Few attend first Dist. 200 forum on $132.5 million tax-backed loan question

 
 
Updated 2/24/2017 9:34 PM
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  • Assistant Superintendent Robert Rammer meets with Wheaton resident Mike Rybinski, right, about a $132.5 million referendum question.

      Assistant Superintendent Robert Rammer meets with Wheaton resident Mike Rybinski, right, about a $132.5 million referendum question. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Roughly $16.6 million of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's facility plan would fund the construction of a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center, shown in a sketch by Legat Architects. The existing building along Manchester Road would be torn down.

    Roughly $16.6 million of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's facility plan would fund the construction of a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center, shown in a sketch by Legat Architects. The existing building along Manchester Road would be torn down. Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler made the case Friday at a sparsely attended forum for a property tax increase to help fund projects at 19 schools.

Less than a dozen people participated in the first of four scheduled sessions and raised questions about the costs of a five-year, $154.5 million plan.

A ballot question in April will ask voters to allow the district to borrow $132.5 million and raise property taxes to pay off the loans in nearly 20 years. Roughly $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets would fund the rest of the plan.

If voters approve the measure, the district would earmark about $83.6 million to repair or replace infrastructure -- roofs, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems, windows -- in 18 schools. The district also would tear down the Jefferson Early Childhood Center and construct a new building for its youngest students at a cost of $16.6 million.

Robert Stozek, who's lived in Wheaton since 1975, said the district faces an "issue of credibility" because of what he described as underfunding of maintenance in schools.

"This is a hard thing to swallow that we have to bite this whole thing at this point in time," Stozek said. "That's my biggest concern."

Superintendent Jeff Schuler is questioned by Robert Stozek of Wheaton, right, about the district's proposed $132.5 million loan on the April 4 ballot. The district held on Friday the first of four forums on the measure.
  Superintendent Jeff Schuler is questioned by Robert Stozek of Wheaton, right, about the district's proposed $132.5 million loan on the April 4 ballot. The district held on Friday the first of four forums on the measure. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Schuler said the district's plan should address facility needs for at "least the next 10-plus years."

The district previously set aside about $1 million a year for so-called capital renewal projects. If voters approve the measure, the district also would earmark about $2.5 million annually out of operating funds toward such work.

"Have we as a district spent as much money on our facilities as we probably should have spent? No. I would tell you that we have not," Schuler said at the forum, held at Monroe Middle School. "The reason for that, though, is that we've kept the money in the operating budget, which is for the students."

If voters oppose the measure, the district could set aside $6.5 million annually from operating funds for infrastructure projects in existing schools. But Schuler said the district is "really living on borrowed time in a number of those capital assets."

Principal and interest payments on the debt, if voters approve, would cost the district a total of $206.1 million. The district would issue the bonds in four phases as it expires "big chunks of principal" on existing debt, Schuler said.

The owner of a $322,300 home, the average in the district, paid about $5,434 in property taxes to the district on 2016 bills. That same homeowner would pay $180 to $295 annually in additional taxes for the first nine years of the loan.

The school board has commissioned a feasibility study into whether private donors would be willing to fund some projects, most likely at a new Jefferson. The district expects the results of that study in May.

Voters in the district rejected a referendum question four years ago that called for one project: a new, $17.6 million Jefferson. The latest proposal would still build a new facility directly south of the existing childhood center, where roughly two-thirds of Jefferson's students have special needs. They receive occupational, physical and speech therapies in a building that opened as an elementary school more than 60 years ago off Manchester Road.

"Key to the measure that's in front of the community is really not a question of if we need to do the work," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "It's a question of ultimately how that work gets funded."
  "Key to the measure that's in front of the community is really not a question of if we need to do the work," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "It's a question of ultimately how that work gets funded." - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

"If you go inside that building what you will see is every nook, cranny, closet, every area that was never designed to be student service space is being used in that capacity," Schuler said.

The district primarily houses state-mandated early learning programs at Jefferson, but it also has satellite rooms at Whittier, Madison and Johnson elementary schools. The new, 16-classroom building would allow the district to bring all its early learning services under one roof.

At Edison, Franklin and Monroe middle schools, the district aims to complete about $46.8 million in work, including renovations of science classrooms and labs. Another $6.8 million would go to projects in elementary schools. The district wants to build more secure entrances at Edison Middle and seven elementary schools. The plan also calls for renovations of library learning centers at elementary and middle schools.

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