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7,508 voters sign petition blocking Palatine Dist. 15's $27 mil loan
By Kimberly Pohl | Daily Herald Staff

Sisters Kate, left, and Emma Vanek hold 700 pages of petitions that will put a $27 million bond sale approved by the district to a vote in November. Their mother Mary Vanek was waiting to deliver them to the board secretary.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

School board secretary June Becker, from left, accepts petitions containing about 7,500 signatures from Lisa Neal and Mary Vanek at the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 office in Palatine.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/12/2010 12:09 PM | Updated: 4/12/2010 7:40 PM

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It seemed like an impossibility given the monumental task and the minuscule amount of time to do it.

But opponents of the $27 million bond issue narrowly approved last month by Palatine Township Elementary District 15 knew not to underestimate the attention voters are giving to government spending in the midst of a recession.

In the end, organizers circulating petitions collected 7,508 signatures from District 15 residents - more than enough to force the issue to a public vote in the November general election.

"We didn't run out of signers; we ran out of time,"said Mary Vanek, one of the petition drive's organizers. "Once people became aware of what the school board is trying to do, we couldn't get people to sign fast enough."

Vanek delivered the petitions - all 834 pages of them - to the District 15 administrative office by the 5 p.m. Monday deadline. Ten percent of registered voters living in the district boundaries, or about 6,300 people, needed to sign.

Last month, District 15 approved borrowing the money, mainly for capital projects but with $10 million used to establish a working cash fund, which officials described as an internal bank account to distribute money when other funds run low.

At more than 5 percent annual interest, the 20-year bond purchase would cost taxpayers at least $51 million to pay back. And the loan would have required refunding certain bonds at a penalty greater than $5 million.

Vanek estimated between 150 and 200 people were involved in the effort, asking for signatures at the train station, grocery stores or going door-to-door. The movement gained momentum and volunteers after two information meetings at the Palatine Public Library.

"I think it's a great exercise in democracy," said board member Tim Millar, one of three school board members to vote against the bond issue. "I give huge credit to the people who organized this. I'm just floored."

Success is a rarity for similar citizen-driven initiatives, given the number of signatures needed within just a 30-day window once a school district announces a bond issue.

Doreen Nelson, assistant executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission, can't recall a single instance since taking the position in 1986.

"I can't say I've heard of it happening around here," Nelson said. "It's definitely not common."

Lake County election officials could recall just one recent situation, in which Deerfield School District 109 had proposed an $8 million bond issue for a school expansion.

Residents collected far more than the 1,706 signatures required to put the question on the ballot, and school officials ended up walking away from a referendum in February's primary election, citing too little time to explain the project to the community.

It's unclear whether District 15 can start over with a different proposal, or if it's legally obligated to move forward with the referendum. School board attorney Mike Loizzi didn't return a call seeking comment.

District 15 Superintendent Dan Lukich, who attended the National School Boards Association conference Monday in Chicago, said the board now has to decide whether to further delay much-needed physical improvements to about 20 district buildings or spend money out of the general operating fund.

"The bottom-line reason of why we were even bringing this (bond issue) forward was to lessen or lighten pretty severe cuts in the future," Lukich said. "It's hard for a school like Pleasant Hill to effectively operate with a leaky roof."

He said instead of $12 million to $15 million in budget cuts over the next four to five years, the district may be forced to cut up to $30 million if voters say no to the bond issue.

Lukich said he's most disappointed that District 15 won't be able to capitalize on Build America Bonds, or loans for capital projects in which the federal government rebates 35 percent of the interest.

There's talk of those bonds being extended into 2011, but probably not at that high a rebate rate.

"That is certainly a lost opportunity," said Lukich, who doesn't believe any school district bond issue will win over voters in November. "Some compromise could or should have been reached. It is what it is," he said.

Possible budget cuts and the bond issue will be discussed at the board of education meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday.