News Local/State

2nd Try For Monticello Bond Referendum To Build New High School

Architect's rendering of a proposed new Monticello High School, to be built adjacent to the middle school, if voters approve a $40.9 million bond referendum on March 15th.

Architect's rendering of a proposed new Monticello High School, to be built adjacent to the middle school, if voters approve a $40.9 million bond referendum on March 15th. Monticello Unit School District 25

Voters in Monticello Unit School District 25 will be asked Tuesday to approve a $40.9 million bond referendum to pay for a new high school building, and the renovation of the old one.

Debate over the referendum is lighting up social media in the district that covers Cisco and White Heath, as well as Monticello, extending to small portions of Champaign and DeWitt Counties. The debate also appears on the pages of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, with letters to the editor urging residents to vote “yes” and invest in future generations, and others calling on for a vote of “no”, to save those future generations from higher taxes.

In the March 9th issue of the Journal-Republican, a letter from Andrew Webb of Monticello argues for passage of the bond referendum to replace a high school building that he calls “inefficient”.

“The science labs, arts and athletic facilities all lag behind our competition,” writes, Web, referring to school districts in Mahomet and Tolono.

In the same issue, Steve Shreffler of Monticello says the proposed bond issue is a matter of “wrong time, wrong location and wrong plan.”

“I want my tax money spending on educating our children, not a grandiose new building,” writes Shreffler.

Monticello School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman says he thinks voters support some kind of upgrade for their school buildings.

“The rub is, in what form?” he says. “So, I don’t believe that everybody thinks we need a new high school. I mean, obviously since it didn’t pass in 2014, you know, a majority of voters didn’t believe it then. 

After the last referendum was defeated, Monticello school officials hired an architectural firm to come up with concept drawings for a new high school. And they signed a land purchase option agreement for a site next to Monticello Middle School to build it on.

The referendum calls for using the bond revenue to both building and equipping a new high school building at the new site, and renovating and equipping the old high school and adjacent Washington School to serve as the district’s sole elementary school. The district’s two other grade schools, Lincoln School in Monticello and White Heath School in White Heath would be closed. Zimmerman says that will save on operating costs. And he says it will allow elementary school children to stay in one school building until they’re ready for middle school. Currently, the grades are divided among Monticello’s three elementary schools, meaning children change schools every two years.

The Monticello district is also promising to find new uses for the two buildings being closed. Zimmerman says Lincoln School will be turned over to the city of Monticello, which plans to use its gym for a recreation center. And he says the district will maintain the White Heath School building until they find a new private owner.

A group calling itself Students First for Monticello Unit 25 Bond Issue has been campaigning for the bond issue; they also campaigned for the 2014 proposal, as well as the Piatt County school facilities sales tax, which voters approved.

Students First Chairman Scott Burnsmier says Unit 25 needs a new high school that will, among other things, allow for the hosting of athletic tournaments.

“We’ve always had a reputation of having great schools, but we can’t rest on the past,” said Burnsmier. “We’ve got to continue to build forward for the future of generations of kids.”

But opponents of the referendum say the proposed improvements are simply too expensive for school district property owners. If the referendum passes, property taxes would go up by an estimated $162 on a $100,000 dollar home.  The school district’s current property tax rate of $3.34 on $100 assessed valuation would rise to $3.94. And while Supt. Zimmerman says the district’s new rate would still be one of the lowest in central Illinois, it’s still too high for opponents.

An ad in the March 9th edition of the Piatt County Journal-Republican lays out the arguments against the propose bond issue. Placed by a group called Citizens For Responsible Spending of Taxpayer Dollars, it lays out the increase tax costs for homeowners and farmers. It notes that the district’s payments on the bonds are expected to continue for 20 to 25 years, while it’s still paying off bonds that financed the construction of Monticello Middle School. The ad raises questions about costs not covered by the bonds, such as additional expenses for the city of Monticello to extend water and sewer lines to the new high school, and for the demolition of the parts of the Lincoln School building that won’t be part of the new rec center.

“Let’s not pass higher taxes onto future generations” is the ad’s conclusion.

Supt. Zimmerman argues that when all is said and done, the Monticello school district’s facilities are old, and need to be managed under some sort of long-term plan. He says it was the school board’s responsibility to put the best plan they could come up with before the voters, and up to the voters to make their decision on March 15th.

“If it’s a yes, we’ll be heading down the path of a new high school,” said Zimmerman. “If it’s a no, then we’ll back up and the board will talk about new ideas.”