Responsive image

Dear Neighbors,

The "Better Plan" campaign believes that defeating the $90.6M referendum on April 2 is only the first step in improving our schools. Now we urge everyone, including those who voted yes on April 2, to come together to deliver a better plan to the community.

We reject the idea that the referendum defeat is simply due to taxpayer fatigue. The significance of the defeat, with almost a 2-1 margin vote against the plan, indicates a leadership problem. How could the two-year process result in a plan with such low community support? We know that outside consultants told the District the community was complacent with existing facilities and to expect resistance at the ballot box. An examination of the process and culture that drove the referendum planning should be done to prevent wasting taxpayer money and precious time on extravagant plans in the future.

The District can rebuild goodwill by acknowledging and tackling the real issues facing the District. As a start, we urge a serious effort to understand enrollment decline, which is more than 50% higher than in surrounding districts. And we expect the District will use excess reserves to address existing deferred maintenance issues while constructing a new plan to fund necessary repairs and upgrades to our neighborhood schools.

We moved to Winnetka for excellent schools. We accept the slow pace of public reform and the challenges of bringing together diverse opinions. Those who voted both for and against this referendum can be united in moving forward.


Better Plan Winnetka

How to Vote

Polling Centers

Winnetka Residents can find their polling center here. Polling centers will be open April 2nd.

Early Voting

You can vote as early as March 18th. Nearest early-voting polling place is Centennial Arena in Wilmette

Mail-in Vote

Vote by mail now here!

Why do we need a better plan?

Additional Info

Members of the Winnetka community have conducted extensive research regarding the upcoming April 2nd referendum. Please click any of the following fields to further explore referendum topics.

Property Tax Increase

If passed, this referendum is estimated to cost Winnetka property owners an additional $1,352 per $1 million fair market property value for 20 years. The total first phase of the project is $100.6 million, comprised of $90.6 million bond plus $10 million from reserves. The total cost of this referendum to taxpayers is $140 million in bond + interest payments.

There are four ways of looking at the $100 million:

  1. It would be the largest referendum passed in the history of Illinois for an elementary school district.
  2. $100.6 million is 3x the cost of the new Sunset Ridge School on Willow Road in Northfield, which cost $28 million.
  3. The 2014 New Trier referendum was $89 million in bonds, almost the same size as the Winnetka D36 project. But for Winnetka residents, the share of the cost is significantly different. The New Trier cost was spread over 20,000 Township households, a cost of $5,000 to the average taxpayer. The Winnetka D36 referendum will be spread over only 4,100 households, for a total average taxpayer cost of $27,000 per home.
  4. Consider that District 36, over a 22 year period, wants to spend $196 million on facilities alone: $47 million in 2007 + $100.6 million 2019 + $49 million to complete the 10 year Master Facility Plan. For a district that serves about 1,600 children, $200 million in facilities investments is extraordinary.
District 36 Financial Philosophy

Winnetka taxpayers have a strong tradition of financially supporting educational excellence. When Winnetka D36 financial mismanagement resulted in overtaxation of approximately $40 million over a ten year period from 2003-2013, the School Board established a sound new financial philosophy to preserve taxpayer goodwill:

We believe long-term educational excellence is based on the following principle: When the schools don't need money, the community can trust the School Board not to ask for it. When the schools do need money, the School Board will trust the community to provide it.

A summary of over-taxation and the ensuing financial philosophy can be found here.

The referendum vote is timed just before Winnetka residents were to receive a significant tax break based on the abatement of those excess taxes. In the months leading up to the referendum vote, Winnetka District 36 has widely publicized that voters should examine the tax rate if the referendum passes compared to the past rate, which was a rate of overtaxation. In short, shame on the District for not being transparent with the community.

Lack of Transparency

The "incremental" debt impact in online tax calculator is misleading because of scheduled debt elimination

  • Existing debt to be repaid by end of 2021 - six years ahead of original bond obligation
  • Early partial debt repayment scheduled by the D36 Board in response to its discovery that the District had overtaxed residents by $40M from 2005 to 2013. See Board presentation here.
  • Average $4M excess taxes from 2005-13, nearly 15% of D36 tax revenues
  • Without proposed referendum, taxes would have dropped by ~ $1,000/ yr per $1M of home fair market value
  • Actual cost of referendum for 20 years is estimated at $1,352/ yr per $1M of home fair market value after existing debt is repaid

The District's estimated tax impact calculations reference only high debt expense years.

Total annual D36 debt spending has increased substantially since the '07 referendum:

  • The District uses the recent inflated payments in their presentations and tax impact calculator, which do not represent a sustained historical level.
  • The forecasted $6.4M annual debt payments substantially increase annual debt costs up to 60% over 2007 referendum levels.
Imbalance Crisis

How can there be facility overcrowding with declining enrollment? Mismanagement. This situation can be solved with zero-cost solutions.

District 36 is not at maximum capacity

As part of its Master Facility Plan, the District has established new capacity limits for schools based on "optimal" and "maximum" classroom sizes and extended day kindergarten at all three elementary schools. Without renovations or expansions, the District has sufficient capacity for current K-4 (and enrollments are expected to continue to decline in the future).

Even as D36 enrollment continues to decline, students in the District are not evenly distributed across the three elementary schools. Based on the District's established attendance boundaries, 42.6% of K-4 students live in the Crow Island district, 25.7% in the Greeley district, and 31.6% in the Hubbard Woods district. Changing district attendance boundaries to more evenly distribute students is a no-cost solution to the imbalance problem.The District has indicated it will redistrict even if the April 2 referendum is not approved,

Extended day kindergarten has made the District's imbalance problem worse

  • Extended day kindergarten, implemented by the District in 2017/18, effectively doubled the number of classrooms needed to serve kindergartners in each school.
  • At the same time, the District did not change attendance boundaries to redistribute students more evenly across all three elementary schools. Instead, the District pulled kindergarten out of Crow Island and sent those students to Greeley or Hubbard Woods.
  • One of the primary reasons for the current enrollment imbalance is that D36 did not redistrict before rolling out extended day kindergarten.

With its huge impact on D36 facilities and resources, D36 administrators and School Board members should have delayed the decision to implement extended day kindergarten until after the Master Facility Plan was completed.* By delaying the decision, imbalance issues and capital expenditures resulting from extended day kindergarten could have been carefully evaluated in the context of the entire facility plan. This would have allowed administrators and the School Board to pursue the priorities and projects that would benefit the greatest number of D36 students.

Crow Island is at its lowest enrollment since the mid-1980s

  • According to its Historic Structure Report commissioned in 2017, "the original design of Crow Island equipped the building with a remarkable degree of flexibility in its response to enrollment fluctuations and programmatic changes for more than seven decades."
  • The highest enrollment at Crow Island was 627 students in 1967. Most recently, Crow Island experienced an enrollment bump in the early 2000s. Enrollment was 403 students (2003/04), 411 students (2004/05), 413 students (2005/06), and 427 students (2006/07). Despite these high enrollments, classroom sizes were kept under 21 students, and administrators deployed low cost solutions to space constraints by repurposing music and Spanish classrooms.
  • In 2017/18 - the year kindergarten was pulled out of the school - the District added, at a cost of $350,000 for installation and $100,000 for a four-year rental, two mobile classrooms at Crow Island to accommodate Spanish and music class space.
  • Today, enrollment at Crow Island is 309 students - the lowest number of students at the school since 1986/87.
Shrinking District

Enrollment has declined nearly 20% since 2006; the District is projecting future decline through 2026.

A concerning fact if that Winnetka enrollment decline exceeds surrounding districts. While the District demographer has explained there is a widespread birthrate decline, our enrollment decline exceeds surrounding districts and outpaces previous projections. Since 2008, Wilmette enrollment has declined 2% and Glencoe has declined 13%.

Further, the 2007 $47 million referendum was based on expectations of enrollment growth, which never happened. Most of those funds were spent to expand Washburne, which is now at 38% capacity.

A 2016 District study projected a loss of 70 students from 2015-2020 and another 120 students from 2020-2025.

No Fiscal Discipline

At $23,000 per pupil, current District operating costs are 54% higher than in Wilmette and 18% higher than in Glencoe. The Village's annual budget notes that Winnetka D36 takes up the largest (and fastest growing) percentage of property taxes paid by residents.

The Village's annual budget notes that Winnetka D36 takes up the largest (and fastest growing) percentage of property taxes paid by residents.

Winnetka District 36 has a high relative operating cost per student for New Trier feeder schools. Although D36's enrollment falls between the more efficient Wilmette and Glencoe school districts, its operating costs are similar to much smaller districts:

Winnetka D36 has the highest percentage of debt to expenditures of all the feeder districts. Currently, debt expense is about twice that of the other districts.

High Debt Risk

Winnetka D36 debt payments already far exceed neighboring districts, with proposed increases widening that gap.

  • D36 debt payments increased due to 2007 $47.3 M referendum
  • Current debt payments exceed neighboring districts by $3-4 M per year
  • Proposed $6.4M annual payments (top line on graph) through 2041 will further widen the gap, leaving fewer tax dollars for teachers and learning initiatives

If approved, referendum debt will leverage the District to 94% of the limit.

  • The table below shows the debt limit established by Illinois School Code and compares that limit to the proposed $90.6M debt.
  • That debt actually would have put the D36 above the limit in the most recent four of eight years- shown in red.
  • Such high leverage leaves little flexibility for the District to access debt for unforeseen expenses, emergency purposes, or to update and maintain Skokie School to be suitable for community rental.
Wants - Not Needs

Nearly $60 million of the FutureReady project is slated for non-essential "additions and renovations" at a time when enrollment is declining and Winnetka District 36 facilities are operating below capacity. This unnecessary facilities spending will crowd out spending for future educational needs and services.

The District lists three priorities driving the plan. As a way to assess the importance of these priorities, consider how each area meets the standard of being a "need" versus a "want."

Priority One: "Facility Repairs and Upgrades" account for $39.8 million of the total $100.6 million project.

Aging facilities need repair and some upgrades. There should be spending on necessary repairs. And a case can be made that some upgrades are reasonable, such as $11 million for HVAC upgrades as a response to climate change. Winnetka has always invested in its facilities and should continue to do so in the future.

Priorities Two and Three: "Enrollment Balancing" and "Vision for Teaching and Learning"

The next two priorities drive $58.9 million of the plan. The majority of the funds go to expansions and renovations at Washburne ($42 million), and Crow Island ($14.5 million).

Due to plummeting enrollment, the District does not need to expand facilities. At Washburne the plan includes building a new wing to house Grades 5 and 6. At Crow Island the plan includes building three new classrooms. The District's current facilities, per the District's own capacity metrics, are sufficient for both current and projected enrollment levels.

Voters should scrutinize the expensive design elements that are part of the plan driven by a new "Vision for Teaching and Learning." A list of new facility features are here.

Basic metrics show that this plan is both expensive and excessive relative to current school building practices:

  • At $318 per square foot, spending on Washburne renovations far exceeds the average cost for a new middle school of $243 per square foot.
  • Classrooms are expanded to 950 square feet from 700 square feet.

Shockingly, the research that the District offers to support this new facilities vision undermines their plan for expensive spending on facilities:

The District cites a study from England. This study finds that flexible school design explains a modest "16% of the variation in learning progress over a year." Ignoring the fact that the study is not a particularly good fit for Winnetka as it includes a very diverse student population and a range of facility ages (some dating to Victorian England), its findings contradict high spending:

"A very positive finding is that users (teachers) can readily action many of the factors. When the pilot results of the HEAD study were aired in 2013 the Department for Education said, 'There is no convincing evidence that spending enormous sums of money on school buildings leads to increased attainment'. However, these final results, based on a five-fold increase in the sample, show that small changes costing very little, or nothing, can make a real difference; for example, changing the layout of the room, the choices of display, or colour of the walls."

Another rigorous and controlled U.S.-based study on facility invesment concludes, "Overall, we find little evidence that school capital campaigns improve student achievement."

Finally, per the first line of the new District 36 Vision, "The Winnetka Public Schools community empowers every student to flourish in an innovative, experiential environment." This new vision deserves scrutiny, especially because it diverts enormous public resources to facilities instead of to teachers and educational services. In short, although interesting and provocative to think about redesigning the District's classroom spaces, the educational value of these innovations are unproven at this time.

The priorities "Enrollment Imbalancing" and "Vision for Teaching and Learning" are most definitely a want not a need.

Facilities in deplorable condition? Lead in water and ADA noncompliance?

For years, the District has reported on school repair needs and in particular the Districtís water quality levels and ADA compliance. In addition to annual capital spending, The 2007 $47.3M referendum included $14M to "update all buildings to current ventilation, plumbing, electrical, and other standards".

The District has never been short of funds to address any important legal or health/safety issue. Reminder: the District accumulated almost triple the cash reserves necessary per our own guidelines. Funding has never been constrained, especially for life/safety issues.

The District has reported it is postponing some repair and renovation work for efficiency - if there is to be major renovation to facilities, all the work will be done during that time.

Water Lead Testing: Here are District reports about water quality and in particular lead in the water. Starting in 2016, in response to a national focus on the dangers of lead in water, the District began proactively testing water quality. Per the District, "Immediate corrective action was taken in order to address any fixtures where lead was detected." In the most recent testing, in May 2018, of 273 samples 10 measured above state standards. Per the report, immediate corrective action was taken.

ADA: Thirty years since ADA was passed in 1990, we fully expect our District to be in compliance. Our research confirms there are some wheelchair/disability inaccessible areas that are to be addressed. The District has plans to remedy whether or not the referendum passes. Per the District, delays to these renovations has been about efficient timing and spending, not about a lack of funds.

We've been here Before

Loss of Institutional Memory

In 2007, Winnetka voters approved a $47 million referendum to "finance a comprehensive capital plan for all of our five schools." The Winnetka School Board stated that $14 million was undertaken to "update all buildings to current ventilation, plumbing, electrical and other standards."

Recently, taxpayers rejected New Trier High School's high cost facilities referendum but approved a more reasonable second plan.

Big Picture Perspective

$60 million on non-essential projects is not as urgent as other demands facing Winnetka taxpayers. Click on the following headers to read more:

Bring Us a Better Plan

A Better Plan is focused on needs not wants. Winnetka taxpayers expect to invest to maintain aging neighborhood schools but reject expanding facilities and expensive unproven design renovation in a period of declining enrollment.

A Better Plan must be much lower in cost, because a $90.6 million bond referendum puts D36 close to the State of Illinois debt ceiling and will crowd out future spending on teachers and educational services.

Using the District's cost estimates, a Better Plan will be closer to $40 million, which means a $30 million bond referendum, or one-third of the cost of the current plan.

A Better Plan Addresses Facilities Repair and Upgrade Needs

  • Health Life Safety Code required projects
  • Safety and security enhancements
  • ADA accessibility upgrades
  • Electrical and plumbing upgrades
  • General maintenance, per the annual facilities assessment plans

A Better Plan would also address the following needs:

  • Skokie maintenance. Currently, no funds are allocated in the referendum to ensure necessary repairs at Skokie. It is highly concerning that the District has not allocated any funds to Skokie as no repairs will render this important asset useless in any future scenario, whether for District use or for an external tenant.
  • HVAC upgrades as a response to climate change (expected cost: $11 million)
  • Cafeteria expansion at the elementary schools due to increased lunch attendance (expected cost: Crow Island $1.7 million, Greeley $0.9 million, Hubbard Woods $1.7 million)

A Better Plan Offers No-Cost Solutions

  • Redistrict to address enrollment imbalances at Crow Island
  • Revert to space use standards from 5-10 years ago which include: flexible class sizes when needed; assigning Specials (Spanish, music, etc.) permanent classroom space if available. Mobile classrooms are not needed at Crow Island if space use reverts to previous space use standards.
  • Reconsider the necessity of extended day kindergarten, given its impact on space, attendance boundaries, and school enrollments.

A Better Plan Rethinks Grade Configuration

Per the District's redistricting committee, there are good options for configuring grade levels that do not require expanding facilities:

  • For now, Skokie can house Grade 5. This would not result in major additional cost to the short-term plan, as Skokie is expected to remain open as an alternative site during construction at other schools. Research provided to the Redistricting Committee confirms Grades 6-8 is a natural developmental grouping for middle age students as it is not ideal to have fifth graders in a middle school setting.
  • Move Grade 6 to Washburne now. Per the District, Washburne has an "optimal" capacity of 798 students and a "maximum" capacity of 1044 students. Currently, Washburne is at 38% capacity. Washburne can easily house Grades 6-8 now, and it has already been updated and expanded after the $47 million referendum in 2007. Washburne has A/C, state of the art laboratory classrooms, and expanded gym and multi-purpose spaces.
  • Consider two longer-term options for Grade 5. As enrollment continues to drop, the elementary schools can be reconfigured to house Grades K-5, especially if the District moves away from extended day kindergarten. If housing Grade 5 at Skokie or the elementary schools is not viable, there is still room for Grade 5 at Washburne without expanding the facility. To limit fifth graders' interactions with upper grades, administrators can be creative with lunch and recess schedules.
About us

We are a group of Winnetka residents who moved here for excellent public schools. We support investment in our schools and we have children who attended Winnetka District 36 schools. Our volunteer service includes past service on the School Board, Winnetka Caucus, the Strategic Plan Committee, Redistricting Committee, Future Plan Core Team, and PTO.

Contributors and editors for this site include Katie Scullion, Connie Henry, Jen Grow, Carolyn Yoch, and Marcus Wedner.