In an op-ed piece submitted to Village Free Press and the Forest Park Review, Amanda Grant, Proviso Township High Schools District 209 board member, urges immediate community response as Supt. Dr. James Henderson proposes that the school board issue a $71 million bond measure to pay for future building renovation projects.
“Henderson has a habit of dropping things on the board,” Grant said. “Items that have very little planning, they have no foresight, they have no real structure, there is no accountability plan in place. Of all the things he has dropped on us, by far, this one has the biggest financial consequence, for the long-term, for the taxpayers of our district and the students as well.”
According to Grant, the proposition presented was developed by an “outside party,” stating the district’s finance staff did not have a hand in creating the proposed plan.
During the Feb. 14 school board meeting, Dr. James Cunneen, C & H Educational Consultant, and Mesirow Public Finance presented the “Proviso Township High School District 209 Financing Alternatives for Capital Projects” plan during open session for discussion only. According to Cunneen, the goal of the capital project’s plan is to allow the district to generate $71 million for the 2024 and 2025 fiscal year’s construction projects.
According to information presented at the meeting, $41,500,000 would be received through the purchase of bonds and $29,500,000 through anticipated Evidence Based Funding (EBF) money.
The plan presented would use that EBF to cover the majority of the amount borrowed as well as include a tax abatement for the next five years to avoid having taxpayers pay towards the debt for the stated time frame. If approved, the district would be committing to paying back approximately $4.5 million a year.
According to a representative from Mesirow, due to the current 3.5 to 4 percent rates on borrowing, they recommend the board take advantage of this opportunity to lock in the rates for the bonds as future inflation can be unpredictable, to Cunneen’s agreement.
“The key is that the work is done, and you know what inflation has been doing to cost,” Cunneen said. “Getting it done now will be a lot cheaper than getting it done three to four years from now.”
The proposal received praise from several members of the board, including Rodney Alexander, who vocalized his approval.
“I don’t think people really grasp the gravity of work that we are doing. We are $12 million under budget on our facility master plan as we speak,” said Alexander, adding that despite obstacles such as COVID and the economy, Henderson and those involved have been able to find ways to provide better services without having the community pay for them.
Alexander was not able to be reached for additional comment.
However, Grant said that due to the alleged state of education at Proviso, the $4.5 million in repayment is too high of a price to pay when student’s basic needs are not being met at the moment.
“Rather than redirecting $4.5 million each year to repay debt, the board should use that money to get the maximum result by spending it directly on the things proven to lead to student success,” wrote Grant in the op-ed.
Grant also expressed concern on the timeline of the proposal, saying it does not allow for any scrutiny or give adequate time for either board or community members to ask questions, a big departure from their previous master plan.
In 2017, the district initiated the Facility Master Plan (FMP) to provide a “long-term framework” for the development of their facilities and “funding needs — driven by equity, empowerment, and excellence.” The FMP had the goals of reflecting the priorities and values of the community, protecting district assets, creating a timeline for “proactive initiation and implementation,” as well as maximizing the taxpayers investment.
According to the district’s website the plan was led by architectural firm Perkins + Will, which identified needs and made recommendations to the board, which had received input from the community through several engagement sessions held by D209.
Grant, who joined the board in 2017, said members took that input seriously and tried to create a plan that would prioritize the needs of the schools. Grant, who was in favor of the FMP, said it also went along with a five-year financial plan, which provided between $4 to $5 million each year in positive revenue that would be put towards the schools.
“We did all this polling with teachers and parents and students to see what were the changes that were the most important to them so we could tackle them first with the $70 million that we had,” Grant said. “Anything above and beyond that would be stuff that could be done over time.”
The Village Free Press previously reported that Phase 1 of the FMP had gotten underway in 2020 and included a total of approximately $5.4 million in renovations at Proviso Math and Science Academy, $47.7 million at Proviso East, and $23.9 million at Proviso West.
The concern arises for Grant as she believes the district will not be transparent with the allocations of any new funds, as the district has come under scrutiny for financial mismanagement in the past.
“There isn’t currently, and there hasn’t been for over two years, any accountability or transparency in the district’s finances under the superintendent,” Grant said, adding that Henderson dismantled the finance committee in January 2021, which she called the “public’s window” into the district’s finances.
During the presentation on Feb. 14, Cunneen commented on how his involvement in the project would result in accountability.
“We will become fixtures in the finance department, we will be holding everyone accountable for all the spending,” said Cunneen, adding they will help maximize state and federal grants to help bring more money to the district.
According to Grant, Henderson has “engaged in extreme financial mismanagement with support from board members Theresa Kelly, Della Patterson, Rodney Alexander, Samuel Valtierrez and Ned Wagner,” who she went on to address as the “Henderson 5.”
Under the alleged financial mismanagement, Grant said there have been thousands of dollars spent on district credit cards with no transparency on the charges.
“They will not disclose what is being spent on those credit cards,” a frustrated Grant said. “The things we are given, the bill list, the fund balances, those things do not match, they do not add up.”
Henderson, along with Wagner and Patterson were not able to be reached for comment. Valtierrez directed all questions to Henderson or Patterson, the board president.
Grant said if the item is not placed on the March 14 board agenda for a vote, she suspects it will be coming up very soon, as she believes Henderson will attempt to get the proposal approved at the risk of losing his majority vote in April’s election.
If Henderson is successful in seeing the bond purchase approved, Grant is confident the taxpayers would witness the spending of the $71 million with no “real account” of what it is being spent on.
With three open seats on the district’s school board in the upcoming April 4 election, Grant urges community members to vote as a lot rides on who will be filling those seats.
“I do think that there is time to salvage what we have, regroup, and move forward on a better path, I always believe that is possible,” Grant said. “I believe with the right leadership that can happen but the truth is people need to have integrity.”
Grant is endorsing the Proviso 209 United slate, composed of Jenny Barbahen, Sandra Hixson and David Ocampo.
“I think they are running for the right reasons,” Grant said. “I think they have a genuine interest in bettering the schools. This election boils down to integrity. … if you don’t have integrity, it does not matter. We need people who are there for the right reasons and who will make the right decisions to help our students.”