LETTER – It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again…

The attached letter was written by a former CUSD 200 resident in regards to the school facilities referendum.  He lived in Wheaton for 23 years and sent 3 sons through the district from K – 12.  He moved out of state this past summer to start a business and escape the unsustainable tax burden in Illinois.  In selling his home, he experienced an 8% decline in value versus 2 years prior.  Others in the neighborhood have lost more, so the tax burden is having an adverse impact.  He still cares about friends and neighbors, so he wrote them the letter in hopes that it would help them.  I think it presents a compelling argument, so I’ve chosen to share it with you.

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Dear Friends,

We have settled nicely into our new home in Indiana and have kept up with the events in Wheaton.  I was upset but not surprised to learn about the school facilities referendum put forth by the CUSD 200 school board.  I urge you to vote NO.

The planned projects are not all priorities, and the extremely high cost is being misrepresented.  Given the school board’s past record of maximizing the burden on tax payers, the merit of this $228 million investment must be seriously questioned and ultimately rejected.  The cost presented in the referendum is $132.5, but the principal and interest payments will total $206 million.  Another $22 million in taxpayer money is being committed from “reserves and future budgets.”  I, like most residents of CUSD 200, take pride in and support our schools and students.  If an investment is beneficial, I have always supported funding.  That is not the case with this referendum.  While there is merit in doing some of these projects, the benefits for doing everything are weak.  People who take the view that “it’s for the kids” or “it’s an investment in our future” need to recognize that it is not an all or nothing proposition.  Smart investment in our kids is what matters, not doing everything regardless of the cost.

 

“It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again…”

In fact, this referendum approach should feel very familiar.  It’s just like the initial referendum for the high schools (2003) that had a big wish list of projects and $125 million price tag.  Fortunately the voters turned it down.  When the school board came back with a more “focused” $72 million version, it got approved.  With the Jefferson Early Childhood Center, they started with a jam packed $30+ million version then cut down to a $26+ million dollar version before the $17.6 million dollar option was put in a referendum.  And while this was already voted down, they are back with a rehash for $16.6 million within an even more massive tax request.

 

The People Spoke… And Were Ignored

District residents are not opposed to reasonable requests.  But with the state’s current situation and ever-growing taxes, this request is excessive.  I was initially pleased to see that the school board fielded a survey to determine the support for a list of 12 “needed” projects.  But the research revealed that only 3 of the 12 were selected as high priority projects.  The bar for high priority was low as it meant that 50% of respondents agreed a project was high priority.  Yet, the school board included all 12 in the referendum.  Why pay for a survey when you disregard the feedback?  Well, because it didn’t support the board’s agenda.  The three “high priority projects were:

  • Replace major mechanical and other systems (65% high priority)
  • Reinforce the secured entries at the six elementary schools (75% high priority)
  • Renovate the technology lab at Wheaton North High School (50% high priority)

Why Fund Cadillacs When a Chevy Will Do?

Furthermore, there does not appear to be consideration for scaling back any of the projects much less eliminating them.  Projects can cost more or less depending on how they are defined.  What evidence do we have that the project estimates reflect an appropriate level of design for the supposed purpose?  Well, consider the $58 million dollar cost for Hubble.  It’s a beautiful school.  But did a state-of-the art facility improve student progress?  Arguably no.  And now it operates at 60% of capacity with a declining student population.  Do we really need to spend $36 million on Franklin when the enrollment has declined 10% in the last 4 years (just one example)?

 

When the Check Engine Light is On…Check Your Engine!

What makes the proposal especially difficult to support is that a large portion of the expense is due to inadequate provisions being made to keep the schools in reasonable operating shape.  Rather than budget appropriately for operating expenses to support maintenance and make planned capital enhancements over time, the school board diverted funds to other uses.  If you neglect to maintain your car for long enough, you know you’re asking for a much bigger repair bill down the road.  That’s the situation we now have.  It’s not the taxpayer’s job to bail out the school board from their poor planning.  And yes, the state has made things worse by failing to provide its committed share of funding.  But the school board consistently put its head in the sand and ignored planning for a rainy day, literally.  Our schools have leaky roofs, HVAC systems that don’t work and other issues caused by neglect.  Bailing them out sends a bad message.

 

That Giant Sucking Sound is Much Louder than You Think

If you still think the referendum is worthwhile, it might be because you don’t know what it will really cost you.  The school board, and our highly paid superintendent, work extra hard to keep the focus on one small part of the cost which is very misleading.

They will say that the bond issue will initially cost a taxpayer who owns a median priced home ($322,300) an extra $180 per year.  Now for the big BUT:  the added tax obligation goes on for 19 years and increases dramatically over time.  The cost is $180 for the first three years and increases annually before jumping to $667 in years 10 – 19.  The total cost over the life of the referendum is planned to be $7,282.

If your home is valued at $600k, then your initial incremental tax is $345 for the first three years climbing to $1,018 each year in years 10 – 19.  The total payments for a home owner who stays all 19 years would be $13,957.

It’s deceitful to focus taxpayers on just the “low” initial cost.  You can expect that type of “promotional game” from Comcast but not your school board.  The following table has the real costs by year and the total amount you would pay if you are a taxpayer for the ife of the bond (if their assumptions are true, meaning there is risk of even higher costs).

Incremental Tax Obligation – Annual Increase based on Home Value

tax impact LTE

Please talk with friends and neighbors and reject the referendum.  When it is defeated, the board will hopefully learn its lesson, again, and develop a reasonable proposal.  We won’t tolerate leaky roofs, but we’re not an infinite source of funding either.

I also hope we’ll stop tolerating a school board that does not have your interests (yes, including your children) at heart.  You have a chance to elect new board members who think about you and won’t vote in lockstep every time. Jim Gambaiani is the only current board member who fights for taxpayers, but he is continually outvoted 6 – 1.  He needs thoughtful colleagues who can balance support for quality education with responsible financial management.  Please consider voting for Lonks, Hudock, Harnen and Hamilton.  Make your vote count on April 4 and send clear messages to the school board:  NO and out you GO!

 

Best Regards,
Ron Zhiss
ronald.zhiss@gmail.com

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