Representatives of Township High School District 113 came to the Highland Park City Council meeting on Monday to explain the $133 million referendum on the April 5 ballot for capital improvements to Highland Park and Deerfield high schools.
Like all voters, Mayor Mike Belsky and council members had questions about the ballot proposal.
School board members Bonnie Shlensky and Harvey Cohen arrived with Assistant Superintendent of Finance Barry Bolek to present materials and explain some elements of the referendum during a 50-minute session of the council’s Committee of the Whole before the regularly scheduled meeting.
When they finished, representatives of the two community groups--one pushing for and the other fighting against the proposal--addressed the council as well.
Cohen began the presentation explaining why needs had arisen to an acute level and why so much of the money was going to physical education and athletic projects.
“Schools today have needs that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, women’s athletics didn’t exist. Now they must be on a parity [with the men].”
Councilman Jim Kirsch said constituents had been asking him why a building that received a new roof in 2001 needed another one today. Kirsch also wanted to know why 44 percent of the funding was being spent on the athletic department.
Bolek acknowledged new roofs were necessary in 2001 on two buildings that were built nearly 100 years ago, and it was equally necessary to demolish those structures and begin anew.
“We had to do the new roof. We also had to do asbestos removal,” Bolek explained.
He said the buildings had become obsolete with clay pipes and other infrastructure deficiencies that made a complete rehab unrealistic.
Shlensky and Cohen were quick to explain facilities that many labeled as athletic were being used for physical education as well as for sports teams.
“The gyms and pools at both schools are in use every period, every day--from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., five days a week,” Cohen said.
Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Nancy Rotering wanted to know why she had heard some people describe the referendum as a $133 million project while others put the amount at $200 million or more.
“This [the bonds being sold to finance the projects] is similar to a mortgage,” Bolek said. "When it is all paid off, it will equal $200 million or more, depending on the interest rates.”
The district's assistant superintendent of finance then emphasized the principal was the $133 million number.
Councilman Steve Mandel, who attended the meeting by teleconference, was concerned about the amount of property taxes that residents would be required to pay.
Bolek explained the school district was in the process of retiring existing debt. If all debt were retired, a person with a $300,000 home would have an annual tax reduction of $254. Should the referendum succeed, the existing taxes will be necessary to service the debt. No tax increase is anticipated, he said.
Former Councilman and former Moraine Township Assessor Pete Koukos, who is one of the leaders of Education First, a citizens' group opposing the referendum, told the group he thought the proposal consisted of a list of wants rather than a list of needs.
“If they [District 113 officials] come back with needs, I’m committed to support that,” Koukos said.
He is also skeptical of the motives for putting the proposal on the April 5 ballot. “They put it [the bond plan] in April 2011 rather than March 2012 so the opposition wouldn’t have time to organize.”
Rick Heineman, one of the forces behind Citizens Aiming for Responsible Enhancements (CARE), an advocacy group supporting the referendum, noted the urgency of the projects for both financial and structural reasons.
“We want this now because of the low interest rates,” Heineman said.
“This is not just about the buildings but what’s around them and under them. You can’t really see what’s underneath … like clay pipes,” he added, referring to the aging structures.
For their part, Belsky and the City Council urged Cohen and Shlensky to make the facilities available to the public.
“If you want support, open the facilities to the public,” said Belsky, who is not seeking re-election to lead Highland Park.
His view was echoed by Councilwoman Terri Olian, another mayoral candidate and former president of the District 112 school board.