Will District 128 ask voters to fund capital projects? Officials are looking at referendum

Over the past several years, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 has funded tens of millions of dollars in building-related projects at both high schools without having to borrow, avoiding millions in interest charges.

In fact, since 2017, the district has had neither debt nor a tax levy to repay debt. Another $16 million in capital projects, mainly for a planned cafeteria expansion and related work at Libertyville High School, also can be paid in cash.

A roughly $18 million expansion at Vernon Hills High School was among the projects Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 was able to fund without borrowing. The district is considering whether to seek voter support for new funding for capital projects going forward. Daily Herald file, 2018

But the list of needed projects, such as renovating science labs, is long and going forward, District 128 officials say they won’t be able to pay for them out of pocket. The question is whether voters would be willing to provide the additional funding needed.

Before proceeding with a referendum question next November, district officials want to gauge whether voters likely would support or reject that idea.

To find out, the school board by a 5-0 vote earlier this month hired a firm specializing in community engagement at a not-to-exceed cost of $91,500. The contract with St. Louis-based Creative Entourage includes a provision allowing District 128 to stop the process if it becomes obvious public sentiment is against a funding request.

Beginning in January, the firm, which counts Elgin Area School District U-46 among its clients, will begin public opinion research to determine the challenges and opportunities facing District 128 and what voters support and value.

“The community understanding our needs will be a really important part of this process,” said Superintendent Denise Herrmann.

She said all four firms interviewed said District 128 has a good story to tell in that it has been a good financial steward and has a track record of not borrowing to invest in projects.

“But our fund balance continues to go down, and for us to maintain the innovation and the things we know our students deserve, that’s why we’re coming to them now,” she added.

The effort, officials were told, won’t include the “usual suspects” and participants and will not involve a referendum committee.

“My sincere wish is to find out what the community really wants, and our whole community, not just families who have children in the district right now,” said board President Lisa Hessel. “We need to make a data-driven decision about this referendum. I don't think any of us feel comfortable that we can speak for the community.”

District officials last spring prioritized more than $46 million in capital projects. A Debt Service Extension Base referendum was determined as a potential way to raise additional funds.

In layman's terms, the base is the annual property tax payment to repay debt incurred, which in District 128 would be for capital projects.

The more common way school districts request additional funding for capital projects is through school building bonds, a fixed amount to be borrowed and paid back over several years for specific projects identified in the referendum language, explained Dan Stanley, the district's assistant superintendent for business.

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