WHEATON — The Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 Board of Education voted Jan. 9 to place a $17.6 million referendum for a new Jefferson facility on April’s ballot, placing the future of the project in the hands of the voting public.
The new facility would address many issues with the current Jefferson Early Childhood Center, including a lack of space and handicap accessibility in the school, which primarily serves 3- and 4-year-olds in the district with disabilities.
The referendum will appear on the April 9 ballot as follows: “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 to replace the existing Jefferson Early Childhood Center, improve the site thereof and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $17,600,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?”
At the meeting, board members also voted to approve a payment method for the project. In order to limit the amount the district would pay later on, the payment plan would make some payments annually on the principal of the bonds while still being sensitive to the annual tax increase on district residents.
Many community members attended the Jan. 9 meeting to speak about the Jefferson center, and most spoke in favor of the project and referendum question.
“Jefferson could be good for more than just the children and families that attend the school, it could be good for the entire community,” said Bill Babiarz, whose 3-year-old daughter, Cammy, attends Jefferson.
Babiarz, along with others who spoke, also criticized comments made by board candidate Jan Shaw at the Dec. 12 board meeting.
“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,” Shaw said Dec. 12.
Shaw spoke Jan. 9 as well, saying her issue is not with the children but instead with the cost of the proposed facility.
“We all want the best for all of our children,” Shaw said. “It really is about the money. It’s also about homeowners being able to afford the home in which they live.”
Financial concerns were echoed by Jim Gambaiani, the only board member to vote against placing the referendum on the ballot.
Gambaiani said for him, the referendum was about the district taking on any new building and associated capital spending and not the new Jefferson facility in particular.
“I believe that the current and future financial health of the district is the highest priority at this time,” he said.
According to the payment plan approved by the board, owners of a $200,000 home in the district would pay an additional $19 annually in property taxes starting in 2014. Owners of a $500,000 home would pay $51 more in property taxes each year.
Community members argued improving the early education center could save the district money later on, as some students who receive appropriate disability services when they first enter the district no longer require them as they get older.
Young people with disabilities also grow up to be fully participating members of the community if they’re given the services they need early in life, said Cindy Swanson, who works for ARC of Illinois, an advocacy organization that supports positive legislation for people with disabilities.
“No matter how challenged they are, if we give them the right foundation, they’re going to be contributors,” Swanson said.
Ultimately, most board members voted to let the public decide what should happen regarding Jefferson.
“If the voters of this district feel that we’re not in good shape, that we need to be alarmed, that we shouldn’t take out more debt, they will tell us that in this referendum. It’s not our decision to make,” Board Vice President Barbara Intihar said. “It is our decision to let you make that decision. That is our position.”
If the referendum passes in April, construction is expected to begin in March 2014, with a goal of opening the new facility in August 2015.