Delavan-Darien School District considering referendum

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

DELAVAN—For the 2013-2014 school year, the Delavan-Darien School District dipped into its reserve fund to pay for staff.

At the same time, district initiatives to raise test scores, improve school climate and teacher morale began to show results.

Now, the question is how to stop using the reserve fund while continuing the successes.

The Delavan-Darien School Board on Thursday discussed the possibility of a referendum and considered other ways to cut costs.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, the board asked the district staff to draw up a referendum question for consideration at a meeting as soon as next week.

The board also made it clear it was not interested in pursuing any of the “center school” concepts proposed by the administration. The center school model would group grades in the same school.

The proposed referendum would ask the public for an additional $2 million each year above the revenue limit.

In the first year, that amount would result in an estimated $120 in new taxes for each $100,000 of equalized value. Officials stressed that those numbers were preliminary estimates.

After the first year, the impact on local property taxes would decrease as state aid increased, officials said.

The referendum, if approved, would appear on the April ballot.

The money would be used to continue programs put into place as part of a community-generated strategic plan. The plan has led to changes in curriculum, additional staff and behavioral programming.

At the beginning of the meeting Thursday night, Superintendent Robert Crist said the changes were beginning to make a difference.

“Our initiatives are starting to play out in the right direction,” Crist said. “We're almost to the crest of the hill.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Crist revisited plans for a “center school” model.

For example, one school would serve as an early childhood center. Another would house first and second grades, another third and fourth grades. Fifth grade would be moved to the middle school.

Crist laid out plans that would mothball Wileman Elementary School, the facility most in need of improvements, and then reconfigure, remodel or expand the district's current building.

School board members made it clear they didn't want to change to the center school model.

Board member Joe Peyer predicted that the referendum would fail if it was connected in any way to center schools or closing a particular school.

Parents don't like the center school model, Peyer said, and he hadn't seen any evidence that it works better than traditional schools.

"Let's not politic those two together," Peyer said.

Some parents objected to students being shuttled across the community or not being able to go to school with older siblings. Some teachers wondered if there would be enough room in the middle school to house fifth-grade students.

Along with those issues, board member Sharon Gonzalez said she was concerned with the number of major initiatives the district had already undertaken.

With so much going on, it becomes difficult to determine what is working best and what isn't working at all, she said.

"We can't unravel what didn't work if we do them all at once," Gonzalez said.

Board member Jim Hansen said the big issue is money.

If the district could show, with hard numbers, what the savings from the center school model would be, that might make a difference, he said. But those hard numbers aren't available.

The district last went to referendum in 2006, when it asked for $1.9 million to pay for boilers, locker rooms and auditorium improvements at the high school and smaller improvements at the district's other schools. That referendum passed 3,082 to 1,873.

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