District 25 board agrees to ask voters to fund expanded kindergarten, renovations
While expressing reservations over cost and scope, Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 board members agreed to put a question on the June 28 ballot seeking voter approval for a tax increase to fund full-day kindergarten and a five-year capital projects plan.
The district will seek permission to issue up to $75 million in bonds for classroom additions at six of the district's seven elementary schools to house the expanded kindergarten programming, and for facilities renovations districtwide.
Adding kindergarten classrooms -- 25 in total -- is estimated to cost $32.2 million to $42.6 million, while the five-year capital plan would cost $32.9 million.
Before their eventual 6-1 vote, board members Thursday night questioned the superintendent and administrators about combining the two issues into one ballot question, and they feared what voter appetite for it might be -- especially as the proposed borrowing amount went from $60 million to $75 million since previous discussions.
"We're writing checks we don't have," board Vice President Brian Cerniglia said. "It's a horrible economy. I personally have reservations about kindergarten as a whole -- spending $40+ million for an hour and 10 minutes of instructional time for a 5-year-old. I don't know what the return on investment of that is because our kids from District 25 tend to hit District 214 schools at a higher level and we already have part-time kindergarten."
But in the end, Cerniglia said his role as a board member is to give both taxpayers and parents the opportunity to vote on the question.
Board member Gina Faso said she had "angst" over the $75 million ask of voters, and that the capital projects portion of the ballot question could be an "anchor to prevent the other one (full-day kindergarten) from going through."
Board member Chad Conley said he also struggled with that dollar figure after the previous $60 million estimate, which was the number mentioned during a poll of prospective voters taken in February.
"We're gonna face a PR problem here," Conley said. "Let's just be realistic."
Superintendent Lori Bein said she and her administrative team believe they've been transparent about capital projects' inclusion in the referendum. She noted that the ballot question mentions "replacing windows, flooring, roofing, plumbing, electrical equipment and HVAC systems," in addition to building additions to house expanded kindergarten.
Stacey Mallek, the district's assistant superintendent of business, said the $60 million estimate was proposed before the board's recent review of a demographic study and preference for a 85% kindergarten classroom occupancy rate to provide an enrollment buffer. The board also rejected a plan that would've saved $10 million but moved a popular special education program from one school to another to free up classroom space.
"We didn't want to make changes to current programs or change class sizes, and we want to keep programs where they are. We don't want to be back here in three to five years having this conversation again," Mallek said in recommending the board ask for $75 million.
Mallek and Bein added that even if voters do give permission to sell $75 million in bonds, the board doesn't have to do it all at once.
If voters approve, the measure would cost the owner of an average $400,000 home an extra $300 in property taxes a year, or $25 a month.
Despite the concerns of board members, Rich Olejniczak was the only member of the elected panel Thursday to vote "no" in an initial tally to direct the administration to pursue full-day kindergarten programs by August 2024 and the five-year capital work. He said he's supportive of the kindergarten piece but wants to have further discussion about how to fund the district's future facilities' needs.
But after that vote passed, Olejniczak joined the rest of the board in formally voting to submit the ballot resolution to the Cook County clerk's office, citing the board's governance policy to support the consensus despite earlier debates.