Village looks to reclaim building, research opening own district

By Michael S. Hoey

Correspondent

The Delavan-Darien School Board voted to close Darien Elementary School at a special meeting April 23 as a consequence of the failure of a referendum April 3. That action has caused the Village of Darien to consider forming its own district.

Village Board President Kurt Zipp addressed the board at its regular meeting on May 14 and said the community was willing to form its own district if the school district followed through on closing the school. After the meeting, Zipp said the Town of Darien and some other municipalities, some of which are not part of a school district, have expressed interest in a new district.

Superintendent Robert Crist said the closure could be a one-year closure if the district can get a referendum passed in November or even April. Zipp said the village is looking into options to have its own referendum in November to poll its voters to see if they support forming a new district.

“We are not excited about the school closing for next year,” Zipp said.

Zipp acknowledged that even if a referendum supported forming a new district in November it would be at least the 2019-20 school year before it could happen.

Board President Jeff Scherer warned that running a school district is very difficult and costs a lot of money. Zipp said he is confident the village has the people and the resources to get it done. He said the tax money that goes to the Delavan-Darien School District would remain in the village if it left the district.

Scherer said some districts serve small communities and could form a district. He said if the village thinks it can do it and it’s in the best interest of the community, it could be feasible.

Too far gone?

“They are in a financial mess,” Zipp said. “I am not sure, no matter what happens, if the district is viable.”

Zipp said he feels bad for the community because a good education system is such a necessity. He said he thinks Crist has done a good job making improvements in the education offered in the district, but the district is a mess financially.

“I am not sure how they can right the ship,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight. Decisions over the last 10 years got us into this situation, both financially and with policy.”

Zipp said the only way the village will not seriously consider leaving the district is if the district is willing to sign a long-term agreement in which it pledges to use the school in Darien for community-based education for an extended period of time. He suggested 25 years. Zipp said an oral agreement similar to that was made when Darien joined the district in the 1970s, but it was not legally tied to the deed of the school building.

“We want to be a part of the solution,” Zipp said.

Zipp said he is not happy no one from the district made any attempt to contact the village before announcing the school would be closed. He also said that as of May 17, the only conversation he had had with anyone from the district after he made his comments at the May 14 board meeting was one short conversation with Crist. He said he asked Crist if board members had any comments, and Crist said they did not at that time.

Scherer said the district could have done a better job of communicating with the village, and he did not know when or if the village had been made aware the school could be closed.

Error discovered

Crist said the reason the district never warned the village or the community Darien Elementary could close was because the decision came about so quickly. Crist said new business manager, Anthony Klein, discovered shortly after April 3 that an accounting mistake had been made by the previous business manager, Mark Powell, that put the district in an even worse financial position than it was already in. Crist said that more than $500,000 of payroll money was allocated to the wrong budget year, and the district now has to account for that unbudgeted expense. The district had to use about $600,000 of cash reserve to cover the difference.

“That was a real slap in the face,” Crist said.

Crist said that the mistake was just that – a mistake and nothing criminal – but it meant the failure of the referendum made even deeper budget cuts necessary. Crist said the district was anticipating having to send out non-renewal notices to up to 23 teachers but instead had to lay off 39. Closing Darien Elementary saved the district from having to lay-off another six or seven teachers. Crist said that decision was made during the third week of April, and the district had little turnaround time because non-renewal notices had to be issued by the end of April.

“We were behind the eight ball,” Crist said. “It was not popular, and I hated to be part of it.”

Crist said he personally doesn’t believe in closing schools because they are the lifeblood of a community, but the district was between a rock and a hard place.

Zipp said that when these kinds of things happen, the district should use cash reserves or borrow money, not make snap decisions like closing a school. Crist said nearly $600,000 of cash reserve was used, and it wasn’t enough to solve the problem because of the accounting error. The district has taken steps to borrow money from the state trust fund, but Scherer has said repeatedly that the district cannot borrow its way out of its situation. Crist called that potential borrowing a safety net only.

Loss of students

Zipp said the district needs to contact all the families that leave through open enrollment and find out why they are leaving. He said he is not confident that has been happening. If the district could win back half of the students who have left, the financial problems would go away.

Crist said the district does contact those families and fighting the open enrollment issue has been an ongoing battle for years. Crist said elementary parents seem more receptive to requests to stay in the district that high school parents.

Crist said he thinks the key to ending the open enrollment problem is to improve the district, which he believes has been done. He pointed to the new vocational education programs and this year’s state reports card, which showed the district had the best score in the area.

Scherer said the district has been working hard to solve the open enrollment issue for 10 years, and he does not know why the district does not get more support from the community.

Crist said the district is committed to working with Zipp to mitigate the possibility the village forms its own district. Klein, who is still part-time with the district until June 30, needs time to evaluate the district’s financial position. Crist said when the current fiscal year ends at the end of June, Klein, who then be full-time, will be able to better judge where the district is at. If things look positive, the board could decide to rehire teachers or keep Darien Elementary open. That would be a school board decision, he said.

A successful referendum in November or April could also make the closure a one-year solution as well, Crist said. Something related to the school could even be included in the referendum question. Scherer said he does not think the school can be kept open without a successful referendum.

Zipp said part of the process of forming a new district would be to take back ownership of the Darien Elementary building. He said the building was donated to the district for $1 when the district was formed. Zipp said he is not sure of the legality of taking the building back, but if the district is not going to use it, the village wants to. Zipp acknowledged that might come at some cost, especially since the district just recently made several energy efficiency improvements to the building.

Crist said he does not know how legal it would be for the village to try to take back ownership of a school building it gave up ownership rights to in the 1970s. Scherer also did not know.

Zipp said the Village Board would discuss the issue and the wording of a potential referendum question at its May 21 meeting.

“We have had a decent marriage with the district for a long time,” Zipp said. “But if it’s no longer meeting the needs of both parties, we should separate and take our building back.”

 
 

1 Comment

  1. Jennifer says:

    If the school district wants the referendum to succeed then they need to be transparent about everything and give valid reasons for needing this money. I would have no problem voting yes but quality education needs far outweighs a turf field or new track. One year of high test scores doesn’t exactly reflect greatness

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