UPDATE 11 a.m. Jan. 26: Elmhurst Unit District 205 received another quarterly payment from the state of Illinois on Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the amount of $1.1 million. The state now owes the district $1.3 million, rather than the $2.4 million mentioned in this article.
JAN. 25: It's a question that makes taxpayers nervous and has School Board members analyzing a perplexing problem: What to do about Lincoln School.
Lincoln has all the "charm and trappings" that come with it being a 95-year-old building, Elmhurst District 205 School Board member Jim Collins said Tuesday. It meets none of the requirements for accessibility, its exterior is deteriorating, allowing outside elements in, and additions over the years have created a patchwork construction that is confusing, to say the least.
, when the board heard a report about the school's "failed" condition from consultants hired by the district to look at all the school buildings. That discussion continues today and will continue for some time before any decisions are made.
Officials can repair the immediate problems, but do they put a few million dollars into the school to keep it going, or is it time to build new?
Not long ago, under the old District 205 School Board and administration, facilities planning was looked at as an annual duty—discussed just once a year, at most, Collins said. That probably was not enough time to really plan out how to preserve the district's 1.5 million square feet of building space and 108 acres of land, he said.
Today, the district operates under a committee structure, and the Finance and Operations Committee, of which Collins is a member, is charged with looking at the district's buildings on an ongoing basis.
There will be no surprises when it comes to dealing with Lincoln—and other buildings in the district that need repair, committee members said.
"We don't want to be surprised by bursting pipes and things like that," committee member Chris Blum said. "We don't want to be running around trying to find a few hundred thousand dollars to try to fix things we didn't know about."
The financial aspects will not be a surprise either, Collins said. The district currently has about $2 million in its capital budget.
"It should be a mystery to no one that something's going to have to happen to replenish the capital projects budget," he said.
Members of the committee and other district staff have toured Lincoln many times with an eye toward cost. The district could spend $4 million on Lincoln in the coming years just to keep it dry and safe, or $20 million to build a new school, Collins said.
"What we don't want to do is put $4 million into the building and then tear it down," he said. "We want to put together a deliberate, open, well-thought-out plan."
He said there is no deadline attached to any decisions about Lincoln.
"The more we investigate, the more we discuss this, the better that plan will be," he said.
Public opinion, along with the opinions of teachers and staff members, will be a critical component of the information-gathering process, committee member John McDonough said.
"Capital projects, whether small or large, are a community decision," he said. "What do the taxpayers and residents want to see happen with this significant problem that's out there?"
Other Projects Need Attention
While Lincoln School appears to be the most visible need, it's not the only one. For example, the aquatic center at York High School needs about $2 million in repairs, and Madison Early Education Center needs about $800,000, Collins said. About $3.5 million would take care of the district's "immediate needs," and over the next 10 years, about $10 million in projects have been targeted, he said.
The district also will be required to conduct its mandatory, 10-year life-safety survey in 2013.
"Many additional (needs) will come out of that," Collins said.
The committee will be working on a grid or diagram to help board members understand what the long-range plan should be based on what projects are mandatory and what is negotiable.
"We want to address small problems before they become big problems. We want to maintain buildings before they become run down," Collins said. "There is a perception out there that these things come up and are dealt with as an emergency. We know what our financial situation is. We know how old our properties are. We want to come up with a financially responsible plan."
And Then, There's the State of Illinois
The state of Illinois is $2.4 million behind in its payments to District 205, most of which is from mandated, categorical quarterly payments.
It's not a new problem.
Last year, on Aug. 3, the district finally received a payment that had been due on March 28. Then, on Sept. 16, it received the quarterly payment that had been due on June 16.
"I was feeling pretty good that the state had closed the gap a little," Assistant Superintendent of Finance Chris Whelton told the board. "But we haven't gotten another payment since. We haven't gotten anything due to us related to fiscal year 2012."
Payments were due Sept. 26 and Dec. 27, so the state is still a half-year behind at this point.
"Other than mandated categorical grants, some of our other, smaller grants have also now fallen behind," Whelton said. "The vouchers have been approved by the State Board of Education, but they have not been released to us through the state comptroller's office."
In spite of this, the School District will end the year "on track and on budget," Collins said, but the state's delinquency remains a "glaring item" when discussing finances.
"It continues to baffle me how they can raise income tax 67 percent then not pay the schools what they are owed," he said.
The state is current with general state aid payments, however, which amounts to $366 per student, Whelton said.
The district also got a check for $673.40 from the state for the free and reduced lunch program.
On Tuesday morning, House Speaker at a speaking engagement at Elmhurst College. While he acknowledged there is plenty of blame to go around for Illinois' dire circumstances, at one point he specifically addressed the state's underfunded public pension plans and called on school districts to pay more into teachers pensions.
“Why don’t you contribute? These are your employees,” he said.