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Referendum: Palos 118 offers last forum

Color page one palos 118

Source: Prek118.org

Schematic drawing of the proposed four-classroom addition at the front of Palos West School.

 

Palos School District 118 will again explain to voters the reasons behind its referendum to sell $6.5 million in construction bonds to improve the facilities serving its most at-risk pupils.

The final of three scheduled information nights will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 12, starting at 6:30 p.m., at Palos West School, 12700 S. 104th Ave., in Palos Park.

Meanwhile, district officials made their case for the bond issue to the Palos Heights City Council at its meeting Tuesday.

The upcoming information night aims to make voters aware of all the facts about the referendum on the Nov. 8 election ballot to build an addition at Palos West School.

Palos 118 seeks to borrow the $6.5 million by selling construction bonds in order to build a four-classroom addition with accessible bathrooms to better serve pupils in its highly regarded early childhood and pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs. Both district wide programs are housed at Palos West School.

District Superintendent Anthony Scarsella emphasized that approval of the bond issue would not increase property taxes during a special presentation that he and district Chief School Business Official Justin Veihman gave to the City Council.

Because the district is retiring its old working cash fund bond debt and will become debt free this December, 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, they told the council.

“Eighty percent of district residents do not have children in our schools,” Scarsella said. “Voting yes will not increase or decrease their property taxes.”

The district has created a new website, prek118.org, that contains virtually everything voters need to know about the referendum and proposed addition. It details budget figures and building plans, and shows artists’ renderings of the addition and its facilities.

As the Prek118.org website explains: If the referendum is approved, the average homeowner would continue to pay $0.64 per $1,000 in assessed value until the construction bonds are retired in December 2020. For a home with a property value of $300,000, that would mean a property owner would continue paying $192 for four years.

The proposed early-learning addition at Palos West would cost an estimated $4.85 million, Scarsella told Palos Heights Mayor Bob Straz and the aldermen Tuesday.

The rest of the $1.65 million in bond proceeds would pay for $600,000 to improve the early childhood traffic drop-off serving the planned addition, boiler replacement, energy efficiency projects and renovations at all three district schools, he added.

Assessments by the district have “found major deficiencies in our spaces” that inhibit instruction for pre-K and early childhood pupils, “our youngest and most vulnerable pupils,” Scarsella explained.

Teachers of both programs say that time spent in meaningful instructional interactions is adversely affected by the physical facility. Valuable learning time is lost because none of the programs’ classroom spaces were designed to meet the needs of 3- to 5-year-olds. Much time is wasted just taking pupils to use the bathrooms, or lining up for activities in other parts of the school building. The addition would put them all in close proximity to each other.

The early childhood program is mandated by the state for students with learning disabilities, while pre-K is offered to pupils identified as at risk through a screening.

Enrollment of early learning pupils has grown over the last 12 years from 14 early childhood (EC) and 20 pre-K pupils in 2005 to 25 EC and 56 pre-K pupils this school year.

Palos Heights Alderman Don Bylut (1st Ward) asked Scarsella how he accounted for the large increase in pre-K pupils.

“We see more and more students enrolling in our district who have special needs,” Scarsella replied. “There are more students who are low income than ever before,” he added.

The two targeted early learning programs aim to help all pupils with disabilities or identified as at risk reach their full potential.

Turning to finances, Veihman told the council that the district is in a strong financial position and spends $1,100 per pupil less a year that the average in Cook County. He added that its tax rate is lower than others in the area.

Interest rates for the bond issue are at historic lows. The interest rate for the bonds would be 1.5 percent on this debt if sold today, Veihman added.

Alderman Michael McGrogan (4th Ward) asked how much cash the district has in reserves and why some of it could not be used to reduce the $6.5 million amount the district seeks to borrow. “Why borrow the whole amount?” he asked.

Scarsella replied that district has a year’s worth of reserves, indicating the amount is greater than the bond issue. The school board, however, wants to hold onto the reserves because of proposals by lawmakers in Springfield that could reduce state funding for the district. “The board may have considered using cash reserves if interest rates were higher,” he added.

Scarsella plans to also explain the reasons for the referendum in presentations to both the Palos Park village and Palos Hills city councils at each of their respective upcoming meetings, he said.

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