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Palos 118 to ask voters for $6.5 mil.

The Palos School District 118 board of education Tuesday voted unanimously to place a referendum on the Nov. 8 presidential election ballot asking voters whether to approve issuing $6.5 million in school construction bonds.

First, board members voted unanimously to approve a resolution abandoning the district’s intention to issue $6.5 million in working cash fund bonds, which had been forced onto the same ballot by voter initiative at the end of last December.

The school district seeks to borrow the $6.5 million by selling construction bonds in order to build a four-classroom addition with accessible bathrooms for its highly regarded early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs that are housed at Palos West School, in Palos Park. Proceeds to repay principal and interest would be levied on real estate tax bills.

Superintendent Anthony Scarsella explained the switch in referendums by saying that school construction bonds are “the most transparent for our voters for building and equipping the addition” proposed to serve the district’s at-risk students ages 3 to 5 in both the early childhood and pre-K programs. “There should be no question in voters’ minds about what they are voting for,” he said.

The proposed four-classroom addition at Palos West would cost an estimated $4.25 million. The rest of the bond proceeds would pay for $600,000 in vehicle circulation improvements, with an early childhood dropoff, serving the planned addition, and miscellaneous infrastructure repairs at all of the district schools, including Palos East and South, as well as West.

To make its case for the $6.5 million borrowing, the district plans to update its web page, palos118.org, meet with stakeholder groups and hold public forums at Palos West to show the community the need for the new classrooms.

Superintendent Scarsella begins making his case for the bond issue in a guest opinion commentary that appears on Page 4 of this week’s Regional News. The district’s recently released 2015-16 full-color annual report is also full of information about why early learning matters, detailing the district’s early childhood and pre-K programs.

The district has not passed a referendum in 50 years, since 1967, Scarsella and Chief School Business Official Justin Veihman noted in their presentation to the school board recommending its approval to submit the bond issue for voter approval.

Both noted that interest rates to borrow funds are near all-time lows. Because the district is retiring its old working cash fund bond debt, the debt service will not increase or decrease in the bond and interest portion of the district’s tax rate if voters approve the construction bond issue, Veihman emphasized.

Before the board voted to hold the referendum, Scarsella, Veihman and early childhood and pre-K teachers gave a lengthy presentation to the board to back the superintendent’s recommendation for the proposition.

They noted that the enrollment of such pupils has grown over the last 12 years, but the physical facility for meaningful, interactive instructional activities is deficient to best serve them.

The purpose of both programs is to help all 3-5 year old students with disabilities or identified as at risk reach their full potential, serving the district’s most vulnerable students. A working group of teachers, other staff and an early childhood educator from Lewis University has worked for the last year studying the quality of the pre-K/early childhood learning environment in the district, only to find them deficient. Early learning environments matter and the working group reported major deficiencies in current spaces after conducting assessments.

For example, bathrooms are far away from the classrooms and were not built to be accessible to children under 5. Youngster’s bathroom needs take valuable time away from instructional activities, both for students and the paraprofessional staff members who must accompany them on their long walks to use the toilet. It is an even longer walk to the playground and gym, wasting time as children are formed in a line to make the hikes.

“Despite the obstacles and challenges presented by our facilities,” testimonials by parents of children in both programs that can be read on the district’s website show the value of both, Scarsella said.

John T. Donovan, of Palos Park, the organizer of the petition effort last December that forced Palos School District 118’s planned $6.5 million working cash fund borrowing onto the ballot as a referendum question – now voided by the board’s actions Tuesday – attended the board meeting.

Although Donovan said he is happy that the district will heed the wishes of the 12 percent of registered voters who signed petitions for a referendum, he castigated the school board for not placing the bond issue on the ballot in the first place, but instead leaving it to voters to collect 2,100 signatures of registered voters on the petitions he filed with a representative of the board of education at the district’s administration building, 8800 W. 119th St., Palos Park, just before the new year.

“If you did it then, people would have had six months to digest that information; now you are giving voters one month to digest it,” he said.

Icy snow covered the ground and was still falling as Donovan filed the required petition sheets for that referendum in the final week of 2015.

The school board had until this month to decide whether to move forward with placing the question on the Nov. 8 ballot, hence its actions at its Aug. 9 meeting Tuesday.

         Donovan also criticized the wording of the new construction bonds referendum because it does not mention the other projects in addition to the early childhood/pre-K classroom addition that the $6.5 million is to be used for. “A quarter of the money is to be used for other things,” he said.

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