New Trier High School’s $89M bond issue approved for Nov. ballot

New Trier High School Board members approved placing an $89 million referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot to ask voters to fund a proposed Winnetka campus renovation.

At a special meeting Thursday, board members unanimously approved placing the question on the ballot. Until then, New Trier officials plan to keep educating the public about the needs for the renovation and gather support.

“Ultimately, this isn’t our decision,” said Board President Alan Dolinko. “The taxpayers of this community make the decision, as it should be.”

Under the proposal, New Trier would demolish the 1912 cafeteria, the 1931 tech arts building and the 1950 music building and replace them with a new, 275,000-square-foot building.

The new structure would include 20 additional multipurpose classrooms, add two elevators, address Americans with Disabilities Act issues and replace outdated heating and cooling equipment with new energy-efficient systems.

Current estimates for the total construction cost are now $100.3 million after the Facilities Steering Committee made some design changes, including decreasing the size of the freight elevator and delaying the addition of technology components to the black box theater.

New Trier’s Finance Committee has pledged using $11 million to $13.5 million in district reserves to cover costs greater than the $89 million bond issue, but board members pledged to keep the final budget close to the original $100 million estimate.

“As long as I’m here I’ll work to get it to $100.3 million or less,” Board Member Peter Fischer said.

If the referendum passes, a homeowner living in New Trier Township would pay an additional $16.67 per year per $1,000 paid in property taxes. A homeowner with a $15,000 property tax bill would pay an additional $250 per year.

Robert Leonard of Winnetka was the lone resident who spoke against the proposed referendum.

“You have $13.5 million available,” Leonard said. “That should be more than sufficient to correct the deficiencies at the Winnetka campus without tearing down half of the buildings. I urge you to not consider and not approve a referendum.”

Several speakers, however, voiced their support for the proposal, including Winnetka’s Susan Schmitt, the mother of a 2011 graduate and a junior at New Trier.

“I think it’s time we stop throwing money away at outdated structures,” Schmitt said. “My daughter, fresh out of ACL surgery, could not get to all of her classrooms. Her adviser arranged for a teacher to move her classroom. The cost of $89 million is appropriate for the scope of the plan.”

Joseph DiCamillo of Wilmette, a father of two, supported the plan, representing the group New Trier Now.

“We know if we don’t pass this referendum, we’re going to be using millions of dollars to essentially band-aid buildings that will in no way add a material benefit to the kids,” DiCamillo said. “Our view is, it’s the right time.”

Board members also addressed questions of whether to expand or move students to the newer Northfield campus. Administrators said such a plan would cost much more than the current proposal.

Though the Northfield campus (44 acres) is larger than the Winnetka campus (26 acres), the total building space is much smaller, administrators said, and significant upgrades would have to be made.

“The cafeteria is much smaller at Northfield, the auditorium seats half as many students as Winnetka and many of our specialty areas are not available at the Northfield campus,” Superintendent Linda Yonke said. “We looked at it six years ago and [such a project] was over $350 million, and I’m sure it’s only gone up.”

With the approval of placing the question on the ballot, New Trier will now enter schematic design work of the proposal with architect Wight & Co. and Pepper Construction.

The 2014 referendum comes nearly five years after the 2010 failed referendum, in which voters turned down a much larger $174 million renovation plan for the Winnetka campus. A study following that vote revealed voters felt that plan was too expensive, too large and poorly timed following the recession.

This year, however, board members are cautiously optimistic a smaller plan will be successful.

“This time, I think we’re going in with a sense there is more of a ‘Yes’ than a ‘No,’” Dolinko said. “I know there are people who are opposed to this. I would simply ask them to keep an open mind, examine the facts and get informed. This is an investment in our assets. It’s never a bad thing to invest in your assets when they need it, and they need it.”

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