St. Charles audience picks most expensive school upgrades
Given three scenarios to improve local middle schools, St. Charles taxpayers made an unusual choice Thursday night: They picked the most expensive one.
The reason might have as much to do with how much money is about to be put back into their wallets as the amount school officials want to save.
An audience of about 70 people learned the impacts of three pending referendum proposals being considered by the St. Charles Unit District 303 school board. All three scenarios involve razing Haines Middle School, improving Wredling Middle School and either expanding or rebuilding Thompson Middle School.
The goal is to cut about $2.4 million in ongoing operational costs by closing Haines Middle School. District officials want to trim expenses in the face of declining enrollment and possible multimillion-dollar state funding losses.
Getting rid of Haines means putting all the middle school students, about 1,400 apiece, in the remaining two middle schools. Thompson is too small to handle that many people. And district officials want to include upgrades to Wredling to modernize the building, make education equitable throughout the district, and make a referendum proposal more appealing to the entire district.
There are three options to accomplish those goals. Audience members all were asked to voted yes or no for each.
The first option is to renovate Thompson and add a new wing. A number of other improvements, such as air conditioning, new science labs and a bigger cafeteria, are included in the renovations. Wredling gets upgraded science labs, a dedicated STEM lab and an expanded cafeteria. The total cost of the work is $45 million. The district already has $30 million in grants and savings. That puts the price tag at $15 million, a $45 tax increase for the owner of a $300,000 home. Only 37 percent of the audience supported that plan.
The second option is to rebuild almost all of Thompson except for the north wing and a few other spaces. A new gym and expanded parking come in addition to all the other Thompson improvements in option one. There is nothing extra for Wredling in this plan beyond what's included in option one. The total cost is $65 million. Subtract the $30 million the district already has, that's a $35 million referendum question. It would add $100 to the tax bill for the owner of a $300,000 home.
About 68 percent of the audience Thursday supported option two. The most popular option, receiving 71 percent support, was option three.
That's a full rebuild and modernization of Thompson on the current site. Wredling still gets the same upgrades as option one and two. The total cost is $80 million, for a $50 million referendum question. It would add $150 to the bill for the owner of a $300,000 home.
That $150 impact, just like the $100 and $45 hikes, comes with a sugar coating. The district is about to retire a massive amount of bond debt in 2018. With that will come an estimated $600 reduction in property tax bills to District 303 residents. Because of that, district officials are selling the scenarios as smaller tax reductions rather than a tax increase.
"Are you willing to contribute a portion of that reduction to modernize and equalize the middle school experience in District 303?" said Seth Champman, the district's assistant superintendent for business services.
In other words, in option one, that $300,000 homeowner would see a tax reduction of $555 instead of $600 in 2018. In option two, the tax reduction would be $500. In option three, the tax reduction shrinks to $450.
That $450 was still a large enough reduction to win the support for the most expensive, full-Thompson rebuild Thursday night. But there are two more chances for taxpayers to vote. Next meeting is 6:30 p.m. Monday at Haines Middle School. The final meeting is 6:30 p.m. April 21 at Wredling Middle School.
The school board is slated to host a special meeting on April 25 to view the polling results from the three sessions and decide which referendum option to pursue.