Public Meeting Monday in Park Forest on Closing of Talala School; SD 201-U Officials to Attend.

Dr. Kara Coglianese, Talala School, School District 201-U
SD 201-U Interim Superintendent Dr. Kara Coglianese speaks before the Park Forest Village Board about the district’s plans. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Crete Monee School District 201-U plans to close five schools by June 2020. Among them is Talala School in Park Forest which educates close to 320 students who live in the Will County section of Park Forest located south of Sauk Trail. There is a public meeting on Monday, October 1 at 5:30 p.m. in the Board Room of Park Forest’s Village Hall, 350 Victory Drive. Officials from SD 201-U are expected to attend.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Kara Coglianese officially introduced District 201-U’s plan to Park Forest stakeholders at Park Forest’s Board of Trustees meeting on September 17.

“In preparing our students for a future to move forward, we really need to think about how our students are going to be prepared for the 21st Century moving forward,” Coglianese said.

The Future Ready 2022 Plan focuses on student learning in seven key areas: STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) labs, equity for all, cultural competency, technology, financial literacy, critical thinking, and global/local connections.

The district dovetailed its plan to bring about changes to student learning with its addressing its current budget crisis which includes an annual deficit of $5 million.

As Dr. Kara Coglianese and Assistant Superintendent for Business/CSBO Kenneth Surma left the Village Board meeting on September 17, eNews Park Forest posed some additional questions not addressed earlier. Interim Superintendent Dr. Kara Coglianese did not directly answer the question posed by eNews Park Forest, “Are you thinking of closing Talala?”

“That was on the facility plan at that time,” she responded.

“At that time” appeared to make reference to the district’s plan, approved June 19, 2018, by the 201-U Board of Education, revised and updated on the district’s website on July 25, 2018.

The plan states, “All elementary schools, the middle school and the building housing the Alternative Program (Monee Education Center) are affected by The Restructuring Plan.”

Current facilities will be affected as follows:

Dr. Kara Coglianese, interim superintendent, Talala School, presentation
Dr. Kara Coglianese makes her presentation to the Park Forest Village Board. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

So, that was then, in June and July 2018. What about now?

“That’s part of our discussion right now,” Dr. Coglianese replied. Moving forward, closing Talala School is still a possibility, the superintendent affirmed. When would it close? “If that plan does come through, we’re looking at two years from now.” That’s two more school years: the current 2018-2019 school year, and the 2019-2020 school years.

Is this entirely a fiscal consideration?

“It’s a little of everything. It’s mostly for equity,” she said.

What does she mean by equity?

“Right now,” she responded, “a lot of our schools, we can’t afford to put air conditioning and STEAM labs in all the schools. So, if we are going to invest in that kind of resources for our students, it’s best to have it consolidated in one area.” She said “equity” in this sense is making sure “all of our students have access.”

“It has to do with finance as well,” she continued. “We are running a deficit, so consolidation does address that need as well. So, it’s two-fold.”

Right now the school district is running a $5 million a year deficit. Any money in reserves? “We are burning through our reserves,” Dr. Coglianese said. “At one point, we’re going to run out of money. So we’ve got to do something now. We’ve been talking about facility changes since 2013. We’ve done a little bit of the middle school, but we can’t wait any longer. Now we have buildings that have life-health-safety issues that need to be addressed immediately. We either need to go out and borrow money to address those needs right now, which is still millions of dollars, or we need to invest in renovating and building.”

How much is left in reserves? For this, Dr. Coglianese deferred to Mr. Kenneth Surma, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Business/CSBO.

Asst. Super. for Business/CSBO Appeared More Certain that Talala School Would Close

Mr. Surma confirmed that the district is burning through reserves right now.

“We are,” he said. How much is in reserves? “At the end of our audit last year, I’ll give you some rough numbers, probably about $32 million dollars in reserves. Now, the thing to keep in mind about reserves, though, is that is only set at a certain point in time. So it’s in June, that’s our policy, it’s in June that we set what the reserves are. In June, we have $32 million.

“What happens during the year, because we only get our revenues twice a year, is that the reserves start going down. And so, we have to be at a point that we have enough cash so we don’t have to take out what’s called tax anticipation warrants, and all that.”

What are tax and revenue anticipation notes and warrants? According to Chapman and Cutler LLP, which has an office in Chicago::

Tax and revenue anticipation notes and warrants are frequently issued by units of local government to solve problems associated with the mismatch between the receipt of property tax or other revenues and ongoing expenditures. Typically, tax revenues are received in two primary installments during the year, while expenditures must be made on a daily basis for governments to operate. Short-term borrowings, such as warrants and notes, may be used by a governmental unit to cover deficits that may arise as a result of this timing mismatch.

Notes and warrants enable governmental units to borrow to meet cash flow needs. Federal tax laws require an analysis of a governmental unit’s cash flow needs if the borrowing is to be done on a tax-exempt basis. The need is demonstrated by preparing month-by-month cash flow estimates for the funds for which the borrowing will be made.

Mr. Surma said the district is probably two to three years away from running through all reserves, leaving the district with no funds for operations.

What kind of condition is Talala School in today?

“In 2013 an assessment was done on Talala,” Mr. Surma said. The assessment included Life/Safety, “Life/safety is done every 10 years on a facility. They come in to make sure everything is up to code, and all that, because codes change during the year. What that assessment does, then, an architect comes in and says, ‘You need to change all this. This is your approximate cost.’ In 2013 they did that. The approximate cost was $1.3 million.”

“At the same time in 2013,” he continued, “they did what was called a Facility Assessment. They looked at other things in the facility that may not pertain to life/safety, but said, ‘You know, you probably need to do this because it’s past the life cycle. Example: hot water lines throughout the entire building need to be changed out. That bill was about $4.9 million. So, total, in 2013, it was somewhere between $6 to $7 million to fix Talala.”

After these assessments in 2013, the district did no work on Talala School, Mr. Surma said. There were no improvements in the areas of life/safety, nor in the facility assessment areas.

“No, they did not do any of that work at all,” Mr. Surma said. “I shouldn’t say that,” he then said. “There’s some life/safety things that were done. But we’ve gone through those life/safety things because you have, in 2013, you have about five or six years to finish those things. Some are considered critical that you had to do right away, and all that stuff, the other one’s are not.”

“So, right now, on the books, there’s about $6 to $7 million in work that needs to be done there as a combination of life/safety and facility assessment,” he said.

Mr. Surma said the district would like to add air conditioning in all of its buildings, “Yes, so make those equitable, make all of our buildings equitable, we would want to put air conditioning in all of our facilities.”

During the Village Board meeting, Mayor John Ostenburg commented on the apparent racial disparity in 201-U’s decision-making process, closing Talala, a school in Park Forest with a largely African American population. Does the district understand the questions of racial disparity?

“I think you have to look at it a couple of ways,” Mr. Surma said. “I think one way is that it forces people to work together, to bring them together. And I think that’s one of the things that our role is, is to bring them all together, instead of keeping them separate. We’ve got to look at a situation where we’re running an operational deficit, and what’s the best thing for our kids? We feel the best thing for our kids is to bring them together, and therefore to provide equitable resources for all of them.”

Mr. Surma says other schools in the district are in worse shape than Talala School, “Crete Elementary is even worse. Balmoral [Elementary] is, and CSK [Coretta Scott King Magnet School].”

Why not put money into Talala School?

“The new facility that we’re putting up is about 144,000 square feet,” Mr. Surma said. “Talala is 40,000 square feet. So we can’t put the new facilty there. The site isn’t big enough. It’s also land-locked, so there’s really no room for expansion. A lot of it’s built on swamp too, so that’s an issue too.”

Mr. Surma said the district’s plan is to close Crete Elementary, Balmoral Elementary, Talala School, “and in the original plan, CSK also, to merge them all into two, actually, great centers”

Talala Elementary School is attended by just close to 320 students who live in the Will County section of Park Forest located south of Sauk Trail.

Again, the public meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 1 at 5:30 p.m. in the Board Room of Park Forest’s Village Hall, 350 Victory Drive.

Related: Park Forest Learns More About 201-U’s Future Ready 2022 Plan, Talala School Closure