Long-awaited school construction funds come with varied expectations
Long-promised funds may be rolling into school districts this week, but clear spending expectations aren't.
Two dozen districts - a third of them in the suburbs - will soon be receiving a total of $149 million in construction grants they were promised eight years ago. Though originally announced in 2002, a lack of funding put the grants on hold until last year's construction legislation freed up money for the school construction program.
No other districts have been added to the list since then.
Suburban districts receiving the checks lie primarily in DuPage County, with the exception of Big Hollow Elementary District 38 in Ingleside and Northbrook Elementary District 27.
With some projects long completed, and others scrapped due to lack of funds, each district finds itself in a different predicament about what exactly to do with the cash.
Each case is different, says David Blanchette, a spokesman with the state's Capital Development Board, which oversees releasing the funds and regulating their use.
Villa Park Elementary District 45, for instance, was able to complete scheduled classroom additions to Ardmore and Stevenson elementary schools without the state money. Superintendent Janice Rosales said it plans to put the $980,000 grant back into its operations and maintenance fund, from which the project money was originally taken, based on advice from the governor's office.
Rosales said that to her knowledge, the district has yet to see the check or hear about any regulations that might come with it.
Blanchette confirmed that promised grant money can be used for operations - or any purpose at all - if a project has already been completed.
"If they have already built the buildings, and the buildings are paid for, then they can use (the money) for whatever they want. All we require is proof that they built what they said they were going to build. That's pretty much it," he said.
Winfield Elementary District 34 is awaiting $2.3 million that the state was supposed to chip in for a renovation plan that included classroom additions and extensive interior renovations to its former middle school.
Voters approved funding for the $9 million project in 2002. Local taxpayers ended up covering the state's share when the school board voted in July 2005 to borrow $1.7 million to help pay off the bill for renovations and build a nest egg for emergency repair projects.
When the state money arrives, it will be up to school board members to decide whether to keep it in the district's general fund or abate taxes.
The Capital Development Board periodically monitors the progress of various construction projects, and receives copies of architect and engineering contracts with various school districts, Blanchette said.
In the case of those districts that haven't yet begun projects, "Everyone realizes plans change and costs change in those eight years," Blanchette said.
Carol Stream Elementary District 93 is one district whose project never materialized due to lack of funds.
Superintendent William Shields told the Daily Herald in mid-May he feared his district might no longer be able to accept $1.6 million in promised grant money to go toward building preschool classrooms at a district office site in Bloomingdale. "We weren't sure the funds were going to come after so many years," Shields said. "So we weren't counting on it."
Districts that have not yet started projects must put the grant money toward the project described in its original grant award letter, Blanchette said.
"They will have two years in which to make the project happen. If within that two years, the project (is not in the works), they will need to send the money back."
The state's checks will not take inflation into account.
"In some cases, the districts that have not yet built may realize the money may not go quite as far," Blanchette said. "They'll then be forced to decide: Do we pick up the rest ourselves or scale back on the project?"
For District 93, "That's what we're doing right now," Shields said. "We're working with the capital development board. Our finance committee, our school board is looking into it. The issue is when the funds were promised to us, the economic times are a lot different now. Does it have to be that exact same project? Does it have to be that same thing we're looking to do? We don't have any direction. We're not sure we can use it. The school board is very cautious. Don't want to commit to something that's going to put us in financial dire straits."
Money on the way
Here is a look at money various suburban school districts will receive from the state that was promised in 2002.
Carol Stream Elementary District 93
Villa Park Elementary District 45
Westchester Elementary District 92
Big Hollow Elementary District 38
Northbrook Elementary District 27
Winfield Elementary District 34
Source: Capital Development Board