Exterior schematic design for Imagine OPRF Project 2. | PROVIDED

It is almost certain that there will not be a referendum on Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Project 2, a nearly $102 million project to demolish and rebuild the southeast portion of the high school, which houses most of the school’s physical education spaces outside of the field house. Components of Project 2 include a new 10-lane swimming pool, a new three-court third-floor gym, a new dance studio and a new theater Green Room among a host of other improvements to old and dated facilities.

At the April 13 Committee of the Whole meeting of the District 200 Board of Education, a majority of the school board said they favored using 20-year debt certificates, a type of installment contract, to borrow the money necessary for Project 2 instead of issuing building bonds, which must be approved by voters in a referendum. Debt certificates are a type of borrowing that is paid off out of the district’s operating revenue and doesn’t result in a separate tax levy. The formal vote on how to finance Project 2 will take place at the school board’s April 27 meeting but the outcome of that vote now seems clear.

Four board members, Gina Harris, Ralph Martire, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Sara Dixon Spivy, all said they favor debt certificates, while Fred Arkin and board president Tom Cofsky said they had yet to make up their minds, although Cofsky made it clear that he was leaning toward not having a referendum and using debt certificates.

The board members favoring debt certificates said that a major reason they didn’t want to have a referendum was because it would delay the start of the project by a year, pushing the start date to 2025 instead of 2024.

“I’m really concerned about the delay if we go to referendum,” Harris said.

Since the soonest a referendum could take place is the primary election of 2024, the administration said a referendum would delay the start of the project by a year. Superintendent Greg Johnson, in response to a board inquiry, did say during the April 27 meeting that it might be possible to start the project later in 2024 after a spring 2024 referendum, but he noted it would be difficult because contractors might not want to bid to do work on a project before the financing of the project was in place. Contractors might submit fewer or higher bids, Johnson said, because of the uncertainty of the project going forward if a referendum were needed.

“It could have an effect on the quantity of subcontractors that would come in,” he said.

Referendum advocate Monica Sheehan said if the administration and school board were so concerned about a delay in the start of Project 2 because of a referendum, they could have put it on the ballot in the just completed April 4 election.

“This board chose not to put the funding for Project 2 on the ballot in this month’s election, so waiting until next year for a referendum is not an issue,” Sheehan said in public comment at the start of the meeting. “The board received the construction estimates several weeks before the deadline, and the project’s funding has been a board goal since September. If the board wanted Project 2 on the ballot, it would have been on the April ballot.”

Martire said that normally he would favor a referendum for a large project such as Project 2 but since the project has been discussed for so long and there has already been considerable community input, he was comfortable with dispensing with not holding one. The conditions in the physical education wing were deplorable, Martire said, and he didn’t want to wait to improve them.

“This is the exception to the rule,” he said. “I think waiting longer when we have these facilities, in my opinion, is a breach of my fiduciary obligations to the school. Our students are utilizing facilities that are not just inadequate but potentially dangerous and harmful. That is not OK.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Amanda Massie pointed out that during candidate forums two or four years ago, Arkin, Cofsky, Mohanraj and Spivy all said that they favored having a referendum about future large capital projects. While no one disputed the accuracy of Massie’s quotations of their words, the board members said that circumstances had changed. Mohanraj pointed out that, in 2021, she was speaking of referendums generally but now that she has been on the board for two years and has studied the issue, she believes residents trust her to exercise her judgment about how best to pay for Project 2.

“My understanding that referendums can be a useful tool doesn’t mean that they’re the right tool to use every single time,” Mohanraj said at the school board meeting.

Spivy said her comments in 2019 that she would never again vote to bypass the voters by not having a referendum to issue bonds only applied to debt service extension bonds, a type of bond that results in a separate levy and line item on a homeowner’s property tax bill, and not to debt certificates which are paid back from the operating levy.

Cofsky spent time during the meeting pointing out how the school board and administration made systemic changes in budgeting in recent years to control spending and bring increases in line with inflation to make the case that the district can afford to pay back money borrowed via debt certificates out of its operating levy. The district has been running operating surpluses that give it the cushion to pay back debt, he said, using money from that levy.

The financing option that seems likely to be approved on April 27 calls for the district to pay for Project 2 by issuing $45.3 million in 20-year debt certificates, using $44.2 million in cash reserves, and getting $12.5 million in donations through the nonprofit Imagine Foundation. Under this plan, the school will use $3.5 million from its operating levy each year for the next 20 years to pay back the money it borrows to pay for Project 2. 

Arkin was concerned that paying back borrowed money from the operating fund for the next 20 years could hamstring future boards and force cutbacks. Members of the school’s Community Finance Committee (CFC) expressed similar concerns in meetings in February and March and did not favor using debt certificates to pay for Project 2, a point raised in public comments by some referendum advocates.

“The CFC stated that it’s best practice to fund major capital projects like Project 2 with referendum bonds, and that debt certificates should only be used for short-term borrowing, five years or less,” said referendum advocate Judith Alexander in an email after the meeting. “I and other referendum advocates agree with the CFC.”

But Martire said that having to pay back debt from the operating levy would provide a powerful dose of fiscal discipline for future school boards.

“I think it meets what our community has been asking for, and I think it installs financial discipline on the board,” Martire said. “If you’re funding out of your operating (levy), you don’t have a lot of room to futz around and lose the discipline you’ve been imposing here.”

Board member Kebreab Henry was the only board member to say he favored a financing option that included a referendum. Henry favored an option that would use a variety of borrowing methods, including five-year debt certificates, debt service extension bonds, and $13.7 million in referendum bonds, in addition to using cash reserves and donations from the Imagine Foundation.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, five people spoke favoring a referendum and four people spoke in favor of using debt certificates and opposing a referendum. Some opposed to a referendum pointed to the results of the recent school board election in which the only candidate who unambiguously supported a referendum, Brian Souders, was not elected while three candidates who were content to let the current board decide how to fund Project 2 were elected.

“We now know from last week’s election there is not widespread support for a referendum,” said Oak Park resident Peter Ryan.

But referendum advocates noted that the April 4 school board election had very low turnout (18.6 percent of registered voters). Instead, they pointed to a 2020 non-binding, advisory referendum in Oak Park, an election with much higher turnout (80.31 percent of registered voters), in which 76.6 percent of those voting on the question favored requiring a referendum for any public capital project of more than $5 million. 

In her public comment, Oak Park resident Leslie Sutphen pointed out that in 2016 a referendum to sell bonds to finance the construction of a new swimming pool was narrowly defeated. Sutphen noted that Project 2 is a much larger and more expensive project than what was asked for in 2016.

“I think, given the community’s voice on the last referendum, it would be unconscionable if you did not consider another referendum for this particular vote,” Sutphen said. “It’s a lot of money. I think the community needs to vote on it.”

Supporters of debt certificates said the priority should be to start the project as soon as possible so that students can benefit from the new facilities as soon as possible. 

“The non-referendum path spares our communities and this board yet one more year of exhausting and divisive debate on issues we know are worth the investment,” Ryan said. 

Oak Park resident Alison Welch said that if work begins in 2024 her fifth-grade son and other children his age could use the new facilities during his entire four years of high school.

“He could be a part of the first class to experience all four high school years with Project 2 spaces completed,” Welch said. “I know in my heart that that extra year will matter, will make a difference for him as a teenager. He and the other 900-ish Oak Park and River Forest fifth-graders are worth it. They deserve all four years just as current sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders deserve their own taste of life at OPRF with modernized, right-sized, properly configured facilities.”

The debate over Project 2 and how to pay for it has created strong feelings on both sides. Martire deplored the sometimes personal nature of arguments.

“We need to respect each other’s views and not assume bad intent if someone doesn’t agree with you,” Martire said.

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