District 200 pulls back on new Jefferson center, looks to referendum after all
The Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board will vote Monday on whether to seek voter permission for a third time to build a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center, a stunning reversal in the wake of a lawsuit challenging a $14 million borrowing plan that would have let the district move ahead with construction as early as this month.
Board members emerged from closed session Wednesday night to table a series of votes on construction bid packages and a 20-year lease agreement calling for the district to rent the new building for roughly $1 million a year from a Utah-based bank that would front the cash for the project. At the end of the lease, the district could take ownership of the building once paying off the debt through operating funds instead of a property tax increase.
But that alternative approach triggered a lawsuit filed last week by Jan Shaw, a former board candidate who said the district was circumventing voters who twice rejected a new Jefferson -- first in 2013 and again last year as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for building repairs and renovations at all but one of the district's schools.
"They found a loophole to ignore voters," Shaw said ahead of Wednesday's board meeting. "Their decision to do this after being told no twice is crazy."
Board President Jim Vroman said the district "adamantly" disagrees with the claims in the lawsuit but raised concerns about the costs of a potential legal battle.
"Supported by our legal counsel, we believe the district has been fully compliant with school code in all of our decisions," said Vroman, reading from a prepared, two-page statement. "The claims that the district has not been transparent in decisions are simply not true -- we have sent more than 20 communications to the broader community outlining our process to determine a facility solution for Jefferson.
"With that said, the time and cost of resources to litigate this claim would be very costly to our community and taxpayers. We are not willing to take any more valuable resources from the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the our district that need us and deserve a facility improvement that meets their educational needs."
The board will now hold a special meeting Monday about placing a referendum question on the November ballot asking voters to approve borrowing $14 million through the so-called lease certificates for a new Jefferson. That's the last day the district can put a question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Jefferson was built almost 60 years ago as an elementary school and was never meant for preschoolers, most of whom have a physical, mental or behavioral disability. Half the classrooms don't have bathrooms, and the ones that do are too small and not wheelchair-accessible, educators have said. Occupational and physical therapists also work with students using large equipment in the building's hallways because of space constraints.
One parent reiterated the need for a new Jefferson center.
"Some of the people believe there's nothing wrong with the building," Taryn Sonntag said, "when the truth is only two-thirds of the gym can be used, since a portion of it is needed for specialized equipment that has nowhere else to go in the building built for standard elementary students."
While the district will now work on the phrasing of the ballot question, Superintendent Jeff Schuler said officials would not seek to issue bonds funded by a property tax increase as previous requests did.
"This decision is especially painful given that the bids we were to award tonight were approximately $500,000 under budget and a delay of any sort will almost certainly increase the cost of the project," Vroman said. "While we believe that we have been fully compliant with Illinois School Code in developing a plan to construct a new building through a lease agreement, it is not the desire of this board of education to spend the communities' tax dollars fighting a lawsuit when the option of a November referendum election exists."
Before the board's turnaround, two speakers raised questions about the funding plan, while nearly a dozen parents spoke in support of a new Jefferson.
Reached late Wednesday, Shaw said she will await the board vote Monday before deciding what to do with the lawsuit, adding that she had a "very strong case."
And if the matter goes to referendum, Shaw said, "I suspect unless they cut other spending the taxpayers are going to say no."