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Disbursing the grant: DeKalb School District 428 plans to spend $7.5 million of $21.2 million grant

DeKALB – A $7.5 million spending spree is winding down in DeKalb School District 428 as officials examine what they have left of a $21.2 million construction grant.

District officials have committed $7 million of the $21.2 million grant to multiple school upgrades in the past seven months. Another $500,000 project is on deck for approval, leaving almost $13.7 million in the district’s coffers. Of that money, nearly $3.7 million is left to spend, while the remaining $10 million will be held in reserve.

The district’s recent spending, as well as the $10 million being put in saving, was prompted by recommendations from the Finance and Facilities Advisory Committee, which was formed in October 2011 to examine – among other financial considerations – how to spend the $21 million grant awarded by the Illinois Capital Development Board in 2010.

Officials applied for the grant in order to fund construction of a new high school, but the grant came in Oct. 2010, more than a year after voters approved a $110 million referendum to build the school. The referendum added an extra $270 a year to the property tax bill for a $200,000 home. It also dedicated funding for construction of Cortland Elementary School as well as repurposing the
former high school into Huntley Middle School and the former Huntley building into Founders Elementary School.

Although officials considered rebating money to taxpayers, committee Chairwoman Kathy Watkins said the district needed to keep the money for savings and improvements.

“These weren’t frill things,” Watkins said. “We took an in-depth look at all the schools in the district and their needs. These are things that if we didn’t do [them, they] would have been more expensive eventually.”

The biggest project to come from the grant will be the renovation of Tyler Elementary School, which will start the day after school ends in June. Of the total $3.5 million renovation, $3 million will come from the construction grant. Tyler was built in the 1970s as an open-concept school without walls or doors on classrooms.

Tyler PTO co-President Dawn Sibley said she appreciated the district dedicating such a large piece of the grant to renovating Tyler, which officials had considered closing in 2010.

“I think this will give students more excitement and confidence in their school,” Sibley said. “I think its just going to do wonders for the school and really boost morale.”

Other major projects include $1.5 million to launch a pilot program giving each student a tablet and upgrade the district’s technology infrastructure; $1 million for a new boiler for Littlejohn Elementary School; and $1.5 million for secure entrances at Littlejohn and Malta Elementary, upgrading technology districtwide and having an architect review Chesebro Elementary School. The district is also poised to spend $500,000 to open a pre-kindergarten center in Huntley Middle School.

Officials won’t be as willing to spend in the future, they said.

The $21 million could be gone by 2020 based on financial projections by consulting firm PMA Financial Network. The projections show the district will operate with a deficit between $1 million and $2.3 million a year if it continues to add five full-time teachers a year and legislators fund general state aid at 85 percent. At this rate, the $10 million portion of the grant in the district’s reserves will be spent by 2020.

Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Andrea Gorla cautioned that reserves would likely not dwindle as quickly because they are based on fluctuating student enrollment and state funding. District officials also plan to examine ways to curb spending.

“That picture could change,” Gorla said. “But we need to ride the wave of very turbulent financial times. We want to have a cushion so it gives us room to react.”

Although the committee also identified other heating and air conditioning needs and potential classroom additions, district officials don’t plan to touch the $3.7 million that remains to be spent, according to District 428 board President Tracy Williams.

“Unless there’s some significant need, like a boiler replacement or something like that, I just don’t see any pressing need to allocate that money to anything,” Williams said. “There are just too many unknowns.”

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