The Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board has narrowed in on three possible funding scenarios for a proposed community recreational center that is still light on details, such as where it would be located and how, specifically, it will be operated.
Since at least May, talks between District 200 and the park districts of Oak Park and River Forest have been heating up regarding the prospect of a community recreational center that would feature an indoor swimming pool, among other amenities, to be used by residents in both villages.
In May, the taxing bodies had settled on three possible but unidentified sites for the center, with costs ranging from $36 million to $38 million for one option, from $41 million to $43 million for a second option and from $45 million to $47 million for a third option.
During a District 200 school board meeting on Oct. 26, board members considered three different scenarios related to the proposed community center.
One funding scenario contemplates District 200 not participating in the funding of a community recreation center. If the board chooses that direction, the school district still would be on schedule to go for an operating referendum by 2024, since the district's cash reserves are predicted to fall below 40 percent of total expenditures.
Another scenario calls for the park districts and District 200 each to commit $5 million for the construction of the community center. In addition, District 200 would loan the Park District of Oak Park $25 million. According to school officials, it would take the park district at least 20 years to pay the loan back with new revenue raised from the community center.
If that anticipated revenue fell short, park district officials have explained, then the park district would pay down the loan with funds from their capital improvement plan.
District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that there was some discussion among officials from OPRF and the Park District of Oak Park about the "notion of an escrow account being set aside" if the park district could not make the payments. She said that the interest on the loan would be negotiated between the park district and District 200.
Under this scenario, District 200, with cash reserves at roughly 43 percent of expenditures by 2021, would need to go out for an operating referendum in 2022.
A third funding scenario entails each taxing body contributing $5 million to the community center with District 200 putting up $25 million more as a bond issue, which would be paid down each year by the Park District of Oak Park.
Under this scenario, the school district's fund balance would be around 39 percent of its expenditures by 2023 and the school district predicts it would need to go out for an operating referendum that year.
Whether the school district decided to release the $25 million through a loan or through bonds, the bulk of that money would be allocated in fiscal year 2019, according to District 200 financial projections.
During the Oct. 26 meeting, Karin Sullivan, the district's communications director, said that when it comes to the bonding scenario, the school district would be wise to consider the experience two years ago, when residents forced the school district to scrap a plan to pay for a proposed swimming pool with non-referendum bonds.
"Our community made it clear that they wanted us to go out for a referendum if we're going to issue bonds," Sullivan said. "So there is a timing piece to think about. If that scenario were to come into play, we'd be talking about potentially going out for a bond referendum and within a few years going out for an operating referendum. From a messaging standpoint, that's a hard thing to explain to the community."
During the Oct. 26 meeting, Pruitt-Adams said that the district had followed up with its bond counsel to ensure that the third funding scenario was legally sound.
"Other communities have done it," said Altenburg. "Maybe not to the extent we're thinking, but they've done it."
District 200 school board members said that they still need some specifics before deciding on whether or not to go ahead with the project.
"We're still looking for more, deeper information," said school board President Jackie Moore. "We have to have enough information for us to make an informed decision and to reflect and not just have conjecture."
Back in May, Park District of Oak Park Executive Director Jan Arnold and River Forest Park District Executive Director Michael Sletten both reported that numerous focus group meetings, feasibility studies, surveys and public meetings showed significant public support for a community recreation center financed and used by multiple stakeholders.
Sletten said back then that a survey the park district completed in March showed that a significant number of River Forest residents provided unsolicited support for an indoor pool.
As the community center proposal has come into focus, however, some residents have demonstrated their opposition. For instance, a recent online survey administered by River Forest Park District officials, which was open from Sept. 19 to Oct. 6, showed significant disapproval among River Forest residents of a community center built in Oak Park.
Over 65 percent of 275 residents who responded said they would not utilize a community center that was located in Oak Park, south of Lake Street and east of East Avenue. In addition, around 57 percent of respondents said they would not support the use of River Forest Park District capital funds for the proposed center.
Other residents have come out against the proposal after learning that District 200 still plans to build a smaller pool on its campus that would be used for gym classes and aquatics competition, even if the board approves funding the community recreation center.
"This is a classic case unfair competition," Landers said, adding that the center, which would offer competitive services, would be paying "zero taxes."
"This is not dissimilar to the government getting into the pizza business," he said.
Moore said that the District 200 board anticipates having more concrete information sometime in the coming weeks before making a decision by Dec. 1, which is when the school board has to vote on whether or not to fund the center, according to a memorandum of understanding that was approved by the three taxing bodies in August.
Answer Book 2017
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