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Alden-Hebron District 19 officials talk options after failed referendum

School officials ‘disappointed’ and will regroup, superintendent says

Moderator Karen Lalor (right) explains at a March 20 informational session on Alden Hebron School District 19's referendum that appeared on the April 2 ballot, at the Alden Hebron Middle and High School gym. More than 200 people attend the event to learn more about the referendum.
Moderator Karen Lalor (right) explains at a March 20 informational session on Alden Hebron School District 19's referendum that appeared on the April 2 ballot, at the Alden Hebron Middle and High School gym. More than 200 people attend the event to learn more about the referendum.

Alden-Hebron District 19 officials must grapple with the question of how to move forward after residents firmly rejected a referendum on the April 2 consolidated election ballot.

A new Board of Education also will be seated in the coming weeks.

Incumbents Michael Norton, Ken Winkelman and Johnny Eskridge, along with newcomer Katie Johnson ran to fill three open seats with four-year terms. Johnson, Norton and Winkelman took in the most votes. Incumbent Penny Smith ran unopposed for the two-year term.

The board also must appoint someone to fill an empty seat for a two-year term for which no one ran.

Voters rejected the district’s referendum, which asked for taxpayer approval to issue $20.3 million in bonds to build a new middle and high-school facility on property it owns at the intersection of Price and Kemman roads.

The district bought the property in 2016 from landowner Daniel Walters, the father-in-law of then-District 19 board President Susan Walters.

The plan called for a new school building that could have included
22 classrooms, two science labs, a library, a gym and a band room. The common areas were designed for up to 400 students.

The district’s most recent middle and high school enrollment was 211.

A resident with a $150,000 would have seen the district’s portion of their property tax bill rise by about $913 if the referendum had passed. The ask failed with 884 – or 77% – no votes and 244 yes votes, according to unofficial voting totals from the McHenry County Clerk’s office.

“While we are disappointed with the results of last night’s election we are still committed to providing the highest educational standards,” Superintendent Debbie Ehlenburg said. “We as a school board and administration, along with community stakeholders, will need to develop a plan to improve our physical educational environment to include addressing the security issues, health/life-safety issues and building issues with the aged facility.”

She said the ultimate goal remains to provide a safe, secure environment that fosters modern learning.

The board must reassess its options and speak with residents in the community to better understand what they would like to see, she said.

The board is expected to meet April 16 for the first time since the election. The date new board members will be sworn likely will be in May.

Incoming board member Johnson said she would like to build a plan alongside residents to gain community support.

“Most people want to support the students and the school,” she said. “We just have to get them on board with a new plan and build a consensus.”

Different options discussed in the past have included the possibility of consolidation with a different school district, such as Woodstock District 200 or Harvard District 50, or completing extensive renovations on the existing building.

Johnson said she wouldn’t push for consolidation.

“The district is healthy right now fiscally,” she said. “The building is sound. There is no immediate danger. I don’t think [consolidation] is needed right now.”

The aging facility needs about $250,000 to $300,000 in immediate health and life-safety repairs. A full remodel that would include the elimination of mobile classrooms via a new addition would run about $17.4 million over several years, according to district documents.

The soonest the board could put another referendum on the ballot would be in the general primary in March 2020, according to district documents.

Board president Norton said he would have a better idea of what direction the district would move in after a full board discussion.

“[Options] are open to anything out there. We just have to figure out what we want to do,” he said. “We want to make sure the kids are safe and getting the best quality education.”

Winkelman said he wanted to find out why the referendum failed before moving forward.

“The board will have to sit back, assess the situation, and see why the voters voted the way they did before we can proceed,” he said.

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