Editorial: School district 121 gets low marks for transparency at hearing

  • Warren Township High School District 121 officials might borrow $23 million for a variety of projects, including a new roof at the Almond Road campus.

    Warren Township High School District 121 officials might borrow $23 million for a variety of projects, including a new roof at the Almond Road campus. Daily Herald File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/30/2018 9:35 AM

The Warren Township High School District 121 board will vote next month on a plan to borrow $23 million to pay for a variety of projects, from completing the district's solar work to repairing parking lots.

But at a public hearing last week, staff and board members offered only a quick overview of the proposal. There was no project-by-project breakdown of costs, no estimate of what a $23 million loan might mean for taxpayers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In fact, when one resident asked board members if they could provide additional details on how the money would be spent, board Vice President Michael B. Munda responded that the public comment was not to be a dialogue and that a written breakdown would be provided later.

So much for a public hearing.

The district's lack of details is disturbing. And while the bonds they plan to issue don't require a referendum by law, elected officials owe the public answers -- and transparency.

Our reporter Doug T. Graham approached Superintendent John Ahlgrim after the meeting. Ahlgrim then provided cost estimates for some of the items: Completing the district's solar project would cost about $7.5 million, laying a new roof at the Almond Road campus would be about $5 million and replacing three boilers at the O'Plaine campus was estimated at $1 million. Replacing tennis courts in disrepair would cost around $700,000.

Those details, as well as how the district plans to spend the rest of the money, should have been spelled out at the meeting. Not after it.

The district serves all or parts of Gurnee, Wadsworth, Grayslake, Wildwood and other neighboring suburbs.

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In the last 11 years, district officials have asked voters for permission to borrow money twice. In 2007, voters overwhelmingly rejected the request. A year later, they agreed to allow the district to issue $30 million in school building bonds.

Much of the money the district currently seeks would be used to enhance school safety and address concerns identified in a 2016 health and life safety study. The projects may be needed, but taxpayers -- who ultimately foot the bill -- have a right to know the specifics and offer input.

Resident Craig Hunter attended last week's meeting and expressed disappointment over the hearing's lack of substance.

"It's a lot of money," he said. "As a taxpayer who pays $11,000 each year, I would like to know more."

The matter will come up again at a special school board meeting on Nov. 20. Before they vote, officials should offer up a full presentation and be prepared to answer questions.

Taxpayers deserve that -- and more.

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