The new building that will house the student cafeteria is seen in its final stages of construction on Monday, Dec. 20,at Oak Park and River Forest High School. | Alex Rogals

The Oak Park and River Forest District 200 School Board is deciding on the appropriate way to finance a long list of building and maintenance projects over the next decade. 

At the Jan. 13 committee of the whole meeting, Superintendent Greg Johnson briefly laid out two payment options administrators developed to fund several renovation projects over the next decade, including roof repairs; field restorations, and updates to the school’s bathrooms, as well as its plumbing and drainage systems. Revamping the school’s ventilation, refurbishing its old corridors and fixing its electrical power systems round out the rest of the extensive to-do list. Johnson said some projects are intertwined with the district’s five-part Imagine OPRF capital improvement plans, which may impact decisions on spending and incurring debt.

With the help of financial consultant Robert Grossi, Johnson shared with board members that they could issue a debt certificate or a debt service extension base (DSEB) bond to pay for the long-term maintenance projects.

In a separate interview with Wednesday Journal, Johnson said a debt certificate is a type of bond that relies “exclusively” on the district’s general operating funds to pay back. The district must factor in the certificate’s principal and interest in its budget. Debt certificates can be used to finance capital projects or purchase real property, Johnson said.

“Five percent of debt can be paid back within six months and 85% within three years,” Johnson said. “Debt certificates work so that the school districts [can] utilize their existing financial resources to pay back the amount of the loan.”

Alternatively, the DSEB bond is one that ultimately extends the property tax levy and impacts taxpayers, Johnson told the Journal. This kind of bond can also be issued without a referendum to help fund capital projects. 

“They [the DSEB bonds] would fall on our taxpayers immediately upon issuing, and so that really is the key difference between the two,” said Johnson.

The timeline to pay back the borrowed amounts is also up for discussion. Board member Tom Cofsky said in a Journal interview that the time frame is contingent on the type of repairs and renovations planned. That means, if the district issued a debt certificate it would have to “spend the money” according to the guidelines or “you’re not going to qualify.” 

During the Jan. 13 meeting, board members parsed through the details of the debt options and inquired about the district’s current finances. Board member Ralph Martire asked a question about whether the district should use its considerable cash reserves to pay for facility projects or incur debt to offset the costs of the projects and alleviate the impact on residents’ taxes.

“Is that a rational way to go?” Martire asked Grossi.

“And that’s the legitimate discussion that started way back when,” Grossi responded. “The district has a healthy fund balance, and it has an old building with a lot of needs, and a community that does not like taxation, which I agree with all that stuff.”

“So, there’s a sweet spot that works. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a tough question,” said Grossi.

The district funded the first phase of its five-part capital improvement project by using its cash reserves, dropping the balance that once totaled about $115 million to roughly $80 million, Grossi said.

Phase 1 of the district’s Imagine OPRF capital project cost close to $32.6 million.

Construction for the first wave of renovation projects began in June 2020 and involved numerous renovations, including the school’s newly unveiled south cafeteria and student resource center. Updates to dozens of classrooms, the installation of eight all-gender bathrooms and remodeling of the student welcome center and student commons are also part of Phase 1, which is expected to be completed by August 2023.

Johnson told the Journal that the district has about $96 million in cash reserves and that the school board has yet to finalize or approve the plans for Phase 2, which would likely encompass the maintenance projects and improvements which involve the school’s athletic facilities.

Board members and district administrators plan to continue discussing their debt options in the coming weeks, as well as finalize upcoming projects, Johnson said. The district has created a finance committee, which will aid in conversations around debt options, and the board is expected to vote on a financing plan by the end of February, said Johnson. 

“The money in the bank is an asset of the community. The building is an asset of the community,” Grossi said during the Jan. 13 meeting. “In some ways, you have to view this as an asset-to-asset transfer.

“It’s not just an expense per say. You’re taking the assets of cashing the bank, and you’re moving it to the assets of fixing this beautiful but old, needy building – with the goal of long term, very long-term fiscal stability and facility stability.”

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