Voters were in no mood on April 2 to approve a $22 million bond issue to fund a major renovation and expansion of Komarek School in North Riverside, soundly defeating a referendum by a wide margin.
Unofficial vote totals showed that with all four precincts reporting, voters defeated the referendum by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent (814 votes to 572).
Voter turnout was heavier in the Komarek School district than the rest of North Riverside. The village’s overall turnout was 37 percent, while it was 52 percent in Riverside Township Precinct 7 and 43 percent in Proviso Township Precinct 102.
And while turnout was lighter in Riverside Precinct 13 (in North Riverside) and Proviso Precinct 81 (in Broadview), those who did turn out there voted more heavily against the referendum.
The defeat was a blow to dozens of volunteers who spent the last few weeks canvassing the district, which includes North Riverside west of First Avenue and portions of Broadview, as well as school officials who spent almost the past year presenting their case for renovation.
Officials hosted tours of the buildings to show their age and inadequacy for student learning, they also hosted financial open houses to show voters how much the plan ultimately was going to cost them.
“I think we’re really proud of the effort, but we’re sad that it didn’t go the way we had hoped,” said Melissa Obrock, co-chair of Citizens for District 94, a committee formed to advocate for the referendum. “I’m not sure where we go from here, but I still believe the school deserves more than it has right now.”
But the cost appears to have been the fatal flaw.
In the month running up to the election, pushback on the referendum came in the form of fairly aggressive social media slamming the project as too costly. While members of a pro-referendum committee attempted to deflect the criticism, voters apparently felt the plan was just too expensive.
The last time Komarek School District 94 voters passed a referendum was in 2004, when they approved a tax increase to support district operations.
A successful referendum would have meant that the owner of a home with a market value of $250,000 would pay an added $350 in the first year following the vote. That figure would then gradually ramp up over the next six years to a high mark of about $700 in additional property taxes annually.
District officials at that time said they would refinance the debt and extend it another 10 years in order to ease the tax burden. Referendum advocates framed the expense as an investment in the future.
A successful referendum would have transformed the present Komarek School campus. The older east building would have been demolished and replaced by a new gymnasium and a parking lot.
The newer west building would have been expanded and the narrow sky bridge that connects the two buildings would have been demolished and replaced by a larger structure that also would have housed a 3,000-square-foot school library.
In all, the school would have gained about 5,000 square feet of space and the mechanical systems would have been completely overhauled and modernized.
Prior to the election, in response to a question of what might happen if the referendum failed, Komarek School District 94 Superintendent Brian Ganan said another referendum likely would be coming in the future.
The school buildings still require millions of dollars in maintenance, for example replacing the air-handling system.
In the days following the result, District 94 Superintendent Brian Ganan said officials were still assessing how to proceed.
“We’re all just taking it all in,” said Ganan. “What we really need to do is take the time to really understand the results and look for as much feedback as we can and plan accordingly from there.”
Ganan said it wasn’t clear what short-term fixes would be looked at, but whatever projects the district tackles will have to fit in with a future plan.
“We have to be very, very strategic and look at the feedback before we can answer that,” Ganan said.
In the run-up to the election, some residents complained about the $22 million price tag, blaming past administrations and school boards for letting the facility get to the point where such a major overhaul was necessary.
Ganan, who started as District 94 superintendent in 2015, said the buildings were maintained throughout the years, but that they are old and need ongoing attention.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Ganan said. “Work has been done on the building.”
In any event, he said, the condition is what it is, and needs to be addressed.
“Even if we try to answer that question, there’s not much we can do,” Ganan said.