NEWS

Board members say Hinsdale District 86 cuts are not a bluff, but some are skeptical


6 minute read

Kimberly Fornek
Contact Reporter
Pioneer Press

2018/12/20

Hinsdale High School District 86 Board members say their vote Dec. 17 to cut the football, wrestling, swim and water polo teams and other activities at both Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South high schools shows they were not bluffing when they discussed the need to find money for pressing infrastructure improvements.

While difficult, the board members said the cuts are necessary.

“This is the board action going forward, not scare tactics for effect,” board member Keith Chval said. “As disappointing as it is, this is reality.”

But some student athletes and residents are skeptical the district really would follow through on such drastic steps.

Citizens for Clarendon Hills, which its president Edward Corcoran describes as a taxpayers watchdog group, predicts the district will not cut football, swimming or any sport or club that would hurt students.

Board President Bill Carpenter would only say, “Those are the cuts that are on the table for the 2019/2020 school year.”

Chval said for anyone paying attention, there should be no surprise as to the board actions.

“I believe the board has been very transparent and forthright for those in the community who chose to pay attention,” Chval said. “Prior to the November referendum, we directed (superintendent Bruce) Law to begin collecting and presenting information on where we would look for monies to address infrastructure, etc. if the referendum were to fail.”

That information was made available well before the Nov. 6 election, Chval said.

“With respect to some claiming that the board unnecessarily (or) purposefully targeted specific activities or sports, I would first remind them we put forth the $166 referendum specifically to avoid being in this situation,” Chval said.

He also said he reserves the right to change his mind as new facts and thoughts arise.

Of course, a lot depends on whether the school district can pass a $130 million referendum the board plans to put on the April 2 ballot. They cut about $36 million in projects that were included in the $166 million referendum that 54 percent of voters rejected in November.

The failure of the referendum left the district scrambling for ways to pay for the most urgent projects, such as new boilers, accessibility requirements and security upgrades, estimated to cost about $46 million. District administrators recommended a six-year plan that involves the district issuing about $15 million in bonds, cutting bus routes and staff positions, increasing class sizes and freezing administrator salaries, in addition to the cuts to athletics and other extra-curricular activities.

District 86’s chief financial officer Josh Stephenson said district could allocate more money from its operating levy each year to a capital projects budget, but the money would have to come from another fund, most likely education.

“We are still capped on the total amount,” Stephenson said.

State law prohibits school districts from increasing their annual property tax levy by more than the consumer price index or 5 percent whichever is less, not including the value of new development added to the tax rolls.

In 2013, rather than levy the maximum amount allowed, the board majority, which included Corcoran, chose to keep the levy the same amount as the previous year.

Because each year’s levy is based on the previous year’s taxes, the district would have received cumulatively about $5.68 million more in tax revenue between 2013 and 2017, had the board levied the maximum amount in 2013, Stephenson said.

If the district does not have enough money to pay for operations and maintain its facilities, the district could ask voters to agree to pay more taxes via an operating rate referendum.

But unlike a bond referendum, a hike in taxes to pay for operations goes on indefinitely with the board deciding each year how to spend the money.

“It could go on forever,” Stephenson said. “You don’t know who will be on the school board in the future, and whether they will honor the commitments a prior board made.”

If a bond referendum passes, property owners pay higher taxes only until the bonds are paid back, usually a 20-year period for major bond issues such as what District 86 proposes. The bond proceeds can only be spent for the purpose named on the ballot.

Whether the school board could stand up to the public outcry that likely would result if an April referendum fails and the district moves to implement the cuts remain to be seen.

Chval said his response to those who oppose cutting extra-curriculars is to ask where else can the district reasonably and responsibly find the money to provide a core education in a safe environment.

“To back away from these responsibilities and further kick the can down the road as others before us have done would be the height of irresponsibility and recklessness,” Chval said.

Chval will still be on the school board after the April election. But at least three other board members will be gone. Carpenter, Jennifer Planson and Robert (Bo) Blackburn, who was appointed to fill a vacant seat in September, are not running for election or re-election.

Only incumbent Kathleen Hirsman is running in April, and Hirsman was the only board member who voted against the cuts to the football, swimming and other extra-curricular because she hoped the district could implement smaller reductions across a wider variety of programs.

So, theoretically, a newly reconstituted board after the April election could undo the board’s action, regardless of whether the $130 million referendum passes.

Kari Galassi is one of the residents who at recent board meetings has pledged to campaign hard for passage of the April referendum and is urging others to do the same.

“I think the cuts are real,” Galassi said. “People who say these are scare tactics, that’s 100 percent not the case. The money has to come from somewhere.”

kfornek@pioneerlocal.com

Twitter @kfDoings

Copyright © 2018, Chicago Tribune

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