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Public should vote on Dist. 15 plan
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 4/7/2010 12:01 AM

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It must first be acknowledged that proposals like that of Palatine Township Elementary District 15 to borrow $27 million - 37 percent of it for working cash - are what we get when government agencies on which school districts rely don't do their jobs.

The state of Illinois has become so unreliable in making payments that complicated fund-to-fund roulette is a fact of life for school budgeters. Late property tax transfer payments from county boards - a consistent situation for Cook County in particular - add to the shell games.

Combined with economic conditions, it's easy to understand why a district would want to do what it can to circumvent all uncertainties.

But that doesn't make every idea a good one.

District 15 aims to borrow up to $27 million through a 20-year bond purchase that ultimately will cost about $51 million to pay back. About $17 million will be used to address physical needs at district buildings. The remaining $10 million would be used to replenish the district's virtually empty working cash fund, used to temporarily distribute money when other funds run low.

The $17 million in capital projects merit debate on their own, but the working cash portion of this plan is especially troubling.

Critics, observing that the district depleted the fund once worth $33.8 million in just nine years to pay for operating costs, fear the $10 million will quickly get gobbled up. Administrators say they'd promote a resolution forbidding use of the money for day-to-day expenses.

But the issues run deeper than whether the school board, or any future board, can be trusted to stick to the rules. There are financial complications that demand extremely close scrutiny and debate, a debate stymied by a current proposal that effectively approves a huge borrowing plan without the need for a referendum.

For instance, the district must pay off existing bonds early, a move that could cost more than $5.5 million alone. How it makes sense to pay $5.5 million to access $10 million that will cost many millions more in interest is a question that needs more explaining - especially when there is at least the alternative of using tax anticipation warrants to cover the incompetence of the state and county. District 15 administrators like the permanence of working cash bonds, but they need to do more to explain why this potentially more-expensive option is worth the risk. And this is not to mention the debatable aspects of the capital portion of District 15's plan.

Critics have mounted a petition drive to force this question to referendum, and they have less than a week to get the 6,300 signatures needed.

We could not be more disappointed in the circumstances that force schools into such controversial maneuvering, but proposals of this magnitude require extended community debate. If District 15 school board members won't put this to referendum, taxpayers should do it for them.