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Bond issue: Palos 118 informs voters

Color page one palos 118 artist renbdering interior early learning center

Image from Prek118.org

Artist rendering of the interior of the proposed early learning addition. It and others are shown on the website prek118.org.

Palos School District 118 officials gave the first information night about their proposed building addition and referendum to a mostly empty gym last week at Palos West School.

The forum was the first of three intended to give voters information about the school district’s referendum asking them to approve a $6.5 million school construction bond issue that will appear on the Nov. 8 election ballot.

Two more information nights are scheduled for Wednesdays, Sept. 14 and Oct. 12, both starting at 6:30 p.m., at Palos West School, 12700 S. 104th Ave., in Palos Park.

Hundreds of empty chairs were set up for the first informational night held on the final day of August when only 20 or so voters showed up for the full-color presentation about the addition and bond issue.

By means of the information nights and the district’s website, the school board strives for full transparency to provide voters with the facts and district’s reasons for the borrowing.

The Palos 118 board of education voted unanimously on Aug. 9 to place the referendum on the ballot.

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. Both district wide programs are housed at Palos West School. Proceeds to repay principal and interest would be levied on real estate tax bills.

In addition to the district’s website, Palos118.org, residents can visit www.prek118.org to view a wealth of information about the proposed building addition and bond issue, including artists’ renderings and budget figures. The website is updated continuously as new information becomes available.

The referendum question will ask voters: “Shall the Board of Education of Palos Community Consolidated School District Number 118, Cook County, Illinois, build and equip an addition to the Palos West Elementary School Building for the District’s special education early childhood and at-risk pre-kindergarten programs, alter, repair and equip school buildings, improve the sites thereof and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $6,500,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?”

The referendum is written in such a way as to let voters know exactly what they are voting on when they go to the polls, Superintendent Anthony Scarsella said.

It has been almost 50 years since District 118 taxpayers passed a school referendum.

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 drop-off, serving the planned addition, and miscellaneous infrastructure repairs at all of the district schools, including Palos East and South, as well as West. Those projects are listed in detail on the districts’ websites.

Pre-K and early childhood teachers repeated their case for the need for the addition at last week’s information night. They explained that high quality programs need to make good use of time for instructional interaction, but much time is lost because none of their classroom spaces were designed to meet the needs of 3- to 5-year-olds. A great deal of teaching time is wasted just taking pupils to use the bathrooms, a long walk down the hall.The teachers covered much of the same ground they presented at the Aug. 9 board meeting, as reported in The Regional News.

The district notes that the enrollment of such pupils has grown over the last 12 years from 14 early childhood and 20 pre-K pupils in 2005 to 25 EC and 56 pre-K pupils this school year.

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 had worked for the last year studying the quality of the pre-K/early childhood learning environment in the district, only to find them deficient.

The current spaces were never designed to accommodate such programs and cannot “provide a dedicated area specifically designed for early learning, incorporating best practices,” the district says.

Representatives of the architectural firm Wight & Co. showed plans for the addition and to reconfigure the drop-off and pick up points for the pre-K/early childhood addition. Schematic renderings are shown at prek118.org.

As for costs of the bond issue, the building bonds would be paid off over a four-year period. They will be issued after no bonds are outstanding, and thus the annual payment by taxpayers would remain the same, a financial representative told the information night assembly. A district homeowner could expect to pay 64 cents per $1,000 of home value for the bond issue. The mean home value in the district is $269,000. For a home with that valuation, it would cost $172 a year to service the bonds.

Interest rates for the bond issue are at historic lows. The interest rate for the bonds would be 1.5 percent if sold today, but could be 2.1 percent by the time the bonds are sold after the election, and before the end of this year.

Because the district is retiring its old working cash fund bond debt, the referendum will not increase or decrease the bond and interest portion of the district’s tax rate if voters approve the construction bond issue, district business official Justin Veihman has said.

The district operates with a balanced budget each year, Veihman said. Operational spending per student is $12,597 a year, close to the state average of $12,521 and less than the Cook County average of $13,701.

Palos 118 has the lowest tax rate of all High School District 230 feeder schools, officials said. It also has the lowest year over year growth in the tax rate for all D230 feeder schools. The district has among the highest property values per resident in D230, and the lowest median property tax, according to the 2014 Census.

For all this, PARCC test scores in the district are among the highest in D230, student achievement levels far exceed national scores and the district is rated the top elementary school district in the south suburbs by SchoolDigger.com, officials showed in last week’s session.

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