Wednesday, August 30, 2006

An Interview with Dr. Kristen School

Interview by Todd Kuzma

Dr. Kristen School is a familiar name to those who follow local news. In 2004, she became the superintendent of the Waltham Elementary School District and inherited a district still reeling from the recent annexation of the Utica School District as well as a school damaged by the April 20 tornado. Since then, she has actively tackled issues like tax increment financing (TIF), developer impact fees, and Ameren's plan to run a new high-voltage power line near several schools.

TK: When did you come to Waltham?

KS: This will be my third year.

TK: So, you started . . .

KS: In ’04.

TK: After the tornado?

: After the tornado.

TK: And after the consolidation?

KS: Yes. We had been in the annexation for one year.

TK: OK. What has the effect of that been on this district and has it had any political implications?

KS: Oh, certainly. Having not been here at the time of the annexation, it’s somewhat difficult to know where people were at, whether they wanted it or didn’t. I know that there were many surveys done, and I know that there is a long history of how it came to be for both the Waltham School District and the Utica School District. Certainly, there are political implications, and I think that some of those will never go away. I don’t mean to slight anybody in any way, and I don’t mean for it to sound very simplistic either, but it was a good decision for the Utica school district, and it was a good decision for the Waltham school district.

It’s going to take a while for us to get to that point where we think as one because it’s still not here. Every once in a while, something comes up that just kind of goes back to when things were separate. I think it’s going to take a while, and I think time, honestly, will be one of the things that just sort of helps to erase that. I don’t think it will ever completely go away, but I am somewhat idealistic in believing that you just have to continue to push forward and get folks on board to doing what’s best for the school district--whatever it’s called, whoever is a part of it, whatever it’s going to look like in the future.

TK: OK. You’ve been fairly active in the discussion about TIF districts and impact fees. How do you think these financial considerations affect Waltham?

KS: As a new superintendent, I can honestly tell you that I had never even heard of TIFs prior to coming to the Waltham School District and taking this position as superintendent. As with lots of things, you may know a little about it, but you do whatever you can to educate yourself. So, I dove right in. The Waltham School District was basically the leader in LaSalle County with the most TIFs. Perhaps we’re not at this point, we might be neck-and-neck with LaSalle and others are creeping in, but that’s not exactly a spot of honor to have as many TIFs in place as we do. I’m grateful that there was foresight and forethought with the Utica TIFs in that there were some plans put in place to quote “make us whole,” although that phrase is very much misleading. To some degree, there was some forethought there and folks looking out for us. The same did not hold true for one of the TIFs in LaSalle, that revolving around JC Whitney, and, again, as I understand it, there were promises made and things just did not end up happening. So, I think it’s always best to make certain that you get everything down in writing.

TK: We’re expecting some population growth in the district in the coming years. So, how will that affect the capacity of the district, and what options do you have for handling that growth?

KS: With regard to TIFs, it’s just been a recent discovery to me the huge impact that TIFs actually have on our bonding capacity, and that, in turn, leads to a limited amount of options that we have for growth. Right now, we are sitting in a position where we have two classrooms that aren’t used every day in this building [Waltham South] and one classroom, possibly two, that aren’t used every single day, every period of the day, in the other building [Waltham North]. If, at any time, we need to split one or two classes, those rooms are gone. They become used rooms. So, the potential for growth is there. It’s creeping in. It’s coming in a house or two here, a house or two there. I don’t mean for this to sound as if it’s a negative thing, but the threat of large subdivisions coming in is here. If something like that happened, it’s a whole different story as to where we would need to go and what kinds of plans we could put in place.

This growth that’s happening on an incremental basis is a scary position to be in because you don’t know how quickly it’s going to come. Nothing ever comes evenly spread across all the grade levels, and, unfortunately, we’re hit with larger pockets in certain grades and so forth. So, we’re almost between a rock and a hard place. The options that have been discussed in the past have been looking at this building, which is the South building, and we’re landlocked. We don’t have any options because of the floodplain. We don’t even have any options, really, to utilize any of the space within our area that we own right at this point in time. So, the growth is going to be what it’s going to be at this particular building. The only option, real option, we have is something occurring at our North building or picking a different site.

Going back to the impact of TIFs and our funding, bonding capacity, it’s all based on a percentage of what your equalized assessed valuation [EAV] is. You, by law, can only ask for 6.9% of what your total EAV is. The problem then comes back to how much it actually costs to build an addition, to build a building, or to purchase land. It’s not as simple as going to the taxpayers and asking for those dollars. You have a maximum ability that you can actually ask for. So, our options are now limited. On top of it, the way that a TIF impacts it, even in a more negative fashion than the obvious 23-year period that we aren’t receiving money or, I should say, our money is being used elsewhere, is that we take 6.9% of our EAV but the TIF portion is taken out. So, you have more spread among less EAV because the TIF portion of it is taken out.

TK: If you wind up having more kids in the district than you can handle in the buildings that currently exist and if you find that you don’t have the ability to bond for enough to add on or build a new building, what are the options then?

KS: I think our community really does not understand the dire situation that we are in because exactly what you described is truly what we are faced with right now. The only options available to us at that point in time would be to look to someone to annex or consolidate with. Given the fact that there are others in a similar boat as us with not having a great deal of space, certainly having financial difficulties, whether it be TIF-related or not TIF-related, it’s going to be a tough thing to do to even find somebody who would be willing to take us. If you throw into that all the TIFs that incorporate our area, we’re not going to be such a great catch either. It’s just not somebody looking to you to annex in with them. They look at your financial situation. They’re going to look at your EAV and all those aspects.

TK: So, if another district that were in a similar financial situation, if you were to annex with them you’re not really improving your overall position.

KS: Correct.

TK: And if you try to annex with a district that has a very good financial position, there’s not much in the deal for them.

KS: Correct.

TK: So, you’re between a rock and a hard place.

KS: Between a rock and a hard place. Exactly.

TK: Tell me a little bit about the power line issue that came up. How did you first hear about that and how did you get involved?

KS: The way that I first learned about it was from the request from Ameren to use our building as a community meeting place. Interestingly enough, they filled out our paperwork, and there hadn’t really been anything in the newspapers or anything of that nature. I mean, we often have requests to use our buildings and they might say that it’s for a community meeting or what have you, but the details of what the meeting was about were never given to us. Not that that would have changed it in any way, but it’s just kind of ironic that this is indeed what the plan was, to have the power lines run in front of the school, and they were holding their informational meeting at the school.

The informational meetings that were held at our facility by Ameren were meetings in which there were invitations extended. It was not just simply an open meeting for anybody to attend. As an entity possibly being impacted by the power lines, the school district was invited to attend on one of their three evenings that they had the meetings. So, I most certainly attended in that regard, and I asked my questions. The Ameren folks took us through what they were proposing, why they were proposing it, gave us informational packets, and so forth and shared with us that if we had any concerns we were to write them down. If they weren’t answered that night, they would get back to us with an answer. Leave our address, our phone number, and so forth. I can tell you at this point, though, I’ve never received a phone call back with any answers to the questions that I had personally, as the superintendent of Waltham School District. I never received any answers to the questions that I wrote down.

TK: Did the school district formally take a position on the power lines?

KS: The Waltham, Wallace, Rutland, and Dimmick school districts all passed the same resolution that objected to the placement of the primary route of power lines in front of the school districts. That is the extent of what the school board and school district did as far as any type of position.

TK: Did the school district have any sort of formal relationship with SHOCK, the citizen’s group?

KS: The school district, no. It is a community group, and it is made up of individuals residing in the four school districts, but as far as a link directly to the school district per se, no.

TK: What are your priorities now for the district in the next several years? What do you see as being your largest challenges?

KS: First and foremost, dealing with the growth and dealing with it in a manner that we are proactive and not finding ourselves in a reactive situation. To some degree, that’s going to dictate some of the future plans. If there were a subdivision planned as had once been proposed, 220 homes something of that nature, that’s our district one more time. As far as finding a place to house them, there would have to be a lot of things to fall in place to make something like that work. I don’t have a good answer for that. That would be an incredibly difficult place for the school district to be in if something large came of that nature unless there was some help from the developers or something of that nature. If it comes on an incremental basis, as I anticipate it will, we’re going to do our best to prepare ahead of time for that, be proactive, not only with our course offerings, but teaching personnel, actual classroom space, materials, and so forth. But that’s going to necessitate some help from our community, and I mean that both from a financial standpoint and support in a number of different ways. I think that is one of the plusses about this community. We truly have caring, involved individuals who are willing to learn about the issues, educate others about the issues, and are willing to volunteer their time. Time and time again, it just comes through like that. So, I feel very good about the community that we have.

The building and the growth issue is probably the most prominent, but that is certainly tied to our financial situation. With the governor’s latest requirement to put a balanced budget in place, I’m anticipating that we’re going to have to write a plan because I just don’t know that there’s going to be any way that we can have a balanced budget at this point. Those are the two main items that I see as our greatest difficulties, greatest hurdles, but there are a number of different, smaller items that they kind of go hand-in-hand with those two main things. As far as any kind of plan or vision, I think that it speaks volumes when you talk to folks in the community how happy they are with the school district and how pleased they are at the education that the kids are receiving. I think that we have some really wonderful things in place, and I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can possibly do to continue in the positive direction that we’re going and not lose the opportunities that we have for kids. That’s a tough thing to do, but that’s what I’m focused on.