District 428 needs a new elementary school, and has decided on a so-called “rent to own” deal for NIU’s School of Nursing to get it. This is based on a reading of state law that says a school district can do renovations on a building without a referendum if leasing it. Here are three reasons it’s a bad idea.
1. There’s no such thing as rent-to-own. Illinois school code now permits a school district to renovate a building it’s leasing for safety and functionality. However, transcripts of hearings on the legislation that allows this shows there was concern that a school district might try to accumulate funds to buy a building outright without a referendum. So the rule is a district can use tax levy funds for renovation without voter approval if they’re leasing, but at the point it decides to purchase without voter approval, it must use non-levied funds such as grants, donations, or proceeds from the sale of other school property. Bottom line, the scheme is legally dubious and risks a court challenge.
Moreover, both District 428 and NIU know this, as shown by their agreement to use the term “acquisition” instead of “purchase” when talking about the deal.
2. The School of Nursing is not best choice for the planned use. District school board member Jeromy Olson was absent for the final vote on the deal, but earlier this year indicated his opposition to the plan, saying, “It just seems like you’re throwing good money after bad there…It’s not flexible enough; It’s not big enough…There’s structural issues. I think it’s going to inhibit a lot of things. There are not a huge amount of savings.” Has anyone seriously challenged these assertions? It’s breathtaking to think the district would agree to clean up NIU’s mess just to avoid the voters, especially now that a donation of 12-plus acres to District 428 promises so much more.
3. NIU has issues of its own. In September 2022, NIU declared the School of Nursing surplus property when it became confident the school district would accept the deal. Unfortunately, they jumped the gun. The state has set conditions for declaring a surplus: the building must be vacant, no longer required by the university, and of no foreseeable use in the future. The School of Nursing was still operating in its Normal Road location at the time the surplus was declared and it’s still open there, so the conditions haven’t been met. The state conceivably could reverse the surplus designation for not following the rules. Then what?
As you can see, when the primary motivation is to avoid taking a proposal to the voters, bad decisions result. This sketchy scheme is a prime example. District 428 should run a referendum to see if the public will support a new elementary school on the donated land. If not, perhaps then the School of Nursing could pose some sort of acceptable (i.e., transparently legal) alternative as a Plan B, by that time relocated and never to return to the original building — and therefore, properly surplus by the book.
Edgar County Watchdogs: School districts using “lease” to avoid the legal requirement for referendum to build new school