St. Charles voters can force referendum if they don't like middle school plan

 
 
Updated 9/30/2016 1:55 PM
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  • St. Charles Unit District 303 school board members took a look at the first stage of a plan Thursday that involves $2.3 million in upgrades to Wredling Middle School.

    St. Charles Unit District 303 school board members took a look at the first stage of a plan Thursday that involves $2.3 million in upgrades to Wredling Middle School. Daily Herald File Photo

As St. Charles school board members took a first look at plans to close Haines Middle School without asking voters' permission, new information came forward Thursday that taxpayers still have an out if they don't like the plans.

And there may be some aspects of the plans taxpayers don't like.

The school district spent most of last year contemplating ways to save money. School board members zeroed in on closing Haines to save about $2.4 million a year. That closure would force the redrawing of attendance boundaries and expansion of Thompson and Wredling middle schools. In other words, district officials would have to spend money to save money.

But a districtwide survey showed local voters would not support the plan though the retirement of a large portion of the district's debt ensured a smaller tax bill even with the new spending. So, last week, district officials unveiled a $50 million plan to move ahead without going to voters.

School board members took a look at the first stage of the plan Thursday. It involves $2.3 million in upgrades to Wredling.

That money will expand the existing cafeteria so it could host up to 500 students. The current cafeteria hosts about 280 students. The school would see nine existing science labs get upgrades and the construction of a new STEM lab.

District taxpayers have seen the Wredling plans many times. But the district staff added a nugget Thursday.

That nugget involves a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Norris Recreation Center, which neighbors Wredling. The district owns that facility. The St. Charles Park District contracted to run the operations earlier this year.

The two taxing bodies split any profits. But all the costs of the upgrades belong to the school district under the proposal unveiled Thursday.

It will take at least $2 million to address long-deferred maintenance of the rec center. Lack of maintenance is at least partially responsible for a leak and resulting mold infiltration discovered a couple of years ago.

District officials want to take care of at least that deferred maintenance while construction crews are already at work on Wredling. Doing so would cut the price of the Norris work by about 20 percent.

In addition to that deferred maintenance, the district wants to accommodate the park district's desire to convert old racquetball courts, where the leak manifested, into flexible space for cardio, yoga or other programs. There is a $300,000 option to do that and a $1.08 million option.

The district has about $35 million it can cobble together from its savings account, a grant, a budget surplus and the savings from closing Haines. Officials must still borrow about $15 million to accomplish the full project, which includes major renovations to Thompson Middle School. The school board will view the Thompson plans in coming months. But the need to borrow $15 million is where the out comes for local taxpayers. The district can sell working cash bonds to reap the $15 million without voter approval. However, if 10 percent of registered voters in the district sign a petition, they can force the district to get voter approval, via a referendum, to sell those bonds. The onus to create such a petition drive could come from the impact of the plan on local tax bills.

The district will retire some debt that will result in local tax bills dropping by $42 next year for the owner of a $300,000 home. However, a pending 1.45 percent increase to the school district's tax levy for operations would shrink that taxpayer savings to $5. If the district borrows the $15 million in 2017, that $5 tax bill reduction becomes a $26 tax increase for the same homeowner. The good news is the district will retire a much larger portion of its debt in 2018 that will drop the tax bill for that homeowner by about $529.

The school board will vote on an intent to sell the bonds Nov. 14. Voters have 30 days after an official legal notice of the bond sale is published in a local newspaper to collect signatures from 10 percent of local registered voters to force a referendum.

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