Imagine referendum is a political necessity

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By Monica Sheehan

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According to a Sept. 17 email sent from Imagine OPRF co-chair Lynn Kamenitsa to area PTOs, Imagine does not "anticipate any referendum in 2019" to fund its facilities plan for Oak Park and River Forest High School. The email was sent, in part, to request time at upcoming PTO meetings to present Imagine's plan and the District 200 School Board's options for funding it.

One such PTO presentation took place at Irving School on Oct. 4. According to a source at the meeting, Kamenitsa stated that the board is planning on paying for the first stages (plural) of the Imagine plan with the cash reserve and non-referendum bonds.

Just 24 hours earlier at the Oct. 3 Imagine Community Conversation, Kamenitsa deflected a question about whether the board would go to referendum to fund the plan. She said, "We cannot answer for the board. You'll have to ask them." Imagine's other co-chair, Mike Poirier, also avoided answering a question about funding for the plan. "We don't like punting here," he said, "but the plain fact of the matter is that it's not the prerogative of the Imagine team. We don't have the authority to answer that."

The co-chairs' statements made at the Imagine meeting contradict Kamenitsa's email to the PTOs sent more than two weeks earlier and statements made at the Oct. 4 Irving PTO meeting. Kamenitsa essentially suggested that the board could bypass voters in funding Imagine's plan, which has only 7% of the partial cost estimates of $145 million earmarked for academics and 48% slated for PE/athletic expenditures. Additional PE/athletics expenditures are hidden in other categories, such as "Community/Shared Spaces." Transparency is a major issue. Imagine still hasn't disclosed cost estimates for 40% of its wants-filled plan or its line items.

A massive capital expenditure, such as Imagine's plan, should ethically be placed on the ballot and require the approval of a majority of voters in the district, not just the seven voters on the school board. Will history repeat itself? Will the current board repeat the act of overreach of the 2015 board, which tried to fund a $48.5 million Olympic-size pool plan, and attempt to bypass voters to begin funding Imagine's likely quarter billion dollar facility plan?

If you want to assert and ensure your right to vote on funding for D200/Imagine's plan, which includes demolishing a third of the structurally sound school and rebuilding it largely for PE/athletics, email the board, BoE@oprfhs.org, and attend its "Imagine Town Hall" meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m. in the south cafeteria. A board seat is not a blank check.

Monica Sheehan is the founder and head of OPRF Pragmatic Solutions.

Reader Comments

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Kline Maureen  

Posted: October 15th, 2018 9:53 AM

there is a D200 Committee of the Whole meeting this Tuesday, Oct 16 at 6:30 where FUNDING OPTIONS will be discussed - including several that BYPASS the voters entirely such as Life Safety Bonds and Debt Certificates - see this link (from the meeting agenda) for details about these funding options: https://intranet.oprfhs.org/board-of-education/board_meetings/Committee%20of%20the%20Whole/2018-19%20COW%20Mtgs/20181016%20COW%20Mtg/Packet/Instruction/20181016%20COW%20Funding%20for%20Projects.pdf (COPY and PASTE the link in your browser)

Neal Buer  

Posted: October 14th, 2018 10:23 PM

Kevin, why would D200 want to switch their accounting from accrual to cash?

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 14th, 2018 6:24 PM

Yeah Kevin, you're right: 10% not 7.5%. A high bar indeed. But the short answer to Jason's question and sorta confirmed by Monica's review of past events, is that this Board in fact can (and likely will) spend down considerable reserves (and still be within State reserve guidelines), enough to likely accomplish sequence #1 and #2, and avoid the voters of D200 to boot. That is the bottom line, depressing as it is.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2018 4:55 PM

Jason Cohen: What you are referring to is a "Backdoor Referendum" which requires 10% of the 47,000 registered voters inf OPRF (4700) to sign a petition within 30 days -- an onerous task. The people who did that later morphed into OPRF Pragmatic Solutions, of which I am a member. D200 was so scared of a referendum, with no replacement for a 300 car garage, in a congested area) that they sought to withdraw the resolution, but it was already certified, and they needed our permission to undo that,since David Orr refused to do so, there being no legal means without a mutual agreement before a judge. OPRF paid for our lawyer, by having him send his bills to their law firm. Bruce: The 7.5% figure you mention applies to Alternate Revenue Bonds, which were not the bonds in question. We were objected to by the Board's surrogates (only individual voters can object), and they lost. That was the start of a bitter blood feud. As the 101st Airborne (The Screamin' Eagles, and Battered Bastards of Bastogne) say, "We don't start fights. We finish 'em"

Monica Sheehan  

Posted: October 14th, 2018 11:44 AM

Marc, You state your point well, and I am in full agreement and have said the same publicly over the past three years. The cash reserve is the result of overtaxing not cost efficiencies or prudent fiscal management on the part of D200. The money should have been returned to taxpayers long ago. Cash reserves are not intended to fund capital projects. D200's 2013 Finance Advisory Committee (FAC), composed of community members, was formed to advise and recommend actions regarding the reserve. At its 11/4/13 meeting, the FAC was informed of a legal opinion that the fund balance could be used for capital expenditures if a public hearing was held and the money was channeled through a series of fund transfers. Interestingly, according to the meeting minutes, the FAC didn't think voters would favor such action, yet ultimately recommended that $20 million be spent on facility improvements, specifically a swimming pool. The FAC should have recommended that all of the excess reserve be returned to taxpayers through levy reduction. D200 is in the process of convening another FAC. No members of the 2013 FAC should be appointed to the new committee.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 13th, 2018 2:15 PM

Yeah Marc you are right. The BoE did reduce the levy for two years (I think 2014 and 2015) in an attempt to return some of this ill begotten excess to the rightful owners: the taxpayers of D200. But like an addict they just could not stay off the juice ... and boom ... went right back to their voracious habit as before. D200 and IMAGINE - I imagine - views this excess ill begotten tax booty as their personal piggy bank. They no doubt see an opening to fund their monstrosity (at least sequence 1 ... and maybe more) via their (our) reserves. I agree. Disgraceful.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 13th, 2018 2:02 PM

Monica: Yes you are right. There is "no free lunch." Any attempt by the board to avoid the voters by spending down the reserves or issuing debt certificates just brings on an operating referendum earlier than it normally would be. But it does piss off a whole lot more people, than it normally would, thereby putting that operating referendum at risk as well.

Marc Martinez from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2018 1:56 PM

I agree with Monica and Bruce. But the issue of the cash reserve and its appropriate use, is a much more significant indicator of the D200 Board and Imagine group's disdain for the taxpayers. The Illinois BoE recommends a 25% of budget cash reserve. D200 has 116%. More than 4.5 time as much as they need, or about $80 million. This cash has been accumulated through excess property taxes. The sole purpose a the cash reserve is as a cushion for unanticipated annual budget deficits. The excess does not belong to D200, it belongs to the taxpayers and should be returned. There is no justification for spending (allocating) any of that excess on capital projects. We should also dismiss out-of-hand any assurance by the D200 board that they will return the cash to us over-time. In the 7.5 years since the Chicago Tribune article exposed the excess, the D200 board has reduced the excess by only 8 points while routinely talking about ways to spend the money and increasing the levy. All capital projects should be put to the voters, no capital funding should come from the excess reserves, and all of the excess should be returned to the taxpayers.

Monica Sheehan  

Posted: October 13th, 2018 12:27 PM

Bruce, It's a reckless notion that much more than $20 million of the cash reserve could be spent on Imagine's Pool and Facilities Plan and would place the very operations of the school in financial jeopardy. The money in the cash reserve is already "spoken for". It's earmarked to offset the deficit spending of the school's operations over the next five years, according to D200's financial projections released in October 2017. And, according to the 12/21/17 D200 Board meeting minutes, an operating referendum will likely be needed in 2023. That date will be considerably sooner if more than $20 million of the cash reserve is spent on Imagine's Pool and Facilities Plan. Given the fact that our community is already overburdened with taxes, the success of a D200 referendum, even an operating one, is in doubt. As a matter of record, I submitted this letter and signed it as a member of OPRF Pragmatic Solutions. While flattering, the editor's relabeling of me as the founder and head of the group is incorrect. OPRF Pragmatic Solutions was founded by many people and is, in fact, a non-hierarchical, consensus-driven organization.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 6:05 PM

Continued: But finally, for the first time, via the chatter and what was said and not said, on line and at meetings, I sensed a strong preference for funding strategies which purposely avoid the voters. As I said IMAGINE knows the voters would reject their inane plan out of hand ? in a hear t beat. So, the two strategies are: issuance of debt certificates, and the issuance of Life Safety bonds. Now debt certificates are funded out of a school's present budget. No need to seek outside additional taxes. It is ideal for a school that has large reserves in their yearly budget. This is probably not so with D200 however. Much more likely are Life Safety bonds. I believe Ms. Bell's opinion in the WJ last week was setting the stage for this when she mentioned the life safety issues at the school: poor ventilation in the pool enclosure and raw sewage in the locker rooms. Now the beauty of Life Safety bonds is that they can be issued (but must be approved by the State by the way) with out any recourse by the people. They are NOT subject to direct referendum nor back door referendum (i.e. they can not be stopped by petition). My view is the BoE is desperate to at least get this project going. Sequence 1, can easily be done via reserves. And once you begin, as Brian Souder's pointed out, you might be committed to sequence 2 and 3 as well. So the short answer to your question is: The Board can do this (at least much of it) with out voter approval ? unfortunately. One thing that can be done as Monica suggests above: go to as many Board meetings as you are able, and express your extreme displeasure over this monstrosity; as well as email the BoE. At the very least, this monster should be put to referendum. When you (D200) are proposing to spend more money than ever before spent in this village on a building project, that is the only ethical thing to do.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 6:01 PM

Jason: Unfortunately, no. First in regard to the giant pool, circa 2016, the BoE really did not want to spend down the reserves? Why? The reason they gave was that the new pool will benefit not only present Oak Parkers but future Oak Parkers, and therefore those future Oak Parkers, should have some "skin in the game." The only way to do this was to issue bonds whereby not only present Oak Parkers would bear financial responsibility but future ones as well. In other words, the financial burden of those bonds will be born by both present and future "stakeholders." Now the bonds that the Board attempted to issue were a type of non referendum bonds (to avoid the tax payers) that (unfortunately for the Board) were subject to petition for referendum. Namely if 7.5% of registered voters signed a petition demanding those e bonds be subject to referendum (a so called "back door" referendum) then the Board would have to put their bond issuance on the ballot. Well that is ?" after some curves in the road ?" exactly what happened. The present situation here is different. If you listen to the "chatter" on line by the IMAGINE co-chairs and their mouth pieces, listen to what the Co-Chairs have said at various meetings, plus what the BoE has said and NOT said, and most importantly what their financial consultant has proposed as potential funding mechanisms, it is clear to me that the financial strategy has changed. There is no more talk of sharing financial burden with future Oak Parkers. Mr. Altenburg ?" the D200 former financial officer ?" allocated between $20 and $30 million of the reserves for potential funding of the IMAGINE plan. More importantly the financial consultant made clear that the Board could spend down as much of the reserves as they saw fit (obviously the Board has to consider monies necessary in reserves to keep things running day to today).

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 3:30 PM

This shouldn't even go to a referendum, where it will lose. It should be kicked back for a total rework, and with some guidance from the Board. It has a staggering cost, and the eventual borrowing involved will exceed the statutory debt limit -- in other words, Sequences 4 & 5 are not going to happen any time soon -- perhaps twenty years from now. They are the bait, in a bait and switch. It never had any limiting parameters, such as a dollar cap and a time frame to complete any construction. The effort has become a runaway train, with no oversight from the Superintendent or the Board. It's a D200 SNAFU. Years have been spent on the pool situation, with no progress.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 10:07 AM

@ Bruce Kline: Your statement about asking for help and Kevin Peppards statement about Monica Sheehan are rwo of the most touching statements I have ever read. On my best days you and KP and MS are five times better than me and as of right now I can only think of sometype of civil suit, unkown grounds, or The Illinois Attorney General. The City of Evanston is floating laying off 5 police, 19 firefightes, all of the upper management of the Health Department as well as others to balance their budget without a tax hike, per Chicago Tribune article.I still say someone in the future is getting something, legally, but still getting something. No o ne puts in this much work for nothing.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 7:32 AM

@Bruce, isn't this similar to the pool situation? I thought originally there was to be no referendum for the pool but then there were enough signatures to force it or something? I can't remmeber the specifics but I certainly remember people out asking for signatures.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 11:50 PM

Jason you say: "There's no way people will allow this to happen without a vote." I've been racking my brain to figure out how to stop this, without a vote, since by all indications, IMAGINE and D200 ARE going to bypass the voters. They know this plan has zero chance if put before the voters. I suspect they will initially spend down reserves,and perhaps attempt to issue life safety bonds - that was the whole point of Ms. Bell's opinion piece IMO - which are not subject to direct or even back door referenda. So if you have some ideas or strategies to prevent this forthcoming outrageous abuse of power, please share them with if not me, someone or somebodies.This is really urgent. Because it is going to happen, IMO.

Neal Buer  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 3:35 PM

The only way I would vote for this project is if my house is sold and hadn't Closed yet.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 2:59 PM

There's no way people will allow this to happen without a vote. To even suggest it would be ridiculous. Just because you are on some board it doesn't give you the right to make something like this happen without allowing the taxpayers to vote on it. This isn't $5 million it's likely to total $250 million. I feel very confident enough people would rally behind a referendum vote to force this to happen.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 1:58 PM

My friend Monica Sheehan did not sign her letter as Founder and Head of OPRF Pragmatic Solutions. Ken Trainor added that. She has always been adamant that she is only a member. We have a very non-hierarchical, consensus-driven organization. She didn't even come up with the name Pragmatic Solutions.The State required that we announce a President and Treasurer after we raised or spent over $5,000 so I put her on the paperwork. She didn't even like that, and said I could be both, but I said that looked greedy. She is one of the most self-effacing, modest people I know. If she is the first among equals, it is because she has worked the hardest. Don't attribute to her any egotistical dreams, and make her something she isn't.

Neal Buer  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 10:22 AM

This is really scary! Is this a Halloween prank?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 8:29 AM

No one elected Kamenitsa to anything. Over 17,000 people voted NO to this and won that NO. If they think they can sneak a quarter billion dollar project by people we need to storm the gates. Will be there Oct 30, with my pitchfork.

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