District 200 Residents Condemn Candidate Comments, Defend Jefferson Referendum
More than 20 residents spoke out on plans to rebuild Jefferson Early Childhood Center before a vote at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting to put a referendum question on the project on the April election ballot.
A $17.6 million bond issuance for a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center could cost taxpayers more—if voters decide it’s worth it in the April election.
Critics of the Jefferson project question unknown costs, such as a need for more staff to accommodate a larger student population. Supporters said Wednesday that they’re OK with spending their money on education. Some will spend outside their means to stay in District 200.
The District 200 Board of Education on Wednesday approved a referendum question for the April election ballot, asking taxpayers if the district should rebuild the outdated school with $17.6 million in bonds—which would equate to about $19 to $51 more on residents’ tax bills each year for people in homes worth $200,000 to $500,000.
Among more than 20 comments from the public Wednesday night were criticisms of two school board candidates’ comments on the project, cost increase concern, testimonies to the need for a new building and personal accounts of their experiences with the school.
Dollars and sense
Board candidate Jan Shaw said last month that District 200 can’t afford something new, which could attract new families to the district.
“Are we creating a magnet that’s going to entice families to move to this district because they have a special needs child? ... How much is it going to cost for more teachers? … After preschool, are they going to go to kindergarten (and all the way) to 12th grade? What’s the cost to other schools?” she asked. “Don’t build a magnet that’s going to be pulling more special needs children into the district that we’re going to have to educate the whole way through."
Kristen Szeredy-Hosack—mother of three kids, one who went to Jefferson with an individualized education program and graduated to go on to elementary school without any special needs—said Shaw’s comments inspired a reaction to an important issue.
“(At first) I wanted to say shame on you for not doing your homework and spreading such ignorance … But (now), I want to say thank you. (The) ignorance has been a light for many of us to start this topic as an important topic, for many of us to be here tonight,” she said.
“I’m not thrilled about taxes going up… (But) I’m OK with my hard-earned money going toward education,” she said.
Shaw said Wednesday her position is not about the children, but the money.
"Hearing the Jefferson parents' stories really tugged at my heartstrings," she said.
"They (special needs children) do need to be educated and we should continue to educate them."
But in the worst economy since the Great Depression, "We need to take care of our community, but we also need to make sure we're not pricing people out of their homes," she said.
She added that a larger student population will require more staff, and that Jefferson is not the only district project that will cost taxpayers.
Ken Knicker, a current board member and candidate, also received objection to a comment he made last month in response to those who say it's not a good time for a referendum.
“There’s never a good time for a referendum. People just don’t want to raise taxes and spend money. We all pay taxes in the community, and I don’t want my tax bill to go up, but I live here. I feel as though I can afford to live here. If I can’t afford to live here, then maybe I should move,” he said.
Lynn Kadel, a parent who said she supports the referendum, called Knicker’s comments “elitist” and “undemocratic.”
“That’s not the value we teach here,” she said.
Knicker said his comments were not intentionally elitist, arrogant or non-democratic, but expressing a concern for what he considers a dangerous area, a "tipping point," when a potential increase could be a final budget impact that forces a lifestyle change.
"Instead of relinquishing the night at the movies or the weekend pizza, for some residents, a tax increase can mean much more," he said. "...That remains my concern because many of our citizens might well face that dilemma."
While no citizen wants a tax increase, he said, many understand "the larger concept of the greater good of the community and will vote, through our democratic process, to increase their own tax bill."
Mike and Elizabeth Pribaz, parents of three-year-old Jack, who was born with a condition placed under the epilepsy category that was later diagnosed as a rare genetic mutation, are now facing the reality that their home in Winfield does not meet their son’s needs.
Having moved to Winfield for District 200 schools, they won’t go anywhere outside of District 200, no matter the cost.
“…We can’t afford District 200 to get the house we need—(but) it doesn’t matter. We’re going to do it… For people to say it’d be a burden to bring in special needs kids… That’s an insulting thing to say,” Mike Pribaz said. “Jan Shaw is here talking about money—most of us are here talking about kids.”
Demands on the district
District 200 Superintendent Dr. Brian Harris addressed concerns of a larger building increasing operating costs.
One third of students who pay tuition at Jefferson pay for their staff, he said. The special needs students—two thirds of the school's population—require staffing, mandated by state and federal law. He added that while a larger building could require additional custodial staff, the district could reallocate current custodial time.
The board’s chosen financing plan for the bonds would result in a total debt service of about $23.5 million. It would not extend the term of the district's current debt schedule, and includes some principal amortized annually.
Without the new Jefferson, most of the district’s debt service would drop from just under $30 million in 2022 to about $5 million in 2023. With the new Jefferson, it will peak at just under $30 million in 2022 and drop to about $17 million in 2023.
The referendum will appear on the ballot in the consolidated election on April 9.
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