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District 118 hearing details $6.5 borrowing plan

The clock is ticking for voters to file a petition to force Palos School District 118’s planned borrowing of $6.5 million onto the ballot as a referendum question in the November presidential election.

Only one resident spoke against the bond issue at a public hearing required by state law on the school board’s intent to sell the working cash fund bonds held by the school board Tuesday at the Central Administration Building, 8800 W. 119th St., Palos Park.

John T. Donovan, of Palos Park, accepted “we have excellent schools,” but said the district has failed to provide “any specifics on a plan” with few details provided for spending the money. He is urging voters to sign the petition to force the bond issue onto the ballot to let voters decide.

Any petition gathering effort, however, is hampered by the timing of the bond issue approved by the school board on Nov. 19: on the verge of Thanksgiving and the busy Christmas holiday season.

Voters have 30 days from the Nov. 26 date of publication of the legal notice of the district’s intent to issue the bonds to file the petition for the referendum. The petition must be signed by a minimum of 10 percent of the registered voters who reside in the school district.

The Dec. 14 deadline to place a referendum on the March 15 primary election ballot is past. If sufficient valid petition signatures are filed before the Dec. 26 deadline, the referendum question would appear on the November election ballot.

Donovan has estimated that number to be about 1,600 signatures, given what he cited to be the district’s population of 16,000 registered voters. His views on the bond appear in this week’s Readers Write letters to the editor (see Page 4). An attorney, Donovan now works on the staff of Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart and formerly on the staff of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. He ran unsuccessfully for the High School District 230 board of education last April.

Proceeds for principal and interest payments for the working cash bonds issued by the school district would be automatically levied on the property tax rolls as an obligation assumed by district property-tax payers.

The bonding authority is needed because of anticipated state cuts in education, district Business Manager/Chief School Business Official Justin Veihmman had told the school board at its meeting on Nov. 17.

Since then, the administration has identified more specific uses for the bond proceeds that school board President John Faustino outlined during Tuesday’s public hearing in remarks almost identical to the case he makes in a letter to the editor in this week’s Readers Write. The district has historically used a combination of property tax levies and working cash fund bonds to operate its schools, he said. “It’s standard operating procedure for us.”

Superintendent Anthony Scarsella gave his view of the need for the borrowing in an opinion piece he wrote, published in last week’s Regional. The first capital improvement priority he listed is a proposed four-classroom addition to Palos West to house a district-wide pre-kindergarten and early childhood program. The current classrooms used for that purpose were not designed for them and lack adequate space, he wrote.

To a roomful of teachers, other district staff and some parents at Tuesday’s public hearing, school board member Catherine Maier said the district “is asking for a minimal amount compared to what we could ask for, which is up to $47 million” in its proposed $6.5 million borrowing.

A number of teachers and some parents addressed the hearing to praise the district’s early childhood and pre-kindergarten services now provided, and urge their expansion to better prepare all pupils with any special needs for kindergarten and beyond through 8th grade. Many used the word “miracle” and “miracle worker” to describe the services provided and the work of the pre-kindergarten teachers like Lee Harwig who perform them.

Maier and Faustino both emphasized that the planned bond issue would keep the bond portion of the property tax bill at current levels because the current debt will be paid off by the time the new proceeds show up on tax bills.

The district’s highest credit rating from Standard & Poor’s gives the district the ability to borrow the funds at a low interest rate, Faustino said. “Now is the prudent time to issue bonds.”

If voters fail to circulate a petition to gather the legally required minimum valid petition signatures and file it by the deadline, the district will have the legal authority to issue the bonds.

Doing so “will not in itself increase our taxes,” Maier reiterated. “It will replace our payments because our current bonds are being retired.”

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