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District 233 board will consider financial proposal for science wing

Recognizing that science labs at Homewood-Flossmoor High School need to be updated, the District 233 finance committee is recommending the proposed science wing project move forward and be paid for through the sale of $20 million in tax-exempt bonds.

The full board will consider the financing proposal at its March 15 meeting. The board would be taking action now to get the benefit of low interest rates, although under the plan the board would have three years to spend the money.

At the finance committee’s Feb. 25 meeting, members Gerald Pauling and Steve Anderson voted to advance the bond sale to the full board noting the benefit to students and a financing plan that won’t increase taxes. Committee member Pam Jackson said she couldn’t make that commitment, saying she had to study the issue.

“I’m not comfortable. I just feel like there’s too many variables … borrowing money when we don’t need it,” she said. “I just think this project could go one way or the other. We did the fine arts project, we took a lot of things out. I just don’t know.”

“I guess I’m comfortable on the other side,” Pauling said. “We have to do something with our science building. We have to. One hundred percent of our students are going to be in there. We’re putting them at a disadvantage to not do anything, so we absolutely have to do something in there. And to know that and to not make provisions to have the money” makes him uncomfortable.

Superintendent Von Mansfield pointed out that the board’s hesitancy to move forward with the fine arts wing when it was first presented cost the district an additional $4 million in interest payments because the market changed. That project was paid for from the district’s financial reserves.

He said the district has always watched its finances. He believes this project would be done similarly to the district’s financial plan for the field house.

“So this is the same strategy, the same move forward that we’re talking about. And it’s not additional monies to our taxpayers. They’re going to continuously extend (the debt service) where they are now,” Mansfield added.

Anderson said the financial package is meant to “be thoughtful and proactive on new money options, to take advantage today versus a year-and-a-half from now when the project is ready. I feel like it’s an investment in our kids and our future. I think that investment is worthwhile.”

Mansfield said the board’s decision to make the improvements would “put our kids in the best position, which is what we’ve always done. I feel a strong responsibility to that curricular standpoint. Our kids are going to be more and more at a disadvantage. That’s why it’s hard administratively to not recommend this to the board.”

The superintendent said administrators have known of the needs for some time and have been visiting other schools, including in Lockport, Lake Zurich and Palos Heights, to see how their science labs have been updated. The H-F science space dates from when H-F was built in 1959. Labs have been updated, but they are not meeting the needs of 21st century learning.

The proposal calls for building a science wing onto the South Building. In November, DLA Architects gave the finance committee a first draft for construction. This month science faculty are being surveyed for their input on the plan.

Once the new wing opens, space currently used for science labs would be redesigned for other uses. The estimated cost is $16.5 million for the science wing and $3.5 million for the renovating the current space used for sciences. It is estimated the bonds would be paid off in 2033.

The finance committee heard from Robert Lewis, a consultant with PMA Securities LLC, on how best to cover the cost.

He said the plan is meant to give the district “flexibility to be proactive” despite the market’s volatility. The rules for tax-exempt bonds are “to have reasonable expectation to spend 85% or more of the proceeds in three years,” Lewis said, adding the bond sale planned for May could have a six-month delay.

He estimated the board’s bond and interest levy would remain the same because the district has managed to cover its interest and principal payments and still abate taxes to property owners.

The proposal also allows for taxpayers to petition for a referendum on the question. If the District 233 school board agreed to start the process for a bond sale, petitions signed by at least 10% of registered voters would need to be presented to the board by April 18.

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