Who came up with the inflated enrollment numbers distributed to the public prior to the 2007 referendum? How did those numbers end up on informational flyers and the School District's website?
Was there a purposeful effort to deceive the public? And if so, should the School Board members or staff members responsible be asked to resign?
These are some of the questions raised at Monday night's School Board meeting by Geneva TaxFACTS member Sandra Ellis during a two-part presentation in separate public-comment periods.
In a Powerpoint printout, Ellis showed a graphic that appeared on the School District's website in 2006 that indicated enrollment growth projections rising annually, from 5,854 in 2006 to 7,472 in 2012—an increase of 1,618 students.
NUMBERS PRESENTED TO PUBLIC
Ellis pointed out that the district's consultant, John Kasarda, predicted an increase of 345 students in that same time period in his "Series B," or mid-level projections. Kasarda's high-end "Series C" projections said the district would add 888 students by 2012.
Ellis said the Kasarda report numbers were not given to the public prior to the 2007 referendum and only were posted on the School District website after a Freedom of Information Act request produced the documents on Feb. 29 of this year.
The $79 million referendum, which called for the construction of the Williamsburg and Fabyan elementary schools as well as other improvements, passed by just 100 votes—2,495 to 2,395.
The actual increase of students as of June 2011, Ellis said, is 121 students. The Kasarda "Series B" projection was an increase of 345 students by 2012.
"Do you think the referendum for building two new schools would have been saleable to voters based on that number?" Ellis asked.
Ellis pointed out that three present School Board members were serving prior to the 2007 referendum—Mary Stith, Bill Wilson and Tim Moran—and that Superintendent Kent Mutchler was the superintendent at that time.
She said a "thorough investigation should begin immediately ... to determine if this was fraud.
"The person responsible for inflating the numbers needs to be identified," Ellis said. "If they are still on the board or within the administration, they have already been given a chance by (School Board President Mark) Grosso to come forward.
"They need to be replaced."
At the beginning of her presentation, Ellis asked for additional time to speak. There are two public-comment opportunities at School Board meetings but each speaker is limited to five minutes. Grosso allowed Ellis to go two minutes past her allotted time in the first public-comment period, but asked her to finish in the second comment period. He denied requests by other speakers to donate their five minutes of speaking time to Ellis.
"I’ll look at your handout afterward," he said. "You can finish at the next part of the meeting."
Ellis eventually complied, under protest. "Sometimes I feel like I'm in a time warp at these meetings," she said.
Several other residents, most or all of them members of the TaxFACTS group, commented, as well.
Karen McQuillan said the board needs to lead by example.
"It’s recently come to light what appears to be a serious deception," she said. "I do hold you the School Board responsible (to make sure) that those who deceived the taxpayers are held accountable. We the taxpayers of Geneva need to trust the information that’s fed to us. I implore you, give us the answers we deserve."
Dick Graff asked for an explanation of the numbers but also wanted the board to do more to cut the tax burden for residents.
"I think you’re grossly underestimating the seriousness of these allegations," he said. "It’s just not going to go away. If you don’t take care of (the debt) ... you’re going to have a School District with no residents. It’s getting harder and harder. I just feel like it’s business as usual here."
TaxFACTS leader Bob McQuillan asked the board to make sure "history doesn't repeat itself." He said that since 2006, the School District's tax rate increased from $4.76 to $5.73 per $1,000 assessed value.
"This debt repayment needs to be taken into account," he said. "Please keep in mind that debt. Unless operating costs are reduced, our tax rate will continue to increase."
Grosso noted that the School District recently held a public forum asking residents to identify some of the most important issues facing the Geneva School District, and the enrollment numbers "did not seem to be a hot-button issue."
During the "Board Member Comments" part of the agenda, School Board member Matt Henry said he had a boss once who spent a lot of time trying to assess blame for anything that went wrong.
"And never did that solve the problem or get the ball rolling again," he said. "We’ve looked into it. I don’t right now have any answers for it. ... But I can tell you I do trust the people on this board. I don’t think there was any improprieties, and the assumption that there was … it’s scary. We’re just volunteers in this community doing the best that we can. I don’t know anybody who would knowingly fraud themselves and the community."
Stith said 2006 was the first time she'd been a School Board member, but she said the board's decision to seek a referendum was based on the Kasarda "Series B" numbers and could not offer a reason the Kasarda numbers differed from those given to the public.
"I do not know where those numbers came from," she said. "I wish I knew that, but ... please try to remember that referendum was to build two new schools that were already needed."
Stith noted that one school was a replacement for Coultrap, and that had to be done because the 1923 building was aging.
She also said there's a misconception that empty seats or empty classrooms equates to an overabundance of space. There is always a need for music, reading, literacy and other space above the standard classroom, she said.
"At some time in the future, we may have to close a school," she said. "I do not want to have to do that ... (But) at this time, we do not have enough empty classrooms to close an elementary school."
Geneva resident Kate Bochte thanked School Board members for their good work and reminded them that those who speak at board meetings don't always represent majority opinion.
"I’d like to affirm that I do trust our School Board members," she said. "I don’t speak for the community—no one speaks for the community. The majority of Geneva voters in the last several elections have put our School Board members in office for a reason. The voters have spoken, and I think you have to listen to the majority of voters—not just those who are coming up here at the microphone."