Lincoln-Way High School District 210 no longer has the worst financial rating by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Every year, the state board rates school districts’ financial health with one of four ratings. They are, from the best to worst, recognition, review, early warning and watch. This year, Lincoln-Way advanced from watch to early warning for the first time in about four years.
District Superintendent Scott Tingley attributed the improved rating to the controversial closing of Lincoln-Way North High School in fall 2016. The school was closed to cut costs in the face of multimillion-dollar budget deficits.
Tingley said district officials have been able to save more than $6 million annually by keeping North closed while they continue to operate Central, East and West high schools.
“That is the main contributor to our financial stability,” Tingley said.
Lincoln-Way was first given the watch rating in 2015, and rumors circulated soon after that district officials would close one of the four high schools. Officials initially denied the rumors, but the district board eventually decided to close North in a 5-2 decision in August 2015.
The decision sparked outrage among residents, many of whom formed the defunct Lincoln-Way Area Taxpayers Unite group. In December 2015, the group unsuccessfully sued the board to keep North open.
Although district officials initially blamed the financial crisis on dwindling state funds and low student enrollment, they later acknowledged that the true condition of the district was “masked by improper accounting” practices under Lawrence Wyllie, the previous superintendent.
In 2017, Wyllie was charged with misappropriating funds and “fraudulently caus[ing] Lincoln-Way to assume at least $7 million in additional debt by fraudulent issuance of bonds,” according to a federal indictment.
Wyllie’s trial was postponed because of his unspecified health problems. The next status hearing in the case is slated for May 13.
Bradley Cauffman, Lincoln-Way’s assistant superintendent of business, said the district has likely saved about $24 million since North has been closed.
“That’s what wiped out the deficits we were running and then creating the surpluses that we now have been able to have, so now we’re able to do more,” Cauffman said.
Tingley said he doesn’t see North ever opening again. He said the building will continue to be partially used by the Frankfort Square Park District, which runs recreational programs.
He said the district’s student enrollment “will continue to trend down, particularly on that side of the district” where North is located.
North and West were built in the late 2000s to accommodate projected student population growth that never happened.
The schools were built as the result of a successful referendum to issue $225 million in bonds for their construction. Taxpayers will continue to pay off those bonds, including the ones to build North.
Cauffman said the current balance on bond payments for North is $100 million. Tingley said the bonds’ cost to taxpayers will increase incrementally over time, but the board can lessen the burden by refinancing the debt schedule of those bonds.
Tingley said the early warning rating is a good indicator.
“I think that’s a testament to the diligence of the school board, the administration and the overall support of the community,” he said.