District 200 will ask voters to replace Jefferson school after all

 
 
Updated 8/20/2018 11:20 PM
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  • A rendering by Legat Architects shows the entrance for a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center that would replace the 1950s-era building on the existing site in Wheaton.

    A rendering by Legat Architects shows the entrance for a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center that would replace the 1950s-era building on the existing site in Wheaton. Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200

  • About two-thirds of the students at Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton have special needs.

      About two-thirds of the students at Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton have special needs. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, March 2017

  • An aerial rendering shows the footprint of a new, 41,000-square-foot Jefferson Early Childhood Center.

    An aerial rendering shows the footprint of a new, 41,000-square-foot Jefferson Early Childhood Center. Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200

For the third time in five years, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 voters will decide the fate of a plan to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center, but this time, the district wants to construct a new building without raising taxes.

The decision to put the roughly $15 million project on the ballot represents a stunning turnaround that came two days before the district was prepared to hold a groundbreaking ceremony on a new Jefferson in Wheaton. The district had already secured bids from contractors and spent about $600,000 on design costs.

Instead, the board voted unanimously in a special meeting Monday to place a referendum question on the ballot seeking voter permission to replace the 60-year-old Jefferson in the wake of a lawsuit challenging a borrowing plan that would have let the district forge ahead with construction.

Board members said they reluctantly agreed to shift course at the eleventh hour -- Monday was the last day the board could vote to put a question on the Nov. 6 ballot -- rather than fight the lawsuit's claims in a potentially costly legal battle.

"We got great bids. We were ready to go, and we got put in a box," board Vice President Brad Paulsen said. "So here we are. We're going to take this vote, and see how it goes in November, and we're not going to be satisfied as a board until those kids are in the right kind of learning environment to support them."

The district had reached a lease agreement 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 after paying off the debt through operating funds.

But that alternative approach spawned a lawsuit filed last week by Jan Shaw, a former board candidate who disputed the use of so-called lease certificates and sought to force the issue onto the ballot.

Board President Jim Vroman responded to the lawsuit last week with a statement saying the district adamantly disagrees with the claims outlined in the lawsuit.

"According to Illinois School Code, we have the ability to enter into such a lease agreement and the language in the lease agreement was very explicit that it could only be paid out of operating funds, not through levying a separate special property tax to finance the costs," the statement read.

Vroman said Wednesday other Illinois school districts have used lease certificates successfully "for a number of years." But he again expressed concerns about the costs to defend the district against Shaw's lawsuit in court. Shaw did not immediately return a phone message Wednesday night about whether she now plans to withdraw the complaint.

"I'm sure Jan Shaw has a lot of talents, but the talent I saw in the complaint, the way it was crafted tells, me that there is something behind Jan Shaw in that complaint, so we would be in a litigation battle," Vroman said. "And where we would be? Where is our fiduciary responsibility to spend the money of this district? Is it to spend the money in defending litigation that may take months or years to resolve while we still wait to build a new early childhood learning center?"

The ballot question does not explicitly mention the cost or funding of a new Jefferson. It reads: "Shall the Board of Education of Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District Number 200, DuPage County, Illinois, build and equip a new early childhood center without levying a separate, special property tax to finance the costs thereof?"

But with voter approval, the district would still intend to complete the project through a lease agreement rather than with a property tax increase.

The district would make the lease payments with operating funds.

"Our objective moving forward is not to alter this finance principal as we're looking at the funding of the early learning center," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said.

Voters rejected tax increases that would have funded 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.

Built in 1958, Jefferson opened as an elementary school but now 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, where educators and parents have long raised issues with accessibility and space constraints.

If voters sign off on the request, the district would break ground on a 42,000-square-foot Jefferson replacement "as quickly" as possible, Schuler said.

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