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The Tax Tab: Another crack at voters

Referendum on expanding Round Lake High School

Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(David Giuliani/dgiuliani@shawmedia.com)
Round Lake High School's student body has grown by a third since 2003. Officials say the school is overcrowded.

ROUND LAKE – Residents are expected to vote again on a referendum to pay for expanding and improving Round Lake High School. And the district is giving plenty of examples about how the school is overcrowded.

Last week, the school board voted unanimously to put the measure on the ballot.

On Nov. 4, voters will decide whether to let the Round Lake Area Schools district issue bonds of $29 million for the high school. In the March election, 55 percent rejected a similar proposal.

Since 2003, the high school has grown by a third – to about 2,000 students. That number is expected to jump by another 500 students in the next five years.

School officials said the problems are not going away. Here are some of the effects of overcrowding, according to the district:

• Some study halls have 400 to 500 students.

• Half of the student body attends first through eighth periods, while the rest attend second through ninth.

• The school has six mobile classrooms and plans to double that number for next academic year.

• The limits in classroom space also mean limits in programs, including those for engineering careers.

• A class called "Walking PE," in which students walk outside, is offered because the school doesn't have enough room inside for all of its gym classes. (State law requires students take physical education.)

The district plans to refinance existing debt, a lowering of costs that would be offset by passage of the $29 million referendum, which would keep the debt service tax rate stable, said Bill Johnston, assistant superintendent of business.

The project would include 30 new classrooms, including four science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, labs. It would also feature a new gym and student common areas.

November's referendum will have a slight change in language, eliminating the word "demolish." Only a wall here and there would be eliminated, Johnson said, but the project involves no demolition. The change, he said, will reassure voters that the district has no plans to get rid of any part of its existing buildings.

With more space at the school, it will be able to offer students different types of classes, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math, Principal Donn Mendoza said.

"We don't have enough classrooms. We end up scheduling more kids in extremely large study halls," he said.

Mobile classrooms are not a good long-term solution, he said. They are less secure and hurt the collaboration among teachers – particularly those in the same department – when some are apart from the main school building, he said.

Besides, Superintendent Constance Collins said, mobile classrooms around the district send a bad message to prospective residents and businesses.

"It lets you know there is something wrong," she said.

'Problem has not gone away'

The district has a lack of space at all levels. Round Lake Middle School, for instance, was built about a decade ago and has had mobiles for a number of years already, Collins said. And the district recently decided to lease the just-closed Pleviak Elementary School in Lake Villa, where kindergarten students will go.

More so than many districts, Round Lake is highly dependent on state funds. Now, the district is receiving 44 percent of its money from state aid and 39 percent from local property taxes, with the rest coming from other sources.

But state aid, which is meant to help districts with low property values, is dropping. This year, for instance, the Round Lake district received 89 percent of the full formula for state aid, reducing the promised amount by $3 million to $4 million, Assistant Superintendent Johnston said.

With the state's pressing pension obligations, that percentage may continue to drop.

As it is, the Round Lake district has among the highest property taxes in the area. That's also the case with the Round Lake area park district. For a $100,000 house, a resident pays $3,138 for schools in Round Lake, compared with about $2,300 in Gurnee and Wauconda and $2,833.

Why is the district going to the voters again?

"The problem has not gone away. We can't just say we're not going to advocate for our kids," said Collins, who started as superintendent in 2010. "We know the way funding is set up in Illinois. We don't have options. We have go where the dollars are located."

And those dollars, she said, come from property taxes.

'Someone else picking up slack'

One of the arguments made against the referendum, Collins said, is that students haven't been successful academically. But she said student performance was on the back burner during the decade the state controlled the district's finances, which ended in 2011.

"We can't say on one side that kids aren't successful academically, and on the other side, they don't need facilities to be successful," Collins said. "I don't believe we have the option to say no. We have no other choice if we want to make sure our kids are able to compete with Lake Forest and Stevenson. They are all competing for the same jobs."

Kris Schoenberger of Round Lake Beach, who has a child too young for school, opposes the referendum.

"These houses with two or three families may have eight or 12 kids going to school," he said in an interview. "Someone else is picking up the slack. Single-family homes are meant for single families."

Schoenberger is a former community service officer for Round Lake Beach, meaning he helped police officers and enforced ordinances. In that role, he said, he saw overcrowded houses firsthand.

"I'm all for taking care of the kids. It comes to the adults and where we are messing up," he said. "Are we really managing how many people are living in a house?"

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