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My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board
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TOPIC: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board

My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board 2 years, 2 months ago #65

"I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you
know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers,
your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you
have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

Lord Kelvin, 1883

Most Geneva residents will agree that $325,000,000 — nearly 1/3 of a billion dollars — is a big number. If you had that amount of money in your bank account today, you could purchase 1280 homes in Geneva, based on Zillow’s most recent Home Value Index of $254,100 for Geneva homes. Or, you could buy all the shares outstanding in any 1 of 671 different publicly held companies traded on the NYSE, based on 2011 year end market capitalization. Plane enthusiast? Pick up a new Boeing 777-300ER, and still have an extra $26.7 million for fuel and maintenance. Unfortunately, I have to report that for the taxpayers of Geneva, $325,000,000 does not represent our available account balance. Rather, it is the cumulative total debt (principal plus interest) Geneva taxpayers are obligated to pay until our school district debt is fully repaid in 2027. This, of course, assumes we don’t add to the current debt level, or extend the maturity of the debt beyond the planned 16 year payoff schedule.

Ours is a familiar story. Like many communities with open space, Geneva enjoyed significant residential growth over the prior 2 decades, as farm fields were plowed under to make way for shiny new subdivisions. The myth that home price values only moved in one direction — higher— would not be completely dispelled until 2008. New construction brought more residents and students; and, CUSD 304 needed to accommodate the growth with more classrooms, teachers and buses. To accommodate the real and projected growth, our most recent borrowing was a $112 million loan authorized by a 2007 referendum. The fact that this referendum passed by a 100 vote margin still sparks heated debate. However, all the conversations that use “coulda—shoulda—woulda” in discussing the need for, or the size of this loan, have no effect on the financial issues we confront today. Our debt is politically agnostic. Republicans, Democrats and even the GreenTea Party taxpayers are on the hook. It matters not whether you were pro or anti - referendum. The fact of the matter is that approximately 9000 residential real estate owners in Geneva taxpayers are obligated to pay this loan.

What Genevans should be discussing is how best to pay our debt with the least amount of impact. The School District relies on several consultants who advise the district on financial matters. Outside expertise can be very helpful, particularly in cases where decision makers lack a specialized skill, or knowledge needed to make informed decisions about significant financial matters. But, when you distill the jargon from the budget and tax process under which Geneva taxpayers operate, the issues can be broken down into simple arithmetic and fundamental choices.

Reducing our costs and outstanding debt reduces the need to raise taxes.

Increasing our costs and outstanding debt increases the need to raise taxes.

One other variable in this equation is the notion that more new construction would spread the fixed costs to more taxpayers, and in theory this would also reduce the need to raise taxes. This was a critical assumption in our last referendum. The expert opinions from our outside consultants, at the time, indicated that residential growth in Geneva would result in a student population 20% higher than our actual number today. Sadly, the frequency with which a backhoe is now seen excavating a new foundation in Geneva is just slightly ahead of leprechaun sightings. I have no expertise in real estate matters, but it seems painfully obvious that the economics of building new homes doesn’t work when the current housing stock is under significant and sustained price pressure. Given our current volume of available properties, outsiders driving around Geneva must think that the town motto is “For Sale — Price Reduced.” Our town is filled with sellers who are stressed out, and with would be sellers who are economically trapped as they wait and hope, and pray, for rising home values. Our neighbors, who are trying to sell, have the unenviable task of finding buyers who will view the total cost of ownership in Geneva (cost of real estate plus cost of real estate taxes, utilities, insurance) to be a better deal than countless other properties in neighboring towns.

In the go-go years of real estate, Geneva was an easy sell. “Quaint and safe river town with convenient shopping and transportation and high school graduates with average ACT scores of xx.x” was a compelling pitch. Now that we are in the throes of the slow-slow years of real estate, or the new normal, it seems clear that consumers have reevaluated what is important to them. The tangibles and intangibles for which real estate buyers will pay are different today, and, so it seems, for the foreseeable future. We are all painfully well aware that the value of real estate in Geneva, often one’s largest asset, moves up —and down in value. Now that price volatility for real estate assets is better understood, total cost of ownership, and in particular rising tax rates, becomes increasingly more important in the calculation made by prospective buyers, as well as by current owners.

Clearly, meaningful growth in new construction starts in Geneva, at least for the near term, is unlikely; and, even the long term outlook seems rather bleak. But what is growing in Geneva is your tax bill. Recall that CUSD 304 consumes about 70 cents for every tax dollar you pay, each year, to fund our schools and to pay our debt. The remaining 30 cents is spread across 9 other taxing bodies. As you may know, in the most recent budget, the School Board voted to increase your taxes by an average of $288 for next year. It is important to note that this increase was pushed through at the very early stage of our debt repayment schedule. Our debt payments jump at a staggering clip during the 16 year payment plan. That much is certain. What is not certain is who will manage the financial decisions during this 16 year period. Will we have a plan that provides continuity and fiscal discipline to minimize the ongoing financial impact? Will the decision makers grasp how macro and micro economics impact the supply and demand of Geneva real estate? Will they recognize that consumerism has fundamentally changed and what that means for prospective buyers evaluating and making value judgments about Geneva? Will they understand how higher education is undergoing traumatic changes due to cost structures, and what that means for Geneva schools and homeowners with college bound students? These are big issues that deserve thoughtful discussion, and real input from the taxpayers who own the debt. But are they being discussed? Is anything substantive being discussed today that will lead to minimizing the impact of our debt burden in long term, while positioning Geneva as a financially desirable place to buy and live? Is there a well developed, articulated debt plan for CUSD 304, or is there only next month’s 60 minute meeting to discuss retirements, softer turf, and awards and recognitions?

Many residents will absorb this new tax increase without a second thought, as they may feel it is reasonable. Others may simply be too consumed with keeping their personal and professional lives on the rails; and, it’s just easier to write the check and suck it up. I understand both positions as I was of the former opinion for about the first 10 years, and of the latter view, for the last 10 years of my Geneva taxpaying history. The most recent increase may not be the pain point that jolts Genevans to become more informed about our debt situation (It was for me). That catalyst is likely a few years out when our annual debt payments, which will be many millions of dollars higher than they are today, become due. As an aside, it would be helpful to all Genevans to know, even a ballpark number, how our increasing annual debt payments translate into future property tax rates. One of our current expert financial consultants indicated recently that there were too many variables to make such a projection. I am aware of numerous financial modeling and analytical software packages that can help with such calculations. Perhaps the Board should consult other consultants on the topic. Until we find a more software savvy consultant, try the back of the envelope calculation on your own. Please note: this number has been known to jolt and being above average is not desirable in this scenario.

I read your not so oblique reference to activists to mean Mr. McQuillian and www.genevataxfacts.org/. I have not met Mr. McQuillian, but I would like to thank him for organizing a great deal of data and information that is scattered across the 10 taxing bodies we 9000 Geneva residential taxpayers fund. In every institution I am aware of, whether they are for profit or non-profit, data driven decisions coupled with transparency are desirable, and even required. I applaud his effort to bring that data to the forefront so that all Genevans can better understand where our tax dollars are distributed and spent. He seems to focus on CUSD 304 as it account for nearly 70% of every tax dollar spent. Ask the thousands of Geneva residents who manage human or financial capital, knowing and understanding the numbers is essential whether you are on the funding or spending side.

Vilifying Mr. McQuillian for his presentation style and interpersonal idiosyncrasies does not elevate the discourse. I invite you, Mr. McQuillian, and any other Geneva tax payer interested in advancing the conversation, to join me at Claddagh Irish Pub in Geneva Commons at 7:15 pm tomorrow, Thursday, February 16 at 7:15 pm. If you plan to be there, please send me note at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. so that I can reserve space. (I am not buying - I have taxes to pay).

Re: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board 2 years, 2 months ago #66

"The expert opinions from our outside consultants, at the time, indicated that residential growth in Geneva would result in a student population 20% higher than our actual number today."

Actually, according to my conversation with a retired Superintendent of a neighboring school district, that district used the same Florida based consultant and what was actually presented by the consultant were a range of three possible enrollment scenarios.

This individual informed me that their district decided to be prudent and not go 'all in' for the largest, most pro growth projections, to avoid the situation in which Geneva now finds itself. The same individual said that it was expected that Geneva would commit to spending the max, because "that is what the Board always does in Geneva."

Let it be known that Current Geneva School Board members formed a PAC with vested interests (who profited from the passage of the referendum), contributing advertising money and placing signs around town advocating the building of these new schools, based on the most extreme enrollment projection.
Richard Hayhurst
Geneva, IL

Re: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board 2 years, 2 months ago #67

  • SandyEllis
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Hello Steven,

You are a breath of fresh air! Mr. Ward's comments are not even worth responding to. He puts journalism to shame. I have to wonder how many Board meetings he has actually endured. He spouts but has no credibility. He unprofessionally broadbrushes the one group that has joined talents to stop the bleeding with political names and derogatory remarks.

Your thoughts and facts parallel my process of awareness of the problems this community is facing. Many of us are just now waking up. Anyway, I am. It took the last few property tax bills to do it, unfortunately. Yet, looking down the road, it's going to be much worse.

You are correct that on Monday night I simply asked the Board to do a 5 and 10 year projection of the impact of our debt on taxes. I think I have a very good idea of how it is going to swell, but expect the Board to be able to verify it. The response was that they were unable to do this because of "too many variables"? After the meeting, it was explained to me that the CPI might increase, school salaries might increase with the negotiations taking place as we speak, etc.

I was blown away by the response. As a former business owner, if you can't project income and expense, it's the kiss of death. You need to know NOW whether to pay employees more or cut back on staff, whether to cut back on projected expenditures or go ahead and spend and hope it all gets better? No business could be run like that and survive. Nor, can we on a smaller basis handle home ownership without projections, especially the HUGE variable of property tax increases. Of course, forecasts aren't cast in stone, but without them, how does anyone know where we are going?

Granted that the resulting projection might result in even worse real estate transactions and most of them would be "for sale" signs, we as taxpayers at least have the right to forecast whether we can even afford living here in five years. As a retiree, I can forecast my income for the next 5 years and all of my expenses within reason. The one variable is property taxes.

Your logic is excellent and you have a wonderful grasp on the situation and numbers. Please count me in for your meeting at Claddaugh tomorrow evening! I want to hear more. You are credible.

Re: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board 2 years, 2 months ago #68

Thank you for the very informative essay Mr. Sheehan. Your comments are interesting as well Mr. Photoshop61? This whole Geneva Tax/School scenario has been a rude awakening. Let us hope we are not too late to do something about it. The problem seems pretty clear, but everyone has problems, what is the solution? What is it that can be done about it? I would love to go Thursday night but I do not know if it is a good idea to meet and discuss a serious problem over drinks at a pub. Do not get me wrong, they do have fantastic food there but is that really the impression we want to give? As far as Mr. Ward goes, it saddens me that he seems so full of himself as to push some readers into the very organization he is against. I love our town, Geneva has great residents that have come together during adverse times to help their fellow neighbors. Why is it that we have such a large corrupting tumor within our city and feel helpless about it? I am interested and willing to make a difference. Thanks again for the invitation to read your seemengly well informed comments Mr. Sheehan.

Re: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Geneva School Board 2 years, 2 months ago #69

The number of views on this topic tie nicely to the attendance at school board meetings. Many read the postings but few respond. But that is fine, we already know that many will not speak out against the school board for a variety of reasons. The key is to educate yourself with the FACTS not some opinion writer's comments on a blog that does not deal with reality. That on-line "Town News" is controlled by people that are born and raised in Geneva. They will never utter a negative word against their hometown. Just look at the coverage of "Dancing With The Geneva Stars" vs. any mention of www.GenevaTaxFACTS.org

On this site you will find factual information about how your hard earned tax dollars are spent. For example, the $3.2 million dollars that was taken from the reserve fund to abate the debt, came from over-taxing the community for many years. By requesting the maximum tax levy every year,the school board has built up a $47 million dollar reserve. That's right, they have over-taxed the community to the tune of $47 million dollars. Now we are supposed to be excited that they are taking $3.2 million to lower a tax increase of $400 to $300? What happens when your taxes will increase $1,000 in the next 5 years? Can you afford another grand a year in property taxes without getting anything additional for that grand?

Look for the following announcements on www.GenevaTaxFACTS.org within the next two weeks:
* 5 & 10 year projections of what the average property tax increase will be. The school district said they can't do these projections, so www.GenevaTaxFACTS.org will do it for you.
* What are the key issues surrounding the teachers contract that expires this year? Is a salary increase warranted, what are step & lane increases, what do medical benefits cost the taxpayers of Geneva, what are "retirement enhancements" and what is the total amount spent on teachers salaries over the last four years. Some facts will shock you!

Don't worry, www.GenevaTaxFACTS.org will not live under the rules of Ward World. We don't want to "control" the school board unless that means electing residents that understand that spending must be cut and a long term plan to repay the debt MUST be created. Taxing, taxing and then taxing some more isn't the solution to our problem.

Hang on, the ride is going to get bumpy but there is a workable solution if we work together. Be ready to get step up to the plate when you are needed.

Bob McQuillan
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Re: My long comments on Jeff Ward: Part II 2 years, 2 months ago #70

My Evening Recap.
First a full disclosure. I previously wrote that I had not met Mr. McQuillian. That is not true. He reminded me last night that our paths crossed about 8 years ago for 5 minutes, and he recalled that my son had a broken arm at the time. This was my first indication that he may have subversive tendencies as they are known for having attention to detail and deep recall.

The good news. Mr. McQuillian did not cause me any medical maladies during our 3 hour chat. He did not attempt to convert me to any cults; although, he may be saving that step for a future meeting. He gave no indication that the school district could benefit from his authorship of text books or curriculum design. Finally, I detected no subversive plots against any elected bodies in Geneva. I don’t know what role he may play in the NATO G-8 Summit to be held in Chicago this May, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

Less good news. I now understand why some elected officials may perceive him to be a PITA. There is no question that he is purposely driven. He is definitely operating with an extreme sense of urgency. In addition, he has laser like focus on data and facts. He also repeatedly asked the group “but how do we fix the problem?” (meaning $325,000,000 in school district debt for which there is no plan).” I can see why some might be annoyed by what could be perceived as being relentless for answers. In the business world, this type of personality is what is known as a “bulldog.” It’s not a pejorative term and both Batavia High and Butler University have Bulldogs serving as mascots and symbols.

Bulldogs in the business world get stuff done, and that is why they are valued contributors. They know how to marshal resources, advance projects, and make sound decisions. This personality type can also be gruff, impatient and often tough, but they are generally well intended and fair minded. Like Batavia, Geneva has a Bulldog, in Mr. McQuillian, and that is a good thing because there is much to be done. That $325,000,000 in school district debt is our tsunami, and it is just beginning to crash on to the shores of Playa Geneva. But don’t worry — it will subside in 2027 for those of you here for the long run.

If you have another time horizon for living in Geneva, or as serving as an elected official, that is a much shorter outlook than 2027, congratulations. You don’t own the problem. It just falls on the shoulders, wallets and purses of those of us who don’t have a ticket out of Playa Geneva.

As a town, Geneva has a disproportionate number of lapdogs. Yes, I love them, but they are mostly passive, with an occasional bark and they tend to be high maintenance. Geneva could benefit in many ways from more bulldogs.

If you provide Mr. McQuillian an email address, he will send you an occasional email about future gatherings of his cabal. Be warned — there was a lot controversial conversation about how to pay for stuff.

Proud Supporter of PITA
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