District 200 school board candidates split on $132.5 million referendum
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 voters face a choice between school board candidates who strongly support a $154.5 million plan for building projects and those who oppose it.
A ballot question in April will ask voters to allow the district to borrow $132.5 million and increase property taxes to pay off the loans in 19 years. The current board has pledged to set aside $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets to fund the rest of the plan.
The ballot also features the eight candidates seeking four seats on the school board. Four challengers -- Marcus Hamilton, Neil Harnen, Thomas Hudock and Harold Lonks -- have denounced the district's request as too costly for taxpayers.
The two incumbents running for their second 4-year terms -- Jim Mathieson and Brad Paulsen -- along with Ginna Ericksen and Rob Hanlon defend a plan they say is based on roughly two years of community input.
The district plans to issue the debt in four installments. Principal and interest payments would total $206.1 million.
If voters approve the measure, the owner of a $322,300 home -- the average in the district -- would pay $180 to $295 annually in additional taxes for the first nine years.
Hamilton, a political newcomer and vice president of finance for a manufacturing company, disputes the district's push to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center. District voters rejected a referendum question four years ago that called for one project: a new $17.6 million Jefferson.
The district has since downsized plans to a $16.6 million facility that would be built directly south of the existing childhood center where roughly two-thirds of 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.
"I hear people talking about how terrible Jefferson is and how it doesn't meet the needs and how we're stuffed in every nook and cranny and what not," said Hamilton, who lives in Wheaton. "And when I walk through, you know the building itself I think has great bones, certainly not a building you want to tear down."
He instead suggested reconfiguration of the building off Manchester Road.
"There's no reason why we can't do something different and still meet the needs of the district and not spend that kind of money," Hamilton said. "I think that's true of many of the schools."
Hamilton and Lonks, who has unsuccessfully run for a school board seat in recent elections, suggested the district's plan to make repairs and renovations at every elementary, middle and high school except Hubble Middle School is intended to drum up broad support from voters.
"They want to get the buy-in from the parents and the PTAs to pass this thing, disregarding the taxpayers," Lonks, of Winfield, said.
Hudock, a retiree and chairman of the Wheaton housing commission, and Harnen, a financial planner from Wheaton, also questioned the necessity of certain projects.
Many of the challengers raised doubts about whether some items -- renovations of library learning centers at elementary and middle schools, for instance -- are linked to student learning and achievement.
Paulsen, a Wheaton architect first elected in 2013, said the library renovations are designed to create collaborative spaces to foster skills -- teamwork and problem-solving -- that can't be measured on a test.
Paulsen also portrayed the challengers as single-issue candidates.
"I think if you're going in saying, 'There's money and I'm going to tell you what to do,' I just don't think that's the right position or posture for a board member," said Hanlon, a chief information officer for a food processing company who lives in Winfield. "A board member's role is to engage, to oversee, to help find solutions, to collaborate."
Ericksen, a Wheaton volunteer with a master's degree in counseling, commended the district for hosting public forums over the past two years to develop the plan intended to improve parity in programs across the district's schools. She cited science classrooms in Hubble Middle School, a building constructed in 2009 to "accepted standards at the time," and older, smaller rooms at Franklin Middle School that were "built to do different things than what we do with children in our science curriculum now."
"It's truly not fair to have to be a science student at Franklin versus a science student at Hubble," she said.
The plan would renovate science labs and classrooms at Franklin, Monroe and Edison middle schools.
Mathieson, a founder of an accounting firm who lives in Warrenville, said most of the projects address an "infrastructure problem" in the district. About $83.6 million would go toward repairs or replacing roofs, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems and windows in 18 schools.
The district previously set aside about $1 million a year for so-called capital renewal projects. A new policy adopted by the board calls for earmarking about $2.5 million annually out of operating funds toward such work.
If voters oppose the measure, the district could set aside $6.5 million annually from operating funds for infrastructure projects in existing schools.
"We're never going to be able to catch up if this is going to be an issue," Paulsen said. "If this referendum fails, it's going to be dogging this district for 10 years. We're going to constantly be battling this. This is an opportunity to do a little bit of catch up and a lot of forecasting and planning for the future, so we can continue focusing on being a great school district."