D200 board leaning against community center funding

School board members say they have insufficient details for a vote before Dec. 1

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

The prospect of the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board setting aside $25 million from its fund balance to pay a majority of the construction costs for a proposed community recreational center dimmed after the D200 school board met on Nov. 6. 

According to the terms of a memorandum of understanding approved back in May, the school board has until Dec. 1 to agree to allocate the money for the center, but based on board discussion at Monday's meeting, that appears unlikely to happen. 

Virtually all D200 board members, who gathered Monday for a committee of the whole meeting, expressed deep reservations about the proposed community center, which would be jointly funded by D200, the Park District of Oak Park and the River Forest Park District, and utilized by both towns.  

The board's concerns mainly centered on a lack of financial details about the proposal and the possibility that planning for the project could interfere with its own Imagine OPRF working group's process of coming up with long-term facilities recommendations for the high school. 

Since May, talks between D200 and the two park districts had been ramping up on a proposed recreational center that would feature an indoor swimming pool, among other amenities, to be used by both districts and that would cost between $36 million and $47 million, depending on the location. The community center would not preclude the school district eventually building a separate pool on-campus. 

All three taxing bodies would put up $5 million to fund the center, with the school district committing an additional $25 million of its fund balance either as a direct loan to the Park District of Oak Park (interest included) or as a bond issue, which the Park District of Oak Park would pay down each year. 

During Monday's meeting, two more funding scenarios were presented to the school board. One included D200 providing $25 million in bonds in fiscal year 2019 and two more contributions of $5 million, in addition to the $5 million set aside that each taxing body already agreed to make.

Another funding scenario presented on Monday included D200 contributing $25 million in bonds to the Park District of Oak Park in fiscal year 2019, but also issuing $50 million in bonds in fiscal year 2020 to pay for facility improvements associated with the Imagine OPRF work group. 

Like the community recreation center proposal, the Imagine OPRF work group was formed in the spring after residents last November voted down a proposal by D200 to fund a $44.5 million five-year facilities plan with up to $25 million in bonds. The plan included a new pool that would replace the two, roughly 90-year-old pools that the high school currently uses for PE instruction and aquatics competition.

Comprised of around 43 members, the Imagine group is responsible for vetting D200's prior facilities plans and coming up with recommendations for the school board to consider by next summer. 

The high school has agreed to set aside at least $20 million of its fund balance to pay for those recommendations.   

Up until the Nov. 6 meeting, school board members were not very vocal about the possibility of the community recreation center proposal and the work of the Imagine OPRF group conflicting. 

On Monday, however, with the Dec. 1 deadline for approving the proposal approaching, several board members expressed concerns about the school district's ability to address both projects simultaneously. 

"From a financial standpoint, I find it extremely difficult to be able to address these two issues independently," said board member Tom Cofsky. 

Cofsky questioned how the district would be able to set aside funds both for the community center along with the $20 million allocated to the Imagine OPRF work group's recommend capital improvements at the same time without running into complications, such as potentially having to run multiple referenda a few years apart. 

"The blunt thing to ask is can both things happen at the same time," said D200 board President Jackie Moore, who lamented that more details about the community center proposal had not been presented after several months of discussions between the school and park districts about the project. 

Other board members expressed concerns about the Park District of Oak Park's ability to pay the money back. According to D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, park district officials decided at a recent meeting with school officials that they would only consider a loan from D200, which meant that the scenarios calling for $25 million in bonds are now off the table. 

In October, D200 officials said that the park district could pay upwards of $1 million a year in debt payments on a loan from the school district, in addition to interest payments. 

The park district would pay back the money from its capital improvement fund and from new revenue from fees associated with the facility. School district officials said last month that the park district has considered setting up an escrow account in case they can't pay make the payments. 

Most board members said that, roughly one week away from when they're scheduled to vote on the proposal, they still have not received detailed information on the park district's financial status. Most also expressed reservations about allocating money for a project without getting sufficient community input. 

"I cannot imagine a scenario where [I would vote to] provide cash to the park district to build this without talking to the community about it," said board member Craig Iseli. "This doesn't mean I'm not supportive of the collaborative efforts and us doing this, I'm just not supportive of us using our cash in that way to short-circuit the community process." 

The board is expected to vote on whether or not to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the two park districts to help fund the project later this month. Supt. Pruitt-Adams said that school district officials haven't discussed with the Park District of Oak Park what might happen if the school board decided not to approve the IGA by Dec. 1.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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