West Aurora looks to get input on improving facilities

The West Aurora School Board has resumed discussion of a possible building referendum to improve facilities, which may include equipping schools with air conditioning.

The School Board held a special workshop session Monday night to consider an approach to evaluate the condition of school buildings and gather feedback from the community, as well as review funding options for capital improvement projects.

The West Aurora School District has some of the oldest school buildings in Illinois, district officials have said. The oldest portion of Hill Elementary was built in 1888.

“Our staff has done a wonderful job at keeping the Band-Aids on,” School Board President Neal Ormond said.

District officials announced a “listening tour” will be held in each of the schools in September and October, to give residents of the district and business partners an opportunity to give their feedback.

“Families are passionate about their school. We want to give each school community their time,” Superintendent Jeff Craig said.

The School Board suspended discussion of a referendum last fall, saying there was not enough time to place a question on the ballot. The district’s administrative leadership also was in transition, with the appointment of Craig and subsequent appointments in several key positions due to retirements.

The issues associated with capital projects came to a head when the district dismissed classes early on several hot days in the initial weeks of last school year. Seven elementary schools, two middle schools and half the high school building in the district do not have air conditioning.

A capital project study completed last October provides estimates for the conversion or prepping of campuses for newer geothermal heating and cooling systems, some school additions and building a new building for Hill Elementary.

Pat Callahan, the district’s architect from Studio GC Architecture of Chicago, and Robert Lewis of PMA Securities, the district’s financial consulting firm, addressed capital projects and financing.

Callahan has recommended an audit of buildings be done, in conjunction with a life-safety study that is required by the state, to use as a “baseline” for the discussions with the community. Callahan said the audit will look at functional utilization of space as well as distinguish the structural differences of the buildings.

Lewis said the district’s debt payments from previous bonds is approximately $14 million per year. He has suggested the district base a referendum on keeping the debt payment consistent, as opposed to setting it on the district’s tax rate.

“Hindsight has told us it is difficult to do it that way because it’s difficult to predict what will happen to the equalized assessed valuation,” Lewis said.

Lewis also suggested the district stagger the bond issues over several years as projects are phased in.

“The district has the ability to sell additional bonds without raising the payment,” Lewis said.

Last year, the School Board reviewed different scenarios for a bond referendum of $26 million up to $64.4 million.

“It’s important we don’t want see (property) taxes go up beyond the normal level. People are having a tough time already,” School Board member Amie Thompson said.

Board members also said it’s essential to dicuss the condition of the district’s aging buildings.

“I have been in Hill on a hot day when there is no air flow. It is not conducive for (learning),” Thompson said. “The school was built 23 years after the Civil War.”

Angela Smith, assistant superintendent of operations, has suggested the School Board take the next couple of months to gather information and get input from the community.

“It’s important it is an actual conversation and we get feedback from the community,” Smith said. “We have gotten a lot of feedback on air conditioning, but we have never really said here is what it would cost and do you want it?”

The board must file a resolution by Dec. 8 to place a question on the ballot in February. The board could also hold a referendum in the April consolidated election.

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