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District 200 board candidates split in support of referendum

WHEATON – The eight candidates running for four seats on the Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 Board of Education are split in their support for a $132.5 million referendum on the April 4 ballot to pay for improvements to the district's facilities, including a new early learning center.

The candidates gave their views on the referendum during a Wheaton League of Women Voters' candidate forum March 20. Incumbent board members Brad Paulsen and James Mathieson, who are finishing their first terms on the board, are running for re-election, along with challengers Rob Hanlon, Harold Lonks, Thomas Hudock, Neil Harnen, Marcus Hamilton and Ginna Ericksen.

Hudock was absent from the forum because of a business conflict, league officials said. Lonks, Hudock, Harnen and Hamilton are running as a slate against the referendum, while Paulsen, Mathieson, Hanlon and Ericksen support the referendum.

The bond measure, if approved, would cost the owners of a median home in the district valued at $322,300 an additional $180 per year on the bond and interest portion of their tax bill, district officials said. The referendum would help fund $154.5 million in projects.

The rest of the money – $22 million – would come from district reserves and future budgets. If the referendum passes, the district would have five years, through spring 2022, to issue up to $132.5 million in bonds. The bond term is 20 years.

After 20 years, with principal and interest, the total amount paid for the $132.5 million bond issue would be about $206 million. The district's debt currently expires in 2025, and selling an additional $132.5 million in bonds would extend the district's debt through 2035.

Hanlon said while he feels empathy for those feeling pressured because of tax increases, he said strong schools are needed to ensure property values don't fall.

"The value of our homes, while depressed by the real estate market, is fully bolstered by the reputation of our schools," Hanlon said. "Any erosion of that reputation is damaging to us."

Hamilton said the district needs to come up with a more "reasonable" plan to address its needs.

"There are definitely improvements that need to be made," he said. "Nobody's debating that... There needs to be a better plan, a more reasonable, rational plan that we can afford."

Lonks agreed.

"We can't afford to keep on putting debt onto debt," he said.

Ericksen said the referendum will allow the district to get up to speed on improvements.

"I think it is necessary for our schools," she said.

Harnen said the district needs to build trust with the community that it is being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

"I think that's the key for us going forward," he said. "If I'm elected to the board, that's one thing I'm going to focus on, transparency and trust."

Mathieson said if the referendum is passed, residents would see their tax bill start to decrease as the district's current debt is paid off and the new debt is all that remains.

"I'm on the finance committee, and I'm proud of what we've designed," he said.

Paulsen said the referendum will allow the district to "finally get ahead of facility issues, and not have that drag us back."

"We can continue the educational excellence that our community desires," he said.

The referendum would pay for a new $16.6 million early learning center at the Jefferson Early Childhood Center site. Jefferson serves students with special needs as required by state and federal law. About two-thirds of Jefferson students have some type of special need or disability, and one-third of students are typically developing students who pay tuition to attend the school.

Needs at the center include a secure entry, sufficient classroom and office space, and wheelchair accessibility. Voters in 2013 rejected a $17.6 million plan for a new center to replace the current building.

Other projects in the referendum include secured entry access at all of the district's elementary schools, renovation of the library learning centers at the elementary schools and updated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Renovated science classrooms and laboratory spaces at Edison, Franklin and Monroe middle schools, roof replacement at the high schools, technology lab renovations at Wheaton North High School and library learning center renovations at Wheaton Warrenville South High School also are part of the referendum. More than half of the projects identified in the referendum are capital improvements.

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