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WHEATON – Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 will once again ask voters to approve a new early childhood center.
At their Aug. 20 meeting, Board of Education members unanimously approved authorizing a question on the Nov. 6 ballot to build and equip the new building without levying a separate special property tax to finance the costs. The action comes in the face of a lawsuit filed Aug. 6 by Wheaton resident Jan Shaw in response to a proposal by the district to issue lease certificates that would help pay for the proposed new center on the site of the current Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton.
In her suit, Shaw alleges that "Illinois law requires that when a school district desires to build a new school building or to borrow money for that purpose, it must first obtain voter approval to do so, through the referendum process."
Along with putting the referendum on the ballot, board members also voted to terminate a lease agreement. But board member Jim Mathieson was hesitant to do so.
"I personally feel that I would almost prefer to litigate this," he said. "I understand that it will be expensive to litigate, and there is a possibility we would not be successful in doing that and it would delay the process further. And I recognize that problem. I'm offended by the fact that we're at this stage."
Lease certificates provide a way to borrow for improvements that allows for debt payments to come from the district's existing operational budget, not through a tax increase.
The suit had asked a judge to prevent District 200 from financing the project using lease certificates until the question had been submitted to voters in a referendum. The district has contended the certificates would not require voter approval.
Superintendent Jeff Schuler said the district plans to follow that same funding mechanism should the referendum pass.
Board Vice President Brad Paulsen said the board "got put into a box."
"Today is the last day that we can legally take this action tonight to be on the ballot in November," Paulsen said.
Aug. 20 was the last day for government bodies to adopt a resolution or ordinance to allow binding or advisory public questions to appear on the ballot.
"I am pleased that the board has agreed to request authority from the community via referendum as required by law rather than proceeding without permission," Shaw said in a statement on her website, dupagewatchdog.org. "However, the district must also be candid about the financial impact of a new building. Can the district afford to build a new Jefferson without raising taxes, increasing debt, or cutting other programs, while still maintaining all schools? The answer is, not without cutting something else."
Voters in April 2017 voted down a referendum that would have paid for a new $16.6 million facility at the Jefferson site. The district wanted to issue $132.5 million in bonds to help finance needed repairs, renovations and upgrades to 19 of its 20 schools.
Prior to that vote, voters in 2013 rejected a $17.6 million plan for a new center. Needs at the building, which was built in 1958 as an elementary school, include a secured entry, sufficient classroom and office space, and wheelchair accessibility.
Following the April 2017 referendum, the district reduced the building's scope and cost in response to community feedback.
The district is now proposing a 42,044-square-foot building – in comparison to the 45,300-square-foot building proposed in the April 2017 referendum – and bids for construction of the new building recently came in at $15,024,846, which was about $500,000 under budget.
Jefferson serves students with special needs as required by state and federal law. About two-thirds of Jefferson students have some type of special need or disability, and one-third of students are typically developing students who pay tuition to attend the school.