or over capacity, not considering expected future enrollment increases.

According to information on a special referendum website created by the district, if the first question is approved, the owner of a home valued at $350,000 would pay $18 less in property taxes, because district debt payments would be reduced as existing bonds are refinanced and retired. However, debt now scheduled to end in 2025 would be extended to 2042.

For the second question, the owner of the same home would pay about $117 more annually.

The district by law can't advocate for approval, but can provide information to voters. Several public information sessions have been held, the website created and linked on the village website, and mailers delivered.

"We definitely feel this time around we've been able to communicate better and educate better," Patil said. "We've been able to reach more people."

Specific projects for the schools were determined, with details also available on the website.

"Most of the people didn't feel they understood the whole plan correctly," Patil said of voters surveyed after the last defeat.

A group called Families and Friends of Hawthorn District 73, with the logo "Vote Yes Twice" could factor in the outcome. Volunteers have been knocking on doors. No organized opposition has surfaced.

"The last time, we did not have an organized 'Yes' support group," Patil added. "That has made a difference."

On Oct. 8, Joe Porto, one of two interim superintendents, outlined for the school board what might happen if the building referendum fails.

Options could include increasing class sizes to 30 across the board; using mobile classrooms; or eliminating or reducing programs, Porto said. Some may consider those remarks a scare tactic, but it is an important piece of the educational effort, he said.

"We have instruction going on in locations that were not designed for that purpose. Examples abound in the district," he said. "The first question you're going to have to ask yourselves is if the status quo acceptable and is it sustainable?"

One example is fifth-grade orchestra, led by Haemi Lee, which meets in a small, converted kitchen space at Hawthorn Elementary South. The adjoining room has a washer and dryer and is used by maintenance staff to launder rags and other items.

"It's not only me, it's the band, too," Lee said Monday. "We make it work. We have to make it work."

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  The fifth-grade orchestra class at Hawthorn Elementary South is held in a converted kitchen, one of several examples district leaders point to when asked about the need for a proposed $48.7 million bond issue to renovate and expand schools. Mick Zawislak/
  Haemi Lee teaches fifth-grade orchestra students at Hawthorn Elementary South, where a space crunch means students practice in a converted kitchen. Mick Zawislak/
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