Endorsement: 'Yes' on West Aurora School Dist. 129 building plan
There's good debt and there's bad debt, and some people might think a school district wanting to borrow $84.2 million -- as West Aurora School District 129 wants to do for building projects -- would automatically fall into the latter category.
The centerpiece of District 129's plan is the construction of a new Hill Elementary School in Aurora. That comes with an approximate $18 million price tag. The district has admitted it could never save that amount of money to rebuild the school without a referendum. Parts of the school date to 1888. Money would be used to add classrooms to Fearn, Jefferson, Nicholson, McCleery and Freeman schools to eliminate the need for mobiles. Additionally, a new early learning center combined with a central office building would be constructed.
Another $23.8 million would be used to install geothermal heating and cooling systems at Freeman, Hall, Goodwin, Schneider, Nicholson and McCleery elementary schools; Todd Early Learning Center; Jefferson and Washington middle schools; and West Aurora High School. The district had early dismissals or closed schools for several days in August and September 2013 when outside temperatures hit the mid-90s.
Taxpayers' bills would not increase from this proposal, but the debt payment portion of their tax bill would be extended to approximately 2038. The district's annual debt payment is $14 million and would remain through 2022 and then drop to between $2 million and $4 million for five years.
The district is attempting to save money by applying for Qualified School Construction Bonds. If successful, $25 million would be interest free. Additionally, the district said it would not borrow all the money at once. If the referendum is greenlighted, the geothermal systems work would start this summer and be operating a year from now. A new Hill Elementary would then be built with a projected fall 2017 opening.
Without an influx of money, the district will have upkeep on a 127-year-old school, some hot classrooms, overcrowding, mobile classrooms and aged infrastructure. The operating budget (the other half of a tax bill) will never be plump enough to handle these major projects. The district is doing the sensible thing by prioritizing improvements, working to get interest-free money, and refinancing and restructuring debt to keep payments reasonable. Yes, debt is being added.
In this case, it's good debt. We urge people to vote "yes" on the referendum.