Concerning the NT referendum: Why I am voting ‘NO’

To New Trier Township voters,

The New Trier renovation debate: Get informed!


Hello. My name is Jack Silverstein, and I am a New Trier graduate, class of 2000, writing today to discuss the upcoming funding referendum.

Until October I knew absolutely nothing of the New Trier renovation project. Over the past four months, I have spoken extensively with nearly every person involved in the planning process, most notably Superintendent Yonke, school board president Jim Koch, and principal Tim Dohrer. I have spoken with countless community members on all sides of the issue, former principal Wes Baumann, members of the community group New Trier Choices, current and former New Trier teachers, and various experts in the fields of construction, real estate, and taxes. I saw the facilities for myself in an exclusive, one-on-one tour with Principal Dohrer. I attended all three school board meetings that addressed the final version of the current plan (October 19th, November 3rd, November 16th). And I read all pertinent documents compiled and released by New Trier concerning the renovation, including the 21-page long-range facilities report.

After all of this research, I have decided to vote against the current 174 million dollar referendum on February 2nd. The following is my reasoning for doing so, as well as a basic guide to the issues for new voters.


For those of you new to the situation, a quick overview of the project is as follows:

  • New Trier is demolishing five old buildings – the cafeteria (1912), the coal-burning boiler plant (1925), the Gates Gymnasium (1928), the Tech Arts building (1931), and the Music building (1950).
  • Modern replacements for the cafeteria, gymnasium, tech arts, and music facilities
  • Brand new field house for “physical education, athletics and extracurriculars” that will replace the current track/weights area in the building’s basement
  • Three new elevators and other adjustments to make the campus ADA accessible
  • 25 new classrooms for core academic programs, including new science labs

Outdated infrastructure is at the core of the renovation project, with the Winnetka campus most definitely in need of repairs and updates. The additions solve the school’s most blatant problems, that being the ADA question and the wasted space with the massive boiler plant. It solves large-scale structural issues of old classrooms and the tech arts building. All in all, it’s a pretty good plan.

So why am I voting ‘NO’?

My decision is shaped around two conclusions:

  1. The $16.3 million field house is an unnecessary extravagance
  2. The process lacked true community debate



My only beef with the plan itself is the $16.3 million field house, a replacement for the track/weights area that is underneath the current gym. Fellow NT alum will surely remember this area as cramped and grungy.

That said, there is no way the deficiencies therein require a 16 million dollar solution. Not once in four years did I ever have a discussion with classmates lamenting the track’s narrowness or sharp turns. We were more annoyed to be forced to circle a track for 40 minutes.

For the many New Trier voters who are concerned with their already high tax bills, chopping the field house would be an easy choice.


And here’s the thing: I’m not alone on the field house debate.

In July of 2009, New Trier commissioned public opinion research firm Fako & Associates to conduct a facilities survey among district voters. Among the survey’s interesting elements is the list of fifteen items that respondents were asked to prioritize. At the top were the demolition of the boiler plant (48 “very high priority” votes), the Tech Arts building (45), and ADA accessibility (41). At the bottom was a new pool at Northfield (4), traffic problems (15), the new gym (18), and the field house (18).

Some people will no doubt point to this poll as proof that New Trier was determined to push this plan through no matter what, citing the 58% of respondents who opposed the school’s renovation plan and cost. However, Dr. Yonke stated that when the school saw the 58% opposed vote, they concluded, (and I’m paraphrasing):

“Since 75% of those polled said that having a high quality, ‘state-of-the-art’ facility was very important yet 58% opposed the plan, we concluded that we had not done a good enough job of getting information to the voters.”

That makes enough sense.[1] And I also understand the limitations of a phone survey, and wholeheartedly agree with the school’s stance that you must tour the facilities to really understand their physical state.

But none of that justifies the school’s failure to publicly engage the large-scale opposition, particularly in light of the stated priorities in the poll.


The opposition led by New Trier Choices has challenged or refuted many of the statements, facts, and figures presented by the school, including:

  • The school’s assertion that Northfield is “at capacity”
  • The total cost to taxpayers.

(Concerning Northfield: the school and New Trier Choices)

(Concerning cost on a $10,000 tax bill: the school and New Trier Choices

Obviously there is a good deal of disagreement here. My instinct is to buy what the school is saying, but read the NTC arguments for yourself – they are difficult to dismiss.

Additionally, the pro-referendum group Our New Trier which is supported by the school has stated on their site that the cost to taxpayers will be $300 as opposed to the school’s listed price of $248-$295. So there is even disagreement about cost among the ‘yes’ people.

Which brings us to my second reason for voting ‘no.’

When asked about the possibility of a public debate between the two sides, the school repeatedly answered: “We have heard every complaint and suggestion, read every email, explored every option, and considered every idea presented to us.”

But that is not good enough! We needed a public debate, something that went beyond the walk-and-talk tours the school offered, and beyond the five minutes community members were given to speak at board meetings.

Voters needed to hear the arguments of the opposition AND the school’s response to these arguments. And the school needed answers beyond “We’ve looked into that. We’ve worked on it for three years. Trust us.”

Both sides have accused the other of lying; I don’t think this is a question of outright lies, but more a matter of differing perspectives, values, and motivations.

But there we are. A public debate would have given voters a clearer idea of the pros and cons of the current renovation plan. It would have cleared up many of the accusations of “lying.” It would have brought the sides together while bringing more voters into the discussion. And it would have led to a plan with greater community support and a less contentious vote with a higher turnout.


The final thing to understand as you make your decision is the result of the referendum either passing or failing.


This one is simple: if the referendum passes, the school begins their phased demolition when the school year ends. For the full schedule of renovation, and the big question concerning how the school will handle displaced classes during the construction, the best person to contact is principal Tim Dohrer. (  [2]


This is where things get tricky.

If the referendum fails, the school will still definitely renovate. They will review the reasons for the failure and adjust their plan accordingly. The only question is when.

One of the school’s arguments for why “time is of the essence” is that we lose the Build America Bonds if we wait too long. However, these bonds don’t expire until December 31st, so we could presumably come back in November with a new plan that satisfies well over 51% of the community, pass it, and still use the bonds.

NTC has also raised questions about the added bank fees with the BAB, pointing to this Bloomberg article for proof.

The school’s response to this is that the bonds are more valuable now because of their relationship to standard bonds…or something…Associate Superintendent Don Goers would be the best person to contact (…and that regardless, it might be too difficult to vote in November and then issue bonds by December. That would be a question for Dr. Yonke ( or, from the NTC perspective, J.P. Rachmaninoff (

From the school’s perspective, that question is moot, because they have stated that they won’t come back to the issue until the April ’11 election. Their explanation to why they wouldn’t just come back in November was something like, “Well, we just wouldn’t.”

The common assumption is that the school does not want to hold the referendum vote in November because of the focus on higher profile campaigns (Governor, for instance). (A cynic might also add that holding the referendum election in November rather than a primary brings more voters to the booth, making it more difficult to control the vote, etc.)

Whether or not any of those reasons is satisfactory for not holding the referendum vote in November is up to you.

The school is also pushing for a successful referendum now because of their assertion that construction costs will rise. The fallout from a failed referendum may indeed be higher costs and fewer bond savings, and while it is likely that cost would rise, we might make up that difference by cutting any spending that a now much-better informed voting public considers excessive.


People who support this plan will ask you to do so because “time is of the essence,” “costs will never be cheaper,” “it is a happy medium between the full rebuild and the status quo,” “the school has worked for three years and know what they are doing,” and “we have a responsibility to give future Trevians the opportunities that previous ones gave us.” (Incidentally, I agree 100% with that last one, and I am also assuming that costs will indeed rise.)

People who oppose this plan, meanwhile, do so for many reasons, the main ones being concerns over taxes, spending, campus utilization, green space, parking, and traffic flow.

Due to all of the contested information and voter opposition, the bottom line for me is simple. We needed a debate, a community discussion about priorities, and we did not get one. The opposition to this plan is sizeable and real. And just as the planners are not “a bunch of manipulative, power-hungry people who don’t care about the community’s opinion,” the opposition are not “a bunch of selfish neighbors who don’t want to see construction near their homes.” They deserved an opportunity to be publicly heard by voters.

The only way to right these wrongs is to defeat the referendum. I do not like saying no to the school, but I prefer that to feeling like I live in a community that thwarts public debate.

Thank you for your time. I welcome (and would enjoy) any and all comments/questions/arguments concerning the referendum and New Trier’s facilities situation.

Sincerely, Jack M Silverstein

Concerning voting…

Information on voter registration, early voting, absentee voting, and anything else can be found here. To check your registration status, click here.

Early voting ends JANUARY 28th! You can vote early at Centennial or at the Cook County court house.

[1] On the flip side though, while their assumption is valid, it is still only an assumption. It is entirely possible that after seeing the facilities and engaging in debates, the new field house would STILL be a low priority and that a majority opposition to the plan would remain.

[2] ONE NOTE on the temporary classroom discussion – During a school-led meeting this past Sunday, Principal Dohrer was taking community members through the plan for how the school would function during the renovation. As Dohrer was describing where temporary classrooms would be erected, Superintendent Yonke stopped him and said something like, “No, that hasn’t been settled yet.”

One of New Trier Choices’s concerns is that certain portions of the planning process don’t seem 100% nailed down. And while this story from Sunday’s meeting may be a small point to harp on, it seems relevant in the overall discussion and a reasonable indication that there is still debate among the planners concerning the transitional period.

4 Replies to “Concerning the NT referendum: Why I am voting ‘NO’”

  1. Excellent commentary. I sincerey hope that on the next go-around the community can find a way to coalesce around a plan that garners the support of a substantial majority.

  2. Thank you for your articulate, insightful, helpful article that tries to be fair about both sides and is honest about your own views.

  3. Great commentary. Now that the bid has failed, perhaps the administration will now, at long last listen to the community. It’s outrageous to think that for less than half the requested amount, an entire new facility could be built, if it were needed. Fact is, you are right on with the comments on West. How could a facility that large, designed as a four grade facility, with one grade level be to capacity?

    Seems like there have been acres of denial. Hopefully some lessons can be learned from this fiasco.

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