Moderator Matt Winkleman had a challenge keeping discussions focused on the issue of a ballot referendum on the construction of a new high school during a forum at Harrisburg High School Thursday.
During the meeting of about two hours in the HHS Media Center discussion — at times debate — spanned the spectrum from property tax abatement, school consolidation, Tax Increment Finance money and even hydraulic fracturing.
The question that will be before Harrisburg Unit No. 3 taxpayers in the April 9 Consolidated Election is long and cumbersome:
"Shall Harrisburg Community Unit School District Number 3, Saline County, Illinois, be authorized to issue $29,000,000 general obligation alternate bonds of said School District to demolish, reconstruct, renovate, alter, repair and equip all or a portion of the Harrisburg High School Buildings and improve the sites thereof, as provided for by the resolution adopted by the Board of Education of said School District on the 25th day of September, 2012, said bonds being payable from one or more of the following revenue sources (i) collections distributed to the District from those taxes imposed by The County of Saline, Illinois, pursuant to the County School Facility Occupation Tax Law of the State of Illinois, as amended, and (ii) general state aid received by the District from time to time, unless said revenue sources are insufficient to pay said bonds, in which case ad valorem property taxes upon all taxable property in said School District without limitation as to rate or amount are authorized to be extended for such purpose?"
School board members have voiced disapproval of the way the question was worded during meetings, but the question is worded as it is legally required to be according to attorneys.
What the question seeks is authorization to the school district to issue up to $29 million in alternate revenue bonds — essentially, take a loan of 25 or more years at roughly 4 percent interest — to build a new high school. The are bonds backed by the 1 percent school sales tax that voters have already approved. The law requires back up sources of revenue in the event the sales tax revenue decreases. In this case it is first general state aid. The school receives roughly $8 million in general state aid. If there should be a scenario that entire $8 million should be exhausted an unavailable to pay on the bond, then property tax would be used to pay on the bond.
This was a question raised in the forum by Jonathan Gericke and one that many in the community have brought up. Of concern to them is the phrasing "property taxes upon all taxable property in said School District without limitation as to rate or amount are authorized to be extended."
Winkleman has used the term "inconceivable" to describe such a scenario where property tax is levied to make the bond payment.
Page 2 of 3 - "If it gets to that point, everything is falling apart," Winkleman said.
Superintendent Dennis Smith said one scenario that could exhaust all general aid would be a lawsuit against the school that could not be covered by insurance.
"We fully intend to provide for this project with sales tax," Winkleman said.
The bond issue amount was figured to use only 80 percent of the total sales tax revenue expected each year which is about $1 million total. Each year that extra 20 percent would be kept in a fund as a cushion in case certain years do not produce the expected $1 million. That measure guards against touching state aid for the bond issue and state aid guards against touching property tax money.
Winkleman said current projections — using as a model the county safety sales tax passed several years ago — are the sales tax will be increasing over the next 25 years.
"There's no easy way to say this. We ask you to trust (us)," Winkleman said, a comment that brought chuckles from some in the crowd that numbered around 40.
A source of contention between some taxpayers and the board is the construction of the Harrisburg Middle School several years ago, as one speaker addressed at the forum. The man who did not give his name contended the middle school was not properly insulated and there were other construction shortcomings.
"I think we should postpone this vote until we know the bids are set forth in stone," he said.
He repeatedly said he believed all four districts in the county should be looking toward consolidation when considering school construction.
Danny Gibbs also said he supported consolidation and questioned the wisdom of building at the current high school location rather than at the site of the middle school which would better accommodate Carrier Mills-Stonefort students if that became necessary. He suggested building the school there and selling the current building for $1 to save demolition costs.
Winkleman said demolition costs — which he estimated to be about $2.5 million — are figured into the $25 million to $27 million total construction cost.
"There is strong sentiment on the board we don't want to leave an eyesore in a residential area of this community," Winkleman said. "You can look around the community and see a good example of that and a bad example of that."
The board intends to continue using Davenport Gym attached to the current building.
As to consolidation — the "C word," as Gibbs described it — Winkleman said there are no current talks of consolidation of any of the counties schools though the term "forced consolidation" does come up from time to time at the state level.
Even so, the new school is designed to hold up to 120 more people than the current school in the case of an increase in student body and it is also designed in such a way that another story could be added on if required.
Page 3 of 3 - A woman at the forum suggested rather than concentrate on a new school that would exhaust the sales tax revenue, the sales tax money should be spent on maintenance and that any property taxes currently levied for maintenance be abated to lower taxes for those in the district.
The new school is expected to cost $25 million to $27 million. Winkleman gave an overview of the current school situation mentioning walls bowing out in the back room of the media center, water leaking into the first floor and over 30 entrances that are a security issue.
If the ballot referendum fails, the district expects to spend the full $1 million in sales tax revenue on repairs to the school. Winkleman said the school architect has said a complete renovation of the existing school would cost about $30 million.
Several people, including Todd Bittle, Sherry Dotson and Harold Hicks said they supported the referendum.
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