High price for high schools
Will Springfield pay for the district’s grand plan?
No one disputes that Springfield’s three public high schools need help.
Students at Springfield High School squeeze into 93-year-old classrooms that were meant for their grandparents and great-grandparents’ generations. Even at four stories, the building lacks modern necessities like computer labs and art spaces. Instead, students share six computer carts, each equipped with 20 laptops, and convene for band and choir practices in converted locker rooms.
Southeast High School was built in 1968, but still lacks adequate space for its students. Some classes meet in storage closets and office spaces, and until recently, the cafeteria doubled as a study hall. The school has only one gym, so as many as 130 kids per period share the space or run laps upstairs on asbestos floor tiles.
At Lanphier High School, originally built in 1937, students spend the school day sandwiched between asbestos-filled floors and ceilings. The three-story building doesn’t have an elevator, posing an additional safety hazard to students with injuries or disabilities. In the past, these students have been asked to study from home or to transfer to another school.
The subject of debate obviously isn’t that something needs to be done for these capital city schools — but how and when the school district is going to do it.
The Springfield School Board voted last November for “Option B,” an estimated $231 million plan to build a new SHS on a west-side Koke Mill site, change the current SHS building into a magnet high school with offices for district administration, replace Lanphier and renovate Southeast. While School Superintendent Walter Milton told Illinois Times that he staunchly supports Option B, some school board members have discussed paring down the pricey plan or returning to other options.
Further uncertainty surrounding Option B surfaced last week after the school board voted to fund the construction with an increase in the countywide sales tax. District 186 will jointly decide with other county school districts and the county board how much of an increase to request and during which election. However, even if the school district receives the maximum 1 percent sales tax increase, the revenue would still fall short of paying Option B’s price tag.
If cash-strapped voters in Sangamon County vote down the sales tax, or if additional funding is not secured, the district’s high school students could wind up waiting indefinitely on better schools.
Man with a plan
Since becoming superintendent, Milton has pushed District 186 to produce students who can compete with the best from around the world. To achieve this goal, Milton says, the district needs to design modern schools to meet the needs of its techno-savvy learners.
“I know a lot of people say, ‘Schools were good enough for me, why can’t they be good enough for the kids?’” Milton says. “But our young people deserve it. They are depending on adults in this community to deliver on our promise and our ability to do what’s right for them.”
Milton says that if school board members “stay the course” and show the community “strong, consistent decision-making,” they will convince the community that Option B is in their children’s best interest.
“We have a plan,” he says. “We’re not vacillating with that anymore. It’s out here. This is the year that we’re going to do it. And we’re going to need your support.
“No one is confused about it. Everyone knows where we’re going. We’re going right, and everyone knows that we’re going right.”
City taxpayers shouldn’t be fazed by the project’s price tag, either, Milton adds, since the $200 million-plus will stimulate Springfield’s economy and attract more residents to the capital city.
The sales tax, if raised from nearly 8 to 9 percent in Sangamon County, would direct an estimated $9 to $10 million annually toward Springfield’s school construction plan. The General Assembly created the funding source in 2007, mandating that school boards representing at least 51 percent of each county’s students agree to place it on the ballot. Springfield Public Schools represents nearly 49 percent of county students, and so would require support from surrounding school districts.
The sales tax option is viewed as attractive to voters, because its revenues are funded by county consumers, including tourists and other visitors, and are split proportionately between all county public high schools. Also, if approved, the sales tax could be used to abate property taxes.
However, Milton says, the district still might need to rely on a future property tax increase, in addition to a sales tax increase, to fund Option B. According to district estimates, a 55-cent property tax increase would be needed to equal revenues from a 1-percent sales tax increase, requiring homeowners to pay an additional $272.50 per year on a $150,000 home.
Milton sees it as an investment — increases in property taxes directly correlate to increases in property values.
“People want to come to good schools,” Milton says. “They want to come to schools that are physically pleasing, and they want to come to schools that deliver a great academic program. That increases your property values, so it’s an investment all around the table.”
Across the board
School Board President Art Moore told board members at a meeting on Jan. 20 that a property tax increase was the better option.
“In order to achieve Option B, you need to be able to fund Option B,” Moore said. “The sales tax, as we’ve been told, does not fully fund Option B.”
When the rest of the school board instead spoke in favor of pursuing a sales tax increase, Moore conceded, saying that he was open to any route that would improve high school facilities.
On Feb. 1, the school board approved 6-0, with Judith Ann Johnson abstaining, to seek support for the sales tax increase. It’s unknown when the county board will place the referendum on the ballot; Moore had previously proposed posing either a sales or property tax increase to voters in April 2011 or February 2012.
Susan White, elected to the school board in 2009, voted against Option B last November, arguing that it wasn’t the right time to ask the community to fund the plan with a property tax increase.
She explains: “If we wait until 2012 and put a property tax on the ballot, and it fails, we’ve waited two years, we have nothing, and we have to start over.”
The sales tax option has similar risks, she says, but it’s something new for the school district. It would be less demanding on homeowners and would improve educational facilities throughout Sangamon County.
Bill Looby, the other board member who voted against Option B to avoid raising property taxes, agrees that the sales tax increase is “the best of a bunch of lousy options.” He recently polled his sub-district on the south side of Springfield and found that, out of more than 200 responses, the sales tax increase was strongly favored over a property tax increase.
“It’s not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, and it’ll take a lot of work to get anything through,” Looby says. “But in my view, it’s the realistic alternative.”
North-end board member Nick Stoutamyer supports seeking a sales tax increase, but suggests that the board continue researching other options. He asked Milton to put together a team of district professionals, paid consultants, architects, engineers and bonding company employees to provide further advice on funding.
Some of these players would be interested in getting the district’s business, Stoutamyer admits, but he’d be willing to listen to their ideas if they offered them at their own expense.
“It’s a matter of whether those individuals would step forward as a group, to move us in the right direction, and then let the district do interviews to figure out which company we would like to do business with,” Stoutamyer says. “That’s all up in the air.”
Several architects have already expressed interest in the project and have attended recent school board meetings, including William Prather of Prather Tucker Associates Incorporated, a small architectural firm in Springfield. He has worked with District 186 on past health/life safety projects, and was recently approached by DLA Architects, Ltd., a larger firm from Chicago.
“They were looking for someone to team up with locally to go after some, if not all of the work,” Prather says. “They came down and wanted to go to the workshop meeting…to get face-time in front of the board members.”
Prather, a graduate of Springfield High School, says in his experience, it’s easier to start from scratch on school buildings rather than trying to adapt new teaching techniques and technology to old buildings.
Another idea Stoutamyer offers is funding Option B through a lease-purchase option, which would basically allow private companies to foot the construction bills and then lease the buildings back to the school district.
“There could be the possibility that between several different individuals coming up with money to front the school construction, we wouldn’t have to ask the community for a dime,” Stoutamyer says.
Agnes Nunn, director of business services for Springfield Public Schools, has asked the district’s financial consultant, Tammie Beckwith Schallmo, from PMA Financial Group, to present more information on funding, including the lease-purchase option. Nunn says that the board has also shown interest in pairing generated revenue from a sales tax increase with the lease-purchase option to pay for new high school facilities.
“This is something totally new to us,” Nunn says. “We are trying to gather information for the board, to see if that’s feasible for us to do those projects that are needed for the high schools.”
Rank and file
In order to successfully pass a sales tax increase, Moore says, the board will need to show voters how the district plans to use the generated revenue. And since the full 1-percent increase wouldn’t fully fund Option B, even if approved, he continues, the board needs to choose parts of the plan that deserve immediate attention.
“It at least gets something started,” Moore says. “We can start working on improvements to our facilities, and from there, possibly go for additional revenue down the road.”
The recently approved resolution to seek support for the sales tax increase also permits the school board to continue evaluating Option B and to prioritize its projects. White suggests calling on Dave Smith, the district’s director of operations and maintenance, to help achieve this goal. The board could gain the community’s trust, she adds, if it starts with less controversial items, such as a second gym at Southeast.
“We need to take it piece by piece,” White says. “If we can prioritize and can achieve some good things, that’s better than just shoving down the community’s throat a huge, comprehensive plan at one time.”
Like Moore and White, Stoutamyer agrees that the board should first fund Option B’s most-needed items, but remains committed to completing the entire plan. Rehabilitating the three high schools and creating a magnet high school will give students an educational advantage, he says, but it will also keep current residents in Springfield, as well as attract new residents and businesses to the area.
“I don’t want to cut any part of this project short,” Stoutamyer says. “If it’s going to take a number of years to get it done, where we’d have to pay down some debt before we start on the next project, I still think that Option B is on the table for me. We voted on it, and it’s exactly what I think needs to happen for our city.”
Looby offers a different perspective than other school board members, saying that prioritizing within Option B will waste too much time. Even if the sales tax increase was approved and the board agreed on how to prioritize, he says, it would be a few years before revenues could be used to purchase bonds — a financial option that permits borrowing money on the promise of future revenues — and construction could begin. It would be even longer before the district could begin the second and third round of projects.
“I don’t want to go back to my sub-district and tell them that some of these projects won’t get done for 20 or 30 years,” he says.
The most responsible option, Looby contends, would be to scale back Option B and commit to shorter-term projects that can be finished in the next few years.
“It’s a nice dream to completely gut and redo two schools and to significantly expand a third,” Looby says, “but I think in terms of real pragmatic attainability, I’m looking at something where we would go in and target what we can do in these high schools and what the community will buy into.”
Dan Mulcahy, of Dankor Development Co., was one of three members of the facilities study committee who voted against recommending Option B to the district. He opposes moving SHS from its present location, namely because its proposed west-side site is surrounded by other school districts. For example, he explains, students who live in Panther Creek attend Chatham, while students west of Koke Mill and north of Old Jacksonville Road attend Pleasant Plains.
“By moving SHS six or seven miles west,” Mulcahy says, “and putting it close to the Pleasant Plains and Chatham school districts’ boundaries, I see no educational benefit to the students.”
Mulcahy also opposes a sales tax increase, he says, since school districts surrounding Springfield represent 51 percent of the county and would receive a proportionate amount of the generated revenues.
He explains: “Why would you vote to have a sales tax increase, allowing your competitor, the other schools around, an advantage to reduce their property taxes, pay off their notes, expand and build more schools, [to continue] dragging our students and families out of Springfield?”
Mulcahy proposed to the school board in November 2008 a project that would redevelop the three high schools, keeping SHS at its current location, through a $100 million lease-purchase option.
Contact Amanda Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org.