Voters have rejected new school twice. District 200 board looks to build it anyway.
The Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board is expected to approve a $14 million borrowing plan Wednesday to pay for construction of a building the district won't own and that voters have rejected twice.
The district is commissioning a 41,000-square-foot replacement for the 26,000-square-foot, 60-year-old Jefferson Early Childhood Center across from the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. But instead of owning it outright, the district will rent the building for roughly $1 million a year from a Utah-based bank that is fronting the cash for the project. At the end of a 20-year lease, the district has the option to take ownership of the new facility.
The district has already spent about $1.5 million on planning costs, according to district financial records.
School officials say they need the building and have found a creative way to pay for it. However, some taxpayers accuse the school district of making an end run around opponents who've voted down the new school.
"A renovation and expansion of the existing facility wasn't viable because of the cost," District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "It was going to take $5 million just to handle needed repairs to the roof, plumbing and other infrastructure, and that's without addressing the educational aspects and accessibility issues Jefferson has."
Opponents of the spending plan are suing the district to try to stop construction, charging the school board is "tampering with election results" by moving forward.
"They found a loophole to ignore voters," said Jan Shaw, a one-time board candidate who filed the suit last week. "Their decision to do this after being told no twice is crazy."
In 2013 and 2017, voters overwhelmingly rejected tax hikes that would have paid for the Jefferson replacement.
The school was built in 1958. Today, it houses about 288 children ages 3 to 5. Sixty percent of the children have a physical, mental or behavioral disability and participate in the district's early intervention programs offered at the school, Schuler said.
Most Jefferson classrooms have a blend of students, but the lack of accessibility at the current school prevents full immersion, parents said.
"A new building would be night and day for Jefferson families," said Megan Legler, whose two sons participated in traditional preschool programs at Jefferson. "As of now, because of the layout and classroom sizes, if a student is in a wheelchair or has other means of assisted mobility, there may not be enough room for them to play with their peers."
Students in the early intervention programs often transition into traditional classrooms, Schuler added.
"We have countless stories of success of students who have gone through Jefferson and been able to enter kindergarten with much less discrepancy in their education," he said.
District leaders argue the board is acting well within its authority to commission the building. Schuler said the district is not increasing property taxes to cover the new debt. The district also is not reducing any programs, but Schuler said some new state revenue is being redirected to "absorb the expenditure."
Legal experts seem to agree with the district, but some have reservations.
"If the school district needs to provide this facility for its students and it can figure out a way to pay for it, then it would appear to have the statutory right to do so," said Keri-Lyn Krafthefer, an attorney specializing in Illinois municipal law. "The question is whether it should exercise that power if the public has refused on a number of occasions to provide additional funding."
School districts have long circumvented voter approval for construction projects. Often a district will build reserves so the board won't have to seek a property tax hike to build.
Schuler said the board didn't want to dip into its nearly $50 million in reserves to finance the project because it would have dropped the reserve account below a board-mandated threshold of 25 percent of annual operating revenue.
District 200 is not the first to use such a lease deal.
Ed Stange, superintendent of Sunset Ridge Elementary District 29 in Northfield, employed a similar lease agreement to build a new school for grades four through eight five years ago.
"Our community told us they didn't want to pay more in taxes for it," he said. "We showed them this lease plan and the community said, 'You're going to build a new state-of-the-art facility for our kids and not raise taxes? Go ahead.'"
Unlike in District 200, voters in Sunset Ridge had not voted down the new building.
Schuler believes the results of an online community survey in the wake of the failed 2017 vote shows enough support for the district to move forward.
The survey showed that 38 percent of the 2,600 respondents fully supported replacing Jefferson, while 30 percent supported replacing Jefferson with revisions to reduce the cost of the project.
Schuler said the board did scale back plans for the new facility to rein in costs. Initially, the project had a $17.3 million price tag, according to earlier drafts.
Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said the district should not build a replacement.
The board vote is slated to follow a closed session to discuss Shaw's lawsuit. At least one board member, Jim Gambaiani, wants to wait until the suit is settled before moving forward with the project.
"We must delay this until we have a clear and concise decision on the outcome," he said.
Shaw is hoping the court will uphold the results of the votes. She recognizes that having to sue the district is ultimately going to cost taxpayers, who will pay for the district's legal defense.
"But that's only if the district chooses to fight," she said.
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