JSD117 Mulling New Murrayville/Woodson Building, Finances Face A Number of Hurdles

By Benjamin Cox on April 25, 2024 at 3:08pm

Jacksonville School District 117 is mulling over another major building project, but finances may slow down on when and if that may happen.

The Washington and Eisenhower Elementary school building renovations are expected to be completed by the month of June. Modular classrooms on the grounds of Jacksonville Middle School are also expected to leave the district in June, as well.

Superintendent Steve Ptacek says that there is an immediate need for special education classroom space throughout the district. The need for space is due to a large number of incoming students within the next three years who have very specific special needs. Ptacek says it has put a plan in motion to help satisfy that need: “We evaluate all of our incoming students at age 3 who are involved in our Pre-K system of who might need and require special education services in our STEP program. We normally get about one or two students a year. We’ve identified 15 students that are incoming with that need this year. That means two years from now or STEP classroom needs are going to drastically increase. Our number one facility need in the district was Murrayville-Woodson without a doubt. It’s a 1917 building that is really showing its age. The need for special education space has now trumped that.”

Ptacek hopes that the large incoming special needs cohort of students is just an anomaly and not a trend over the next several years. He says in the near term, the District 117 Special Education Department is working on where the district can create extra space and classrooms.

Ptacek offered a plan to the board of education at their March board meeting, saying that the district might be able to cover two separate needs with one big project: “If we can make it work, we could satisfy our need to deal with the Murrayville-Woodson building, and our special education needs, and this could also alleviate some of the overcrowding at Eisenhower and South while also talking about a potential area for growth in this community that would attract people to come here along the IL-267 corridor by building a new facility somewhere down around Woodson. A new elementary school would also be able to house our upcoming special education needs and then it would enable the district to close the current Murrayville-Woodson facility but have the new building remain down in that area. I think it’s a win-win scenario for all of the district’s needs and just about everyone throughout our community.”

Ptacek says that taxpayers can be assured that the new building would not be due to a property tax increase, but through the district’s revenue streams and also not require a referendum from voters due to the health-life-safety issues at the current Murrayville-Woodson building, which would be verified through certified architect evaluations and then submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Ptacek says that the district does have some financial hurdles to cross before they can undertake another major building project.

Ptacek told the Board of Education on Wednesday night that one of the district’s revenue streams, Personal Property Replacement Tax collected by the State of Illinois, has taken a major dip this year. In the last two months, the payment from the state has come in at approximately 30%-40% of last year’s total. The district’s administration did an investigation into why and suspect that the state made a mistake by giving District 117 and likely several other districts overpayments in their PPRT revenue last year.

Ptacek says if the final two payments of this fiscal year’s budget come in considerably lower, it may leave the district’s accrued fund balances at an undesirable level to do a major project. He says everyone needs to temper their expectations on getting a new school for Murrayville-Woodson because finances need to be lined up properly in order to not short-change the entire district over the long run: “I’ve been very clear. There are hurdles that are in the way. We have to have the interest rate dropped by the Fed to be able to call the 2015 bond to be able to get another bond sale. If the interest rate doesn’t drop, it’s not going to happen this year. We have to generate enough funds into our fund balance to be able to cover the difference. If those things happen, this plan [for a new school] might happen earlier. The plan is still the plan that I’m moving forward with the board in the future. The question is going to come on when it can happen. One of the goals that I have, I’ve got 3 years left before I leave, is to at least give this district, this community, and this board a plan of how to address the age of the Murrayville-Woodson building. That’s still going. Right now, there is some things that came up that could delay that plan. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen.”

The Board of Education did pass a resolution on Wednesday night that gives them the authority to call the 2015 bond for approximately $26 million to refinance for another bond sale. Ptacek says that doesn’t mean that the Board will call the bond in October or right away. He says the calling of the bond will be dictated by the fluctuation of the interest rates later this year: “I would not feel secure moving forward with borrowing for a new building project if our fund balances are not high enough. If our fund balances at the end of this year end up at $36-$37 million, I’m not going to feel comfortable taking out $15 million and moving that down to $21 million based upon all of the other factors that we have. $25 million is my lowest that I will let it go that I would feel comfortable for the stability of this school district in the long run. That’s going to need the district to have about a $40 million fund balance at the end of this year. Now, suddenly, if at the end of this fiscal year and we have $40-$41 million, does that mean it’s happening? No. We still have to make sure that the interest rates are lower like everyone predicts the Fed is going to do, which will allow us to call the bond and have another bond sale in October. It’s a juggling situation. If any one of those balls drop, we have to wait.”

In the meantime, Ptacek says smaller factors in slowing the project down could be how politics play out in the November election. A more imminent factor in the district’s fund balances could be local growth. New construction in the county and within District 117’s borders are expected within the next 2-3 years. Ptacek says that will affect the amount of property tax collection the district will receive and possibly help increase the district’s fund balances.

For now, Ptacek says the final two months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30th, will provide a clearer picture on the possibility of a new building project.