A Taxpayer's Guide to Surviving CUSD 200: Part I

An enlightening conversation with Superintendant Dr. Brian Harris and Board President Rosemary Swanson


Tip #1: If you want the truth, do your own homework.

I had a very interesting conversation with Superintendent Dr. Brian Harris tonight. He was hosting an informational meeting on the Jefferson Preschool project tonight which I attended.

After the (convincing) presentation regarding the need for the Jefferson project to move forward, the floor was opened for questions and comments. I went first.

I took the opportunity to express my support for the Jefferson project itself, but my disappointment with how hard it is to trust CUSD200, given all the misleading and false information they disseminate.

Dr. Harris got very agitated when the word "false" left my lips and immediately pressed me for an example of what I was talking about. So I explained to him that I was referring to what you see below, taken directly from the CUSD 200 website.


Q:  In 2006, the estimated cost to renovate was $13.5 million.  Why, in 2013, is it $17.6 million?

A:  In 2006, design work was not completed for Jefferson.  It was removed from consideration and the focus was on Hubble.  The 2013 costs increased because:

  • The increase in the detail of the design has provided the ability for a more accurate estimate.
  • Significant issues based on "mistakes" other districts have made in their recently-built early childhood centers are being addressed.
  • The cost of materials has increased in seven years.


When I described the question, Dr. Harris assured me he was intimately acquainted with the question and the three answers. “What was false?” he demanded.

“For starters,” I began, “the estimate was dated 2007, and not 2006. But even more importantly, the bidding was for Year 2008.”

After a bit of back and forth, it became clear that Dr. Harris is familiar with the concept of inflation and its role in pricing of contracts and bids and the like. All very encouraging.

But he still looked confused. “What's your concern?" he asked.

I had led Dr. Harris to water, but he was obviously in no mood to drink.

 “Look," I said, "let’s cut to the chase. Your website suggests that the $13.5M price tag was for 2006, but the bid is in 2008 dollars. This is your chart.”

I then showed him Exhibit A (see attachments). Exhibit A comes from the proposal presented to CUSD about 6 years ago. It shows the inflation assumptions that the architects built into their “2008 bidding” project estimate - the $13.5M number.

Dr. Harris still looked puzzled.

I then showed Dr. Harris Exhibit B. Exhibit B shows what actually happened over the past 5 years. Prices did rise in 2007 and 2008. But then as we all know the world hit the skids and construction prices plummeted in 2009. To this day construction costs still had not yet returned to their 2008 levels.

Dr. Harris still looked puzzled.

I then stated the obvious: “Your website states that one of the reasons why the price rose was that the cost of materials has increased. That’s false. The truth is, the $13.5M price is the high-water mark price and since then construction costs have declined markedly.

After a bit more back and forth Dr. Harris eventually conceded that what I was saying was entirely true and that he’d do his best to tidy up the website with these corrections.

“Dr. Harris," I then said, "it’s great that you’re going to fix the information on the website, but what concerns me most is that you put false information there in the first place.”

This time around Dr. Harris did not jump on me for using the word false.

Here's why. The below chart shows “bid prices” for the exact same project done the exact same way. The only thing being adjusted in this chart is the construction costs over time, as tracked by the Turner Construction Cost Index that CUSD 200 architects use.

 Year Estimated Cost in 2007   Actual Cost            Comment 2008 $13.5M $13.5M CUSD200 called this a 2006 price 2009 $14.3M $12.4M
2010 no estimate provided $11.9M
2011 no estimate provided $12.1M
2012 no estimate provided $12.5M This is essentially "today's price"

In essence, the above chart shows that the same project done today would cost LESS, not more, than it would have in 2008. If this were eBay, the 2012 "buy it now" price is $12.5M.

Rosemary Swanson, currently serving as President of the CUSD 200 board, was present at the meeting. She seemed strangely unconcerned with this error, the fact that it was large, or that it was on the CUSD 200 website. She said something to the effect that it was all fine and that everyone was doing their best to explain things well.

Tip #2: If CUSD200 is hiding something, see if you can figure out what it is.

Explain things well? The last justification for the price increase is patently false, and the other two justifications are comically lacking in detail.

"Dr. Harris," I said, "why didn't you just tell taxpayers the truth? None of your answers explain that the biggest reason for this price increase is the simple fact that you have increased the project size by more 25%. You want to build a bigger building. Why didn't you just tell the taxpayers that?"

Dr. Harris then tried to fudge. I didn't budge. "NO. Your website doesn't even mention the word 'space' in the answer. There is nothing there to tell the reader that the price has risen because the project got much bigger. Nothing."

Dr. Harris then assured me that they'd fix that in the website too.

Tip #3: When you catch CUSD200 hiding something, they usually promise to stop hiding it.

But of course by that time the false information is already out, and few people will get the corrected story, if indeed it is corrected.

So the conversation moved on and other people asked questions, but as the evening wound down I realized I still didn’t have Dr. Harris’ answer…  did they put the false information there in the website intentionally, or did they simply not know what they were doing?

So I asked Dr. Harris near the end of the session, "Dr. Harris, did you know that the website contained false information?"

Dr. Harris replied, "Well at first I didn't know what you were talking about, but now I understand what you were saying."

"No, Dr. Harris, that is not my question", I chided him. "I'm not asking you if you now understand what I pointed out tonight. I am asking you if you were, or were not, aware that your website is providing false information."

As soon as I said this, the room got a bit noisy, as not only Dr. Harris but also several CUSD200 board members who were in attendance voiced disgust at the question I was asking.

Rosemary Swanson turned around, looked me in the eye, and said (and I quote), "That is one of those 'Have you stopped beating your wife' questions. There is no need for him to answer it."

"Fine," I said to Dr. Harris, "I understand that you do not want to answer the question."

So, fellow taxpayers, there you have it.

Neither the President of the Board nor the District Superintendent felt that (a) a $1.7 million error is a material error, or that (b) Dr. Harris needs to explain to me or to anyone else whether the "mistake" was due to fraudulence or sheer incompetence.

Some readers (and perhaps some CUSD administrators) will wonder where I got the number $1.7 million.

CUSD200 explained their price increase with these words: "The cost of materials has increased in seven years."

Yes, prices have increased since 2006. But if we were to back out the 2006 price for that same project, it would be $11.8 million. I repeat... the 2006 price for the exact same project was $11.8 million. Think of it as inflation in reverse.

The difference between $13.5 million and $11.8 million is $1.7 million, friends.

So if CUSD wishes to talk about price increases since 2006, they have to use the 2006 price.

That means they have to explain NOT the difference between $13.5M and $17.6M, which is about $4.1M.

Rather, they must now explain the difference between $11.8M and $17.6M.

That's $5.8 million. The gap just grew by $1.7M.

So now CUSD 200 has an additional $1.7 million to explain.

Do you think they will? Stay tuned!

In Part II (my next blog, if I get to it) I'll tell you something else we discussed at tonight's meeting. It has to do with a very cool thing: CUSD is going to give everyone a free sofa. New. No charge.

Anybody want to hear that story?

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WheatonWisdom February 26, 2013 at 10:10 PM
Now let's examine the INVESTMENTS taxpayers have to make for the non-special needs students. Now consider that fully allocated CUSD 200 operating cost (including instruction) per pupil is $11,529 from the 2012 Illinois Interactive Report Card. Using Jefferson tuition of $235 per student per month for two sessions per day times 10 months, total “student” tuition amounts to $4,700 which means that taxpayers are losing $6,829 for every tuition based “student”. Therefore, I disagree with the district information that tuition students are covering their costs. They are not, they cost thousands per year per student. No wonder there is a waiting list at only $235 per month. However, supporting our most vulnerable is not just a government mandate, it is the right thing to do. If the current Jefferson facility requires reasonable expansion, remodeling, etc. to provide appropriate facilities for the special needs students we should spend some money - maybe it should be funded by the grant money. But this voter is not convinced that a $17.6 million referendum or a $23.4 million debt for a completely new building with all the bells and whistles is warranted at this time. The taxpayers have already burned by the financial disaster of Hubble where voters were promised $20 - $30 million for the old Hubble property.
Lee February 26, 2013 at 10:17 PM
The “Head Start Program” is a program of the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. This is not the same as, nor should be confused with Early Ed. programs offered at Jefferson or any other local preschool. Although valuation of preschool is completely off-topic to Jefferson referendum, here’s a great article from the 02/13/13 Washington Post, “Hey Congress: Pre-K is a better investment than the stock market” indicating: “A number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been conducted to measure the effects of high-quality early childhood education. The most influential are the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. Those are two randomized trials, conducted in 1960s Michigan and 1970s North Carolina, respectively. Participants have been followed ever since so as to ascertain long-term outcomes in terms of things like Incarceration Rates, Teen Pregnancy, Average Education Level, Average Income, and more. Because the studies were randomized, we can know beyond a reasonable doubt that any significant differences are due to the influence of the preschool programs. BOTH FOUND HUGE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL GAINS TO HIGH-QUALITY PRESCHOOL." It's all about the quality of the education!!! http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/13/hey-congress-pre-k-is-a-better-investment-than-the-stock-market/
Lee February 26, 2013 at 10:40 PM
The US Census does not poll for nor publish any data on the number of children being diagnosed with special needs. Which census numbers are you trying to interpret?
Brad Paulsen February 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM
As Lee wrote earlier today the program at Jefferson is not a Head Start program. Head Start is a federal program focused on low-income students and families that have challenging socio-economic "situations". Any conclusions drawn from whether Head Start is effective or ineffective are irrelevant to the merits of the Jefferson proposal.
WheatonWisdom February 27, 2013 at 09:58 PM
Brad, let me explain the relevancy. First, who do you think the "fee waiver" students are and will be at Jefferson - low income and families that have challenging socio-economic situations. Second, it was a pre-K study and the most recent and expansive study done on pre-K benefit (Jefferson pre-K more closely resembles Head Start's program than the studies cited by Lee - see the WSJ for a recent article). Finally, I guess you had not heard that CUSD 200 has a partnership with the Head Start program currenty and it may expand - on this relevant fact I had expected more from someone running for the school board.


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