On May 7, 2012, District 200 received a check from the State of Illinois for $14,462,317, for the "School Construction Program." (Check No. AA7703807) That money is enough to build a brand new state of the art Jefferson Preschool, just as originally planned by the District's own architects, without raising property taxes. Yet the District 200 school board chose to hide the money, and instead is seeking a tax increase referendum. District 200 and the referendum supporters are using emotional appeals to promote the referendum, and hope voters overlook the Board's diversion of these capital funds.
District 200 is setting up a false choice for the upcoming referendum, by claiming that a tax increase and borrowing are needed to provide for the needs of Jefferson preschool students. But parents and taxpayers should be outraged, because the District has the cash on hand. If Jefferson special needs students were really the Board's highest priority, it would spend its school construction grant for school construction at Jefferson - not delay, and sit on the money to bolster its bank balance. A new school could have been ready this fall, not in the fall of 2015. A "no" vote on the referendum will tell District 200 to rebuild Jefferson with the money it already has, not borrow millions more.
District 200 usually publicizes even small grants, like a $2000 grant received by Johnson Elementary School. But if you review the May 2012 board minutes, you won't find any discussion of a $14.4 million check, which is kind of a big deal. This money can be spent for any school construction project - like Jefferson. Why keep such a significant development quiet? Because if voters find out, they might not be so eager to approve a big borrowing plan and tax increase.
At the time of the Hubble referendum, District architects Legat & Co. also presented three options to rebuild Jefferson. The third and most expensive option was a completely new state of the art building, designed specifically for the District's needs, and projected to cost about $13.4 million. Since that time, however, construction costs have actually declined, due to the collapse of demand in the housing market. Using the Turner Construction Cost index - the standard Legat used in its presentation - the cost today would only be about $12.4 million. Now, however, District 200 wants a building that is 20% bigger and 43% more expensive than what Legat proposed, and between 16% and 56% bigger than any of the peer facilities Legat evaluated.
Remember, Legat's original plan was part of the same presentation that included the “program driven” new Hubble middle school, which has been widely lauded by District 200, and is said to have been delivered "on time" and “under budget”. So the District's architects were geniuses in designing and estimating the Hubble building, but at the very same time, were off by a factor of 43% on Jefferson?
District 200 figures also show that since the original Legat design, the overall number of special education students in the District is down about 10% (from 2230 to 2021), and the number of early childhood students is down about 20% (from 284 to 230). Thus, the Legat design should be plenty big enough to provide for current needs and future growth if it occurs. But even if a much larger building is needed, the District should still be using its school construction grant, rather than asking to borrow the full amount. If it did so, the referendum would only require about $3.5 million, not $17.9 million.
If District 200 asks for a school construction grant from the State, and doesn't spend the money for school construction, how likely is it that the State will want to give District 200 additional grant funds in the future?
Bear in mind, also, that at the time of the Hubble referendum, the District promised the bond tax rate would never exceed 44 cents. Yet by last year, the rate was almost 55 cents – 24% higher than the District promised – and it’s still going up! Now is not the time to add more debt to the property tax burden, especially with "balloon payments" for prior borrowing looming on the horizon.