In third referendum campaign for a new Jefferson, District 200 superintendent vows to 'do better'
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler tried to set the tone early in a forum Thursday night leading up to a November ballot question seeking voter approval to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center.
Schuler displayed a bit of contrition at the start of the "listening town hall," echoing a September letter released from the school board acknowledging the district's two failed referendum campaigns in the last five years.
"We recognize that we haven't necessarily been up on the same page with the community," Schuler said. "The outcome of the referendum had told us that, and so very candidly we want to do better. We want to turn the page on those, and we want to work, do better to move forward and make sure that as we're laying out plans, that we're doing a better job of that."
About 15 minutes into the meeting, Schuler offered to take questions from the 30 or so people in the audience, inviting a broad conversation about what the district does well and could do better.
But most people wanted to talk about Jefferson. .
What to do with the 1950s-era building that's now an early childhood center off Manchester Road in Wheaton has a been a perennial issue in the district.
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.
This time, the district is seeking voter permission to construct a new building without raising taxes.
The board's August decision to put the roughly $15 million project on the ballot 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.
But a lawsuit filed by resident Jan Shaw, a former school board candidate, challenged 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 rather than fight the lawsuit's claims in a potentially costly legal battle.
The district had reached a lease agreement to rent the new building for roughly $1 million a year from a Utah-based bank 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.
No one at the forum addressed the lawsuit directly, but the audience focused most of their questions on the project's funding -- the district would still pursue a lease agreement if voters sign off on the request -- and Jefferson's enrollment, which varies throughout the year but typically totals about 280 students ages 3 to 5.
"What we've heard from the community I guess in terms of feedback was there was significant concern around cost within that building," Schuler said. "And so we've pulled back the plans, downsized that building through reducing a couple of classrooms, and developed an option where we could pay for it without adding to community tax burden."
Longtime district resident Nancy Thomas called the plan "innovative," saying it will resonate with tax-weary voters. Another woman in the audience questioned whether the district would eventually seek another tax increase to address other building projects beyond Jefferson.
"I'm not going to attempt to project or predict for you exactly what the future is going to hold," Schuler said. "Do I anticipate that a year from now we're going to be here talking about a referendum? No, I don't."
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.
With voter approval, building a 42,000-square-foot Jefferson replacement could take roughly nine months.
Wheaton North High School will host the third forum 10 a.m. Friday. Wheaton Warrenville South High School will host the fourth and final forum at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13.