Arlington Heights School District 25’s $75 million referendum: Six reasons to vote no

Arlington Heights School District 25 is asking voters to approve $75 million in new spending over 20 years.  The money will be used

  • to add new classrooms to most elementary schools to provide all-day kindergarten, with the largest expansion 10 new classrooms at Westgate,
  • to expand gyms at Westgate and Dryden, and
  • to fund general building improvements, such as replacements of roofs, flooring, fire alarm systems, lighting, HVAC boilers, piping, parking lots, etc.

The district’s materials do not provide details on the split of costs among these three categories of expenditures.  What’s more, though I’ve seen additional details on such matters as future enrollment projections being shared by supporters, these are not available at the D25 website.

I am a parent in the district, and, though I (full disclosure) sent my children to the local Catholic school, I certainly believe that all children deserve a quality education — and that is already the case with D25 schools, which already offer a strong curriculum with many “extras,” provision of tech, fine arts and athletic activities.  In the run-up to the 2021 school board election, I discussed the district with parents and, outside of Covid-related decision-making, the only significant concerns I heard were a belief that kids with special needs were not being offered as high-quality an education as they should have received.

With that in mind, here are my objections to the bond proposal:

First, I do not believe that all-day kindergarten is a necessity for children educationally unless they have special needs, are at-risk due to their family situation, etc.  The regular outcry that “everyone else has it” fails to take into account the fact that SD25 is significantly different than its neighboring districts in its demographics; there are far fewer at-risk kids here in D25 than in neighboring areas with significantly more immigrant families.  When it comes to the dual-earner middle-class families which make up the largest part of the district, it is of course a cost savings to have one year less of daycare, and to avoid the logistical difficulties of half-days (day care centers typically provide transportation to nearby schools but there are challenges if one’s prior provider was located further away).  But when there are costs to be managed — and especially if special needs kids are already getting the short end of the stick, why is it more important to lighten parents’ cost burden in this one way, when other parents have costs around before/aftercare, summer care, and, of course, pre-kindergarten child care?

Second, the district’s materials vaguely reference “future enrollment growth.”  In an environment when birth rates are declining, I would be far more persuaded that D25 is an exception if they had provided concrete reasons to believe this.  There will be no enrollment growth due to new construction.  It is possible that housing cost increases may mean more families living in apartment complexes in units now occupied by singles or couples, but this is speculative.  There are no neighborhoods which are new enough for there to be a widescale turnover from original owners to new, young families — neighborhoods are established enough to be a mix of families of all types, and, if anything, family sizes are shrinking — homes which once housed a family with three kids now have two or one.  Are there reasons to believe that D25 is becoming more popular with young families and is an exception to the rule?  Maybe, but the district had the responsibility to demonstrate this rather than asking voters to take it on faith.

Third, the district plans to spend the money on a combination of new classrooms for all-day kindergarten as well as other building maintenance costs.  This is a serious red flag, and really, despite its appearance as #3 on the list, is really my top concern. These sorts of expenses should be covered by our ongoing tax money and should not require a separate referendum.  To ask for this raises a serious concern that the school district is not managing its money prudently, deferring expenses instead of planning for them.

Fourth, the district is planning to build these new classrooms without even having identified the source for the needed additional funds for the operational costs of an all-day kindergarten.  Again, this is a serious concern, especially since (no link here; I’ve been told this by a parent who has reviewed district finances) the district is already running a deficit and using reserves to cover $3 million in expenditures for the year.  Previous polling and surveys had discussed the possibility of a tuition-paying all-day extension — if that’s the case, why wouldn’t the projected tuition cover the construction costs over time?  And why wouldn’t the district share these plans?

Fifth, the district touts its status having the second-lowest tax rate of 8 neighboring districts, and the third-lowest operating expense.  But both of these will increase with the new referendum and the new kindergarten expansion, so it is misleading not to share how the tax increase will affect these.  Based on a review of our own tax bill, when it comes to tax rates, it looks like the district would become the third-highest of the eight comparator districts.  And, again, we don’t know what the operating expense will look like.

And finally, back to the educational question, my sixth concern:  I know that the “common core” demands for kindergarteners have escalated significantly even in the decade since my youngest was a kindergartner.  They are expected to be able to sound out words, and to have memorized sight words, and to be able to do “seatwork” as if they were first graders.  To reference my children’s experience, the school operated both half- and full-day programs, and I believe this expectation that the academic work for the full-day kids should not exceed half-day kept expectations in check.  Now I am seeing, from parents of D25 kids in local Facebook groups, discussions of tutoring help or summer school for children who aren’t reading at the end of kindergarten.  Pushing academics this early is especially a problem for boys, who are ready to sit down and do “seatwork” later, generally speaking, and end up medicated for ADHD when they aren’t ready for this.  Heck, many of the school systems that are touted as “top in the world” make a clear distinction and hold off on anything academic until first grade.  I am not an expert on what the district is doing, and perhaps these parents have indeed gotten this all wrong but if there’s any risk that all-day kindergarten becomes the new first grade, that’s a problem.

school bus
school bus, public domain,