Well managed debt is a critical piece of the funding puzzle for public school districts. The District 209 Proviso Township High Schools did not historically manage finances well. Six years ago the district begged the State of Illinois to impose a Financial Oversight Panel to directly manage and repair the district’s short and long-term financial mistakes.
But since 2010, the district has balanced its budget and achieved “financial recognition,” the state’s highest designation, each year.
Now with the state oversight nearing its end, there was a final hurdle to be met. The district had to fund a long, long list of critical repairs and upgrades to its three school buildings. Last week the school board made the necessary if daunting decision to issue more debt – $30 million over three years – to begin to bring these school buildings back from the precipice.
The buildings need new windows, electrical service, plumbing, flooring, tuck-pointing to keep them functional. And then there are some fundamentals like upgraded electrical that will support essential upgrades in technology so that our kids can use the same tools as their future work competitors at better run school districts.
While this was an essential step that we support it is also a limiting step as it pushes the district’s total debt load almost to its outer supportable limits. That’s because the district still carries a heavy load of debt from the overly expensive creation of the Proviso Math and Science Academy in 2004 and from the debilitating issuance of $15 million in debt to pay ordinary operating expenses including payroll in 2008.
It is when school districts begin to issue long-term debt to pay current costs that one knows there are fundamental financial landmines scattered about. That explains why the state sent in a team of financial experts to begin to slowly right this school district. And the fixes are working.
Wiring and windows will prove the easy part of this financial decision. Managing the debt over the next two decades will be the challenge.
Judy Baar Topinka, the Illinois Comptroller who died suddenly last week, often told the story of why she left journalism for politics. She said that while reporting news she regularly surfaced ways in which government and politicians were not working for everyday people. She decided to switch sides and got herself elected to the state senate in order to make such fixes.
Here at the Review we take pride in knowing that Judy Baar’s journalism roots were planted right here at Forest Park’s local paper. She was our primary reporter from 1976 to 1978. And to hear Laurie Kokenes, her Review colleague at the time, tells the story Judy was as energetic, boisterous and down-to-earth then as she was through her entire public career.
Decades later, our company bought the Riverside Landmark from Judy when she decided she couldn’t be both State Treasurer and local newspaper publisher simultaneously.
There is only one Judy Baar Topinka and we are honored to have shared a portion of the path with her.