At the Jan. 17 District 200 Community Finance Committee meeting, bond consultant Elizabeth Hennessy presented five funding scenarios for the $105 million Project 2, the proposed physical education addition for Oak Park and River Forest High School, which includes a new pool. The new price tag includes a few alternatives, bumping up the initial construction estimate of $99.5 million.

Only two funding scenarios follow best practice with referendum bonds, the other three proposals tack on debt certificates and non-referendum bonds, which would bypass voters for funding approval and reduce the referendum asks. One scenario includes no referendum bonds, aimed at circumventing voters entirely.

The presentation highlights a serious problem: D200 is over-taxing residents. By levying more tax dollars than needed for operations, building maintenance and Life Safety projects annually, the district is generating a surplus, adding to its already mountainous cash reserve. The over taxation is made clear in a footnote in a chart (see link), “Funding Options for Project 2,” and in D200’s Five-Year Financial Projections updated on Oct. 31. Over-taxation and the resulting operating surpluses are needed for one key reason — to have funds available to repay debt certificates for Project 2. This practice of over-taxation needs to end, and debt certificates should be removed from funding consideration.

The chart misrepresents the financial impact of the proposals, as it states that debt certificates would have a $0 tax impact on taxpayers, when in fact the board would have to continue levying higher-than-necessary taxes annually to repay them.

Contrast these funding proposals with the straightforward funding plan of another Hennessy client, the District 115 school board. They’re following best practice in funding a major capital project, willingly placing an identical-dollar-amount referendum on April’s ballot: $105 million for major facility improvements to Lake Forest High School, according to its website. Their funding proposal includes only referendum bonds, no convoluted mix of borrowing tools aimed at diminishing or taking away voters’ rights to decide on funding for an expensive project. One board member was quoted in a Chicago Tribune story (12/13/22) stating that taxpayers want to vote on major capital projects:

“Board member John Noble responded later in the meeting that the school district has been at a ‘bottom level’ of finance in terms of maintenance of the buildings. “The community did not want the school to be a bank account,” Noble said. “They do not want us to hold $45 million, and just sit in a bank account and collect interest. They actually want us to come to the people to have visibility for the initiative and vote on it.”

A Tribune story, dated Nov. 21, mentions that Elizabeth Hennessy is D115’s bond consultant. She is also the longtime bond consultant to D200 and presented the funding proposals at last week’s CFC meeting. Her name is listed on the cover page of the presentation powerpoint, the first listed source below.

Like D115 taxpayers, D200 taxpayers made it clear that they want to vote on major capital projects, successfully petitioning non-referendum bonds on the ballot in 2015 to fund an over-sized pool.

Please consider emailing the board (boe@oprfhs.org) and the CFC (cfc@oprfhs.org) and underscore that undemocratic funding proposals are unacceptable for Project 2: no debt certificates or non-referendum bonds. Go to the public Facebook group D200 Pragmatic Solutions-OPRF for links to sources. 

Sources:

1) Project 2 Funding Options Presentation CFC 1/17/23 Meeting: The chart “Funding Options for Project 2” is page 5.

https://go.boarddocs.com/il/oprfhs/Board.nsf/files/CN2T7U7608ED/$file/Financing%20Options%20Presentation%201.17.23.pdf

2) Screenshot attached of D200’s Five-Year Financial Projections Updated on 10/31/22. The operating surplus and building maintenance and Life Safety line items are highlighted. Subtract the latter from the surplus for the net operating surplus.

3) Lake Forest High School Website: Referendum Information

https://www.lakeforestschools.org/domain/1139#:~:text=Overview,2023%20Lake%20County%20election%20ballot.

4) Chicago Tribune: First story includes quote from board member. Second story states that Elizabeth Hennessy is D115’s bond consultant.

“Lake Forest D115 voters to decide on $106M bond referendum” chicagotribune.com

“District 115 officials moving toward referendum on $105.7 million bond sale for Lake Forest High School renovation” chicagotribune.com

Monica Sheehan is an Oak Park resident.

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