D209 board member requests community attention
In a comment submitted to Village Free Press and Forest Park Review, Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Board Member Amanda Grant called for an immediate response from the community as Supt. James Henderson proposes the school board issue a $71 million bond to fund future building renovation projects.
“Henderson has a habit of throwing things at the board,” Grant said. “Elements that have very little planning, they have no foresight, they have no real structure, there is no accountability plan. Of all the things he threw over our heads, this has by far the greatest long-term financial consequences for the taxpayers in our county and also for the students.”
According to Grant, the submitted proposal was developed by an “outside party” who indicated that the district’s financial staff were not involved in the creation of the proposed plan.
During the school board meeting on February 14, 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 an open session for discussion only. According to Cunneen, the goal of the capital project plan is to allow the district to generate $71 million for fiscal 2024 and 2025 construction projects.
According to information presented at the meeting, $41,500,000 would be raised through bond purchases and $29,500,000 through expected Evidence Based Funding (EBF) money.
The proposed plan would use this EBF to cover the majority of the amount borrowed, as well as include a tax rebate for the next five years to avoid taxpayers having to pay the debt for the specified period. If approved, the district would commit to repaying approximately $4.5 million annually.
According to a Mesirov representative, with current lending rates at 3.5 to 4 percent, they are recommending that the board use this opportunity to lock interest rates on the bonds, as future inflation may be unpredictable after Cunneen’s approval.
“The key is that the job is done and you know what inflation has cost,” Cunneen said. “Doing it now will be a lot cheaper than doing it in three to four years.”
The proposal was praised by several board members, including Rodney Alexander, who expressed his approval.
“I don’t think people really understand the difficulty of our work. As we speak, we’re $12 million under budget on our facilities master plan,” Alexander said, adding that despite obstacles like COVID and the economy, Henderson and stakeholders have been able to find ways to deliver better services without the the community had to pay them.
Alexander could not be reached for further comment.
However, Grant said the $4.5 million rebate due to Proviso’s alleged educational attainment was too high a price to pay when students’ basic needs weren’t currently being met.
“Rather than diverting $4.5 million each year to pay down debt, the board should use that money to achieve the maximum outcome by spending it directly on things that have a proven record of leading to student success,” wrote Grant in the comment.
Grant also expressed concern about the proposal’s timeline, saying it doesn’t allow for an audit or give board or community members ample time to ask questions, a major 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 its facilities and “funding needs—driven by equity, empowerment, and excellence.” The FMP’s goals were to reflect community priorities and values, protect district assets, provide a timeline for “proactive initiation and implementation,” and maximize taxpayer investment.
According to the district’s website, the plan was led by architectural firm Perkins + Will, who identified needs and made recommendations to the board, which had received input from the community through several engagement sessions hosted by D209.
Grant, who joined the board in 2017, said members took this input seriously and were trying to create a plan that prioritized schools’ needs. Grant, who was in favor of the FMP, said it also comes with a five-year budget that envisages between $4 million and $5 million in positive income for the schools each year.
“We did all of these surveys with teachers, parents and students to see what changes were most important to them so we could tackle them first with the $70 million that we had,” Grant said. “Anything beyond that would be things that could be done over time.”
The Village Free Press previously reported that Phase 1 of the FMP had begun in 2020 and totaled approximately $5.4 million in renovations at Proviso Math and Science Academy, $47.7 million at Proviso East and $23.9 million US dollars to Proviso West.
Concern arises for Grant, who believes that the district will not be transparent in allocating new funds since the district has come under scrutiny for financial mismanagement in the past.
“There is no accountability or transparency regarding the district’s finances under the superintendent at this time and for over two years,” Grant said, adding that Henderson dissolved the finance committee in January 2021, which she dubbed “the.” Public Window” in the finances of the district.
During the February 14 presentation, Cunneen commented on how his involvement in the project would lead to accountability.
“We’re becoming integral parts of the Treasury Department, we’re going to hold everyone accountable for any expenses,” Cunneen said, adding that they will help maximize state and federal grants to bring more money into the district.
According to Grant, Henderson “engaged in extreme financial mismanagement with the support of board members Theresa Kelly, Della Patterson, Rodney Alexander, Samuel Valtierrez, and Ned Wagner,” whom she dubbed the “Henderson 5.”
As part of the alleged financial mismanagement, thousands of dollars were spent on district credit cards without transparent fees, Grant said.
“They won’t disclose what’s being spent on these credit cards,” said a frustrated Grant. “The things we get, the bill list, the account balances, those things don’t add up, they don’t add up.”
Henderson and Wagner and Patterson could not be reached for comment. Valtierrez directed any questions to Henderson or Patterson, the CEO.
Grant said that if the item is not put on the board’s agenda for a vote on March 14, she expects it to come up very soon because she believes Henderson will try to approve the proposal at risk of losing its majority vote in April’s elections.
If Henderson manages to get the bond purchase approved, Grant is confident taxpayers would see the $71 million spent without having “any real explanation” for what it’s being spent on.
With three vacancies on the district’s school board in the upcoming April 4 election, Grant is urging community members to vote, as much depends on who will fill those seats.
“I think there’s time to salvage what we have, regroup and move forward on a better path, I always believe that’s possible,” Grant said. “I believe with the right leadership that can happen, but the truth is people need integrity.”
Grant joins the Proviso 209 United roster consisting of Jenny Barbahen, Sandra Hixson and David Ocampo.
“I think they’re running for the right reasons,” Grant said. “I think they have a genuine interest in making schools better. This choice boils down to integrity. … if you don’t have integrity, it doesn’t matter. We need people who are there for the right reasons and making the right decisions to help our students.”