Voters need more information on proposed RB renovation

ONE VIEW

Opinion

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By JAMES L. KEEN

A bit ago the Riverside-Brookfield High School board proposed purchase of a new land site for a new school; this was later withdrawn. More recently the RB board has proposed renovations of buildings and new construction on the present site. It is indicated that some current facilities are "worn out" and should be replaced. Some estimated costs have been presented. As a one time board member (11 years) who was on the Building Committee, I have some comments.

The facility was built piecemeal over time at an original cost near $11 million. As with any facility there is an ongoing need for repair and maintenance, expected, unexpected and sometimes expensive.

The site is small; the land directly north of the buildings belongs to the Brookfield Zoo and a portion in front belongs to Riverside. There isn't much of a parking lot. There isn't any excess space near the stadium and athletic areas. The underground construction beneath some buildings is uncertain and probably surprising. It should be anticipated that the zoo, sooner rather than later, will need to reclaim the zoo property.

The current site is land locked; to the north is the zoo, to the east across First Avenue is the Forest Preserve; neither area is ever obtainable. Space to the south is across a busy local road and also not practical. To the west is already limited by the south entrance of the zoo; expansion west would be less useful than needed.

Extensive reconstruction and/or construction of new buildings would not solve the major problem of an inadequate site.

As for the facility being "worn out," I am well aware of a great deal of past funding spent for upkeep and repair of the facility to keep it from becoming "worn out" as well as to bring it more up to date. As described, much of the housing in the district is "worn out." Most residents seem to find that upkeep is more satisfactory and less costly than new construction. For many, this old construction, some as old as the school, is superior to new construction. In my opinion this is also true of much of the school.

Additionally, I doubt that construction as suggested can be done for the sum of $65 million to $85 million since cost estimates have already been increased as reported in the local newspapers. I would also anticipate unexpected costs in tearing down present buildings and in reclaiming the land as well as in operating the school during construction.

As I recall, the district operating expenses are now around $15 million annually and rising. The $65 million to $85 million for reconstruction and new construction would be borrowed; what the taxpayers repay could be roughly double or $130 to $170 million, or 10 times annual operating expenses, depending on the length of the loan, the interest rates required and the repayment schedule.

Payback over as short as 10 years, including operating expenses plus repayment of borrowed funds and interest payments could double school costs; taxes paid for District 208 by current householders could also double.

A suggestion that the tax cost per residence would be $500 annually for a $300,000 house is premature. Is the valuation market value or assessed value? How many years are involved? What happens if house values increase or decrease? Mine is only informed opinion, the RB board needs to present to district residents far more information.

Neither taxpayer by referendum nor the school board sets tax rates needed to repay borrowed funds and pay interest. Tax rates set by others will get the funds required. If house values decrease tax rates for borrowed funds will increase, if values increase rates decrease.

To the school board I would suggest that:
?Perhaps just maintaining the property as in the past, as many of us now do with our residences, is the proper course. A comprehensive list of the projects accomplished over the past 30 years to repair and upgrade the facility would be useful here.

?They investigate the possibility of consolidation with a bordering secondary district that might have room for increased enrollment and that already has an adequate site. This requires time and effort as in the school code, but it is an alternative that might not have much tax consequences. It has been considered and withdrawn in the past, but deserves reconsideration.

?As a society, we are well into rebuilding our national and statewide educational apparatus because of cost and quality. The proliferation of tutors and learning centers for helping current students shows that problems exist. Neither problems nor solutions seem to lie in bricks and mortar. Nationally we have home schooling, using the computer and Internet, alternative schools in shopping malls, the introduction of various charter school systems and a growth in the number and size of voucher and tax options.

In Illinois we have had education tax credits introduced and used and a considerable number of charter schools started. We now know we have problems: A. in the length of the school year, equitable funding, teacher pay and performance, etc., B. in curriculum; proper preparation for a technical society, etc., C. in values; too important to be entrusted to chance, and D. in the proper role of the teacher unions. These areas are not bricks and mortar.

In my opinion the education establishment is largely clueless as to what is happening. Before we spend money on bricks and mortar we should make sure the funds would be better spent elsewhere.

Nonetheless, after due diligence, district residents may well decide to fund the bricks and mortar option.

If so, the majority of all school board members everywhere are ill equipped to handle labor relations and building construction and maintenance, both important and often expensive. When board members do get experience they often then leave the board. On the other hand, their counterparts or opponents in both areas do have expertise which shows in the negotiated contracts?"to the detriment of the taxpayers.

The interests of the taxpayer and the interests of the education establishment, including the school architects and the school repair and construction businesses, sometimes do not coincide. I do hope that all members of the board have put on suitable footwear and escaped the board room to investigate all they are initiating.

With doubts, get a second opinion, cheaper than a big mistake. With unneeded work due to some state regulation, I suggest inviting local members of the state legislature to see what has been mandated to help initiate correction. I have done this myself when Jack Kubik was our state representative and Judy Baar Topinka was our state senator.

I think the board needs an influx of members familiar with building construction and maintenance. In the past with difficulties in academics or athletics or labor relations or whatever at RB there have been community members with useful knowledge who chose to run for the board, with or without caucus endorsement, to help solve the problem. A need for similar assistance seems to exist now.

As a member of the community, I do not want to hear from the superintendent or to get a "fact" sheet from a consultant for a "committee of local residents." I expect to learn unvarnished facts and opinions in the newspapers directly from all members of the board.

Our children are our only real heritage. There is a need for civil discussion, civil differences of opinion and even civil conflict about education within our communities. With good information and good debate we will get good decisions.

? James L. Keen is a Riverside resident and former District 208 school board member.

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