$50 million St. Charles school closing, upgrade could be done without voters' OK

 
 
Updated 9/21/2016 11:31 AM
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  • Haines Middle School is the smallest of St. Charles Unit District 303's three middle schools. It may be closed to address a declining enrollment trend and save money.

    Haines Middle School is the smallest of St. Charles Unit District 303's three middle schools. It may be closed to address a declining enrollment trend and save money.

Middle school closure and renovation plans in St. Charles may move forward this fall without a vote on increasing taxes.

District administrators are presenting plans to middle school staff members his week. The plans show how the district can close Haines Middle School and cobble together $50 million without a ballot question to improve Wredling and Thompson middle schools. Here's how that would be accomplished:

• About $19.3 million of that total would come from spending down the district's savings account. The withdrawal would still leave the district with enough savings to meet the financial policies established by the school board and state school finance recommendations.

• Another $15 million would be borrowed; the district has about $25 million worth of bonding authority. "This is not free money," Superintendent Don Schlomann said Tuesday. "But the $15 million will have a fairly small amount of impact to local taxpayers."

• The district also has about $7.8 million from a state construction grant it received six years ago.

• The remaining $7.9 million would come from a $1.7 million budget surplus from last year and by taking part of the $2.4 million in annual savings that would result from closing Haines. The plan would take $2.2 million of the savings in the 2016-17. Then it would use $2 million of the savings in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 to pay for the plan.

That all amounts to a tax increase of about $30 for the owner of a $300,000 home. The increase will be blunted by some concurrent retirement of district debt, reducing the increase to $23 for that same homeowner. In 2018, the district will pay off most of its remaining debt, resulting in a $600 property tax reduction to the owner of a $300,000 home. That savings would drop to $570 if the school board approves the middle school project.

What taxpayers would get for all that spending is the same as district staff presented during the community forums from this past summer. Haines would close. Wredling would get a cafeteria capable of hosting 500 students and 10 upgraded STEM labs. Thompson would get those same improvements plus 31 new classrooms, an additional gym, a new fitness room and air conditioning.

Schlomann said the idea to move forward without a referendum evolved out of community forums and a survey of community residents that showed the community would probably not support a tax increase.

"What we saw in the survey data is the community pretty much like the idea of upgrading the middle schools, going from three to two, but they didn't want to have to pay for it," Schlomann said.

That resulted in a quest to move forward without a referendum and the new plan. The plan isn't ideal, Schlomann said, but it is responsive to the recent community input.

"The board and my most comfort level would have been going to referendum and having the community participate in this because, financially, it would have been less risky for the district to do that," Schlomann said.

Schlomann said the risk comes from spending down the district's savings more than district officials would like.

"You always want to have that security blanket of having those dollars," Schlomann said. "But at some point, you can have too many dollars. The taxpayers paid these dollars to us, and we should use them judiciously to the benefit of kids. Our proposal, we believe, does that."

The school board will get its first look at the plan Sept. 29. It will vote on the Wredling part of the plan Oct. 11. The final vote on the entire plan will occur Nov. 14. The district will host three community forums on the plan: Oct. 20 at Haines, Oct. 24 at Wredling and Oct. 25 at Thompson.

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