District 709 Superintendent Hall pleased with town hall meeting

Steve Stein GateHouse Media Illinois

MORTON — Urgent needs at Lincoln Elementary School and in the band room at Morton High School and Morton Junior High School would be addressed by Phase 1 of a facilities improvement plan proposed by the District 709 School Board.

No property tax rate increase would be needed to pay for the work.

So why, a student asked Superintendent Lindsey Hall during a town hall meeting Nov. 2, are people passing out and signing petitions to put a $2.35 million working cash bond issue that would help pay for Phase 1 on the March 15 ballot?

After loud applause died out from an audience of about 300 that overflowed a meeting room at the district office, Hall explained what didn’t make sense to her young questioner.

“The petitions are a legal mechanism available to people,” she said. “Some folks feel that any kind of debt the district wants to take on should be approved by voters.”

The K-12 district plans to pay for Phase 1, an estimated $5 million project, with $3 million in working cash reserves and the working cash bond, essentially a line of credit.

The district has used working cash bonds to pay for facilities work for years. The difference with the $2.35 million bond, Hall said, is bond payments would be made for five years instead of two.

A group that informally calls itself “Our Voice Is Our Vote” is circulating petitions and has until next Monday to file them.

About 1,500 valid signatures — 10 percent of the district’s registered voters — are needed to force the School Board to decide if it wants to put the bond issue on the ballot or explore other facilities.

As of Sunday, the group had gathered about 1,300 signatures. Two speakers Monday said they’d been misled by group representatives and wanted their names taken off a petition they had signed.

Phase 1 work includes adding three new classrooms, a new 7,000-square-foot gymnasium, new restrooms and a new storage area at Lincoln, which has an enrollment of 515, and addressing space and acoustics issues in the band rooms.

Band teachers must wear earplugs because of the noise levels in the rooms and the programs are growing.

High school marching band director Jeff Neavor said there are about 160 students in the band this year. The number is expected to climb to 215 by the time the current freshmen are seniors.

A large number of marching band members and their parents attended Monday’s meeting.

There are about 120 seventh- and eighth-grade band members this year at the junior high school practicing in a room designed for 38.

Phase 2 of the facilities plan also was discussed. It would require voter approval in March of a $7.5 million building bond referendum and would address issues at the district’s other three elementary schools.

Current projections show owners of homes valued from $100,000 to $300,000 would pay an additional estimated $59 to $180 per year for seven years if the referendum passes.

Lincoln, Grundy and Lettie Brown elementary schools are all crowded and dealing with a state mandate for daily physical education classes. An empty classroom is being used for PE at the three schools. Jefferson Elementary School’s gym is sufficient.

“I’m not here to change people’s minds. I just want to provide accurate information,” Hall said. “But I hope you like our facilities plan because we’re running out of space for our kids.”

In answer to other questions, Hall said she didn’t know how job losses at Caterpillar Inc. will affect district enrollment, there was no guarantee Lincoln would have all-day kindergarten immediately after Phase 1 was completed, and that Phase 1 and Phase 2 address only short-term facilities needs.