CHAMPAIGN - If the Champaign school board members change their minds about issuing working cash bonds to pay for building improvements, that decision will happen in the next few weeks, said board President Sue Grey.
Grey spoke at the board's regular school board meeting Monday, as did several community members, about whether the school board should issue the bonds, or put the issue to a vote.
“In order for (the board's decision to issue bonds) to change, someone must change their yes vote to a no,” Grey said. “If we make any changes, I anticipate the board will do something in the next couple of weeks.”
The bond issue would raise property taxes about $25 a year for the owner of a $150,000 home. The $14.5 million raise would pay for geothermal systems and new lights at Franklin and Jefferson Middle Schools, wireless technology throughout the school district and a new transportation facility.
The school board unanimously approved issuing the bonds in late February, but 2,300 community members signed petitions in the 30 days following, asking the school board to put the bond issue on the November ballot.
Champaign developer Dan Hamelberg addressed the board Monday, citing the school facilities sales tax that voters approved several years ago, asked the board to reconsider issuing the working cash bonds. He asked the board to live within its budget, especially that of the $83 million in bonds the school district sold that will be repaid with sales tax money.
Board member Dave Tomlinson said he gave a presentation 25 times about what the Champaign school district would do with the sales tax money if voters approved the tax.
Never in those discussions did he say the school district would not ask again for more money to improve facilities, he said.
Champaign resident John Bambenek asked the school board to put the issue to a vote.
“If you want us as a taxpayer to trust you, trust us with your proposals,” he said. “Let us have a vote to say yes or no.”
Edison Middle School Principal Justin Uppinghouse addressed the board, telling them student and staff members' thoughts about what it's like in a building without air conditioning.
Students compete for space near fans and leave class to get drinks, he said. Staff members have to turn off their LCD projectors for fear that they'll overheat, he said, even if it's in the middle of a lesson.
He said he doesn't know how to respond when students point out that “even prison is air conditioned.”
School district employee Scott Christenson told the board about conditions at the school's transportation facility and said he believes the school district needs the working cash bond money “desperately,” especially for improvements there.
“It needs to be done yesterday, not somewhere in the future,” he said.
Many school board members said they believe the improvements to be done with the working cash bond money are necessary for the students in the school district.
School board member Jamar Brown said he voted yes on the working cash bond issue because it allowed the school district to do what's best for its students, he said.
He asked those who aren't in favor of the bond issue to call him and give ideas for alternatives.
“I can't say no just because someone doesn't like it ,” Brown said. “I still feel that these improvements are what's best for students.”
Craig Walker and Frank Paul of Blaylock Robert Van, LLC., addressed the board, mentioning a presentation they sent to the school district, posing the possibility of using property tax money that will be released in the future from tax increment financing to pay the principal and interested on alternate revenue bonds.
That would allow the school district to raise money for the improvements without raising property taxes, Frank said.
But Champaign school district Chief Operating Officer Gene Logas said that property tax money is budgeted for operational expenses, like paying teachers, providing transportation for students and buying textbooks.
Board member Stig Lanesskog said the school board members have to make tough decisions, and while the Champaign school district has kept its tax rate low, “the buildings show it.”
“We need to move forward and act on this,” Lanesskog said.
During earlier discussions about the bond issue, the board and administration discussed that work on the geothermal systems to be installed with working cash bond money would need to begin in April.
School district spokeswoman Lynn Peisker said no work will be done until the board “reaffirms its decision to issue the bonds.”
Also Monday, the school board unanimously approved to request bids for the addition and renovation of Westview Elementary.
The renovation will cost about $7.6 million and will be paid for with money from the school facilities sales tax.
The school board also released 34 part-time employees, retirees who are working or those who are employed less than 119 days that the school district isn't sure will be needed next year.
Peisker called those “standard releases.”
The school board also approved a reduction in force of four certified employees whose positions are paid for with grant money that has not yet been awarded yet, or those that could be enrollment related.