CHAMPAIGN — About 10 people gathered Tuesday to talk with Champaign school board member Jamar Brown about working cash bonds and other possible ways to pay for improving schools.
They attended an open forum Brown put together to hear more opinions from the community. It focused on working cash bonds, but attendees and Brown talked about better communications between the school board and residents, as well.
The working cash bond issue has been controversial — the school board voted in February to issue about $14.5 million in bonds to pay for new geothermal systems, lighting and windows at Jefferson and Franklin Middle Schools, wireless technology in all buildings and a new transportation center.
It would increase property taxes by $25 for the owner of a $150,000 home.
A recent petition to put the bond issue on the November ballot failed to gather enough signatures within the 30 days allowed by law.
Superintendent Judy Wiegand, who attended Brown's forum, said the school board will discuss working cash bonds at its next meeting, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St., C.
Brown said he had the idea to host the forum this weekend, and decided to put it together this week, rather than waiting. He reminded those attending that he was speaking for himself, not for other school board members.
Champaign resident Norman Davis told Brown he knows improvements need to be made to the schools, but he resents that the school board wants to raise property taxes without voters' permission, especially because building improvements can be paid for with money from a 1 percent countywide tax. He said he gathered signatures for the petition and only encountered a few people who refused to sign. He said many who signed told him they'd support the school district if it asked for the money on the ballot.
Brown went over what the school board does with money from the school facilities sales tax — it issued about $83 million in bonds to be repaid with facilities sales tax money. That has paid for new Booker T. Washington and Carrie Busey elementary schools, the renovation of Garden Hills, and improvements to Bottenfield, Westview, Robeson and Kenwood elementaries. It will also pay for land for a new Central High School, and the school district is also abating property taxes on construction debt from building Stratton and Barkstall Elementaries.
Champaign resident Karen Roese asked questions about how the school board makes decisions and whether they had options other than issuing working cash bonds to pay for improvements that couldn't be made with sales tax money.
She wondered if the school district couldn't find some private funding to help pay for the improvements, which Wiegand said she thought was "something to explore."
Davis suggested selling more bonds to be repaid with the school facilities sales tax, and Champaign resident Scott Christenson wondered if the sales tax couldn't be a higher percentage.
Brown said he'd ask the school district's chief operating officer, Gene Logas, about whether those ideas were feasible. He said he appreciated hearing ideas for options besides working cash bonds.
Savoy resident Charles Schultz suggested getting committees together to explore various items on the working cash list, such as installing wireless technology in all the school district's buildings. They could include community members and people from the University of Illinois, he said. He also talked about the need for understandable information about the school district's finances.
Brown said it would be helpful to know exactly what information residents are looking for. He also said he was pleased to hear the opinions of the people who attended.
"It's just helpful to hear honest answers," he said.
Brown said he plans to host more forums in the future, with more advance notice.
He said he's also committed to talking with residents and hearing their concerns, as well as answering emails and phone calls and Facebook requests.
"We're coming off of years of mistrust" between the public and the school district, he said, and he knows it will take a lot of work to improve relations between the school district and the community.