The Siting of Cortland Elementary School

How on earth did District 428 select a site that’s less than 1/4 mile from a current landfill to build a then new Cortland Elementary School? Didn’t they know about the mega-expansion plans proposed by Waste Management of Illinois?

Cortland Elementary School

Cortland Elementary School

Here’s a “minutes-by-minutes” account of the siting of Cortland Elementary School. The following excerpts from public meeting minutes of the Town of Cortland Board of Trustees from November 13, 2007 through October 27, 2008 reveal a focused effort on the part of District 428 administrators to get the Town of Cortland’s support for a $110 million referendum to build a new high school and a new elementary school. The minutes show a Town Board bargaining for the grade school to be built in Cortland as their condition to show that support.

The dates are linked to the actual minutes of the Cortland Town Board meetings. Rather than having to read through all the other topics of discussion contained in those minutes the relative excerpts can be viewed by clicking on the links below this post. Clearly from these minutes there was no consideration given to potential hazards associated with landfills. In fact the landfill was never discussed in the dialogue between the Town of Cortland and District 428.

November 13, 2007 – Dist. 428 President Mike Verbic, Vice President Andy Small, and Asst Superintendent Andrea Gorla and Public Relations Director Russ Fletcher present plans for a two-phase construction referendum totalling $235 million and ask Cortland to join DeKalb and Malta in supporting the plan. To show support Cortland must raise its impact fees to match those of DeKalb and Malta. Trustee Chuck Lanning will only support the plan if the phase-one grade school is built in Cortland.

November 26, 2007 – Cortland Mayor Bob Seyller presents District 428’s proposed agreement to build a new grade school in Cortland if the phase-one $110 million referendum is passed in the February 2008 election and if Cortland raises their impact fees. Dist. 428 President Mike Verbic informs the Town Board that if the agreement is not signed before December 3, 2007 the referendum will likely be reduced by $15 million and the grade school will not be built in Cortland. The agreement does not specify an exact location for the grade school. A motion to table the decision until December 10 was rescinded and a Special Meeting is quickly called.

November 29, 2007 – At a Special Meeting of the Cortland Town Board Mayor Bob Seyller and Trustees Stone, Siewierski, Suppeland, Milroy, McAllister and Lanning vote unanimously to approve the Intergovernmental Agreement with District 428 to increase their impact fees in exchange for a new elementary school if the referendum passed. Mike Verbic and then Superintendent Paul Beilfuss attend the meeting.

voteyesOn February 5, 2008 voters in DeKalb, Cortland and Malta approved a $110 million referendum by a 64% to 36% margin to build a new high school in DeKalb and a new elementary school in Cortland. In previous attempts that failed Cortland impact fees were thought to be a major factor in voter rejection of the referendums.

May 12, 2008 – During a public hearing on an annexation agreement with Montalbano Homes an amendment to add Exhibit “E” to add lot development standards for school land.

July 28, 2008 – A proposed intergovernmental agreement between the Town of Cortland and District 428 that provides for a new school to be built in the Chestnut Grove Subdivision developed by Montalbano Homes is amended to call for construction to begin with three years. An agreement calling for increased development fees is tabled.

August 25, 2008 – A Special Use Permit is issued to District 428 to build a new school in the Chestnut Grove Subdivision in Cortland.

October 27, 2008 – The Town of Cortland provides District 428 President Mike Verbic and then Superintendent James Briscoe with a $239,679.82 from fees collected by the town from new development. The Intergovernmental Agreement called for Cortland to turn over those fees once the school district began construction of a school in Cortland.

How could the government entities in the know not apprise the school district of the landfill expansion plans?

Cortland Mayor Bob Seyller knew all about the landfill expansion plans. According to a March 18, 2009 email obtained through a FOIA request Seyller acknowledged he had attended most of the solid waste ad hoc committee meetings held in the four years prior. That committee discussed negotiations with Waste Management that resulted in the Host Fee Agreement for tipping fees to expand the landfill capacity to increase (daily) from 350 tons to 2,000 tons of garbage.

Attorney Derke Price explained to Cortland Town Board at an April 13 2009 meeting that a group of town citizens could appear at the siting application public hearing and show the differences in the contract that WMI had with Kendall County and what DeKalb County has agreed to because that contract is an embarrassment to the County and they will not like having it pointed out to them.

The County Board and administrators knew. County board members voiced disbelief that the school district would build a school on the current site so near the landfill. In response to a FOIA request for all email correspondence regarding the landfill expansion none were between the County and District 428.

As far back as March 12 2005 then county board member Roger Steimel wrote a letter warning the public of DeKalb County becoming the garbage capital of Illinois. Steimel has steadfastly opposed the landfill application plans.

On August 29, 2006 then county board member Steve Slack wondered how the County could ensure that the County is indeed the host in the even the Town of Cortland decided to annex the landfill. Then county administrator Ray Bockman told him the County couldn’t block a municipal landfill.

According to May 16, 2007 minutes of the ad hoc solid waste committee then board member Vince Faivre thought that at 2,000 tons a day the committee was talking about a Mega Dump. He warned the community would not accept such a large expansion. At that meeting Waste Management’s Lee Adelman asked the committee for direction on whether to go east and purchase property for an expansion or increase the height on the current site.

There were email exchanges between then county board member Riley Oncken and City of Sycamore elected officials regarding the landfill expansion. Oncken explained that as the county board representative for the 3rd district he had to make a difficult decision because his constituents were from both the Town of Cortland and part of Sycamore.

Sycamore alderman Pete Paulsen (2nd Ward) supported the expansion but he acknowledged Cortland residents probably wouldn’t like it. Gregory Taylor (3rd) supported it, too, in part because Cortland never consulted with him before they approved all that explosive growth. Mayor Ken Mundy wondered if the expansion would be good for the county if it meant taking in garbage from outside of its borders. First ward alderman Alan Bauer wrote, “raise my taxes if you must but don’t make the good people of Cortland live a sub-quality of life.”

Cortland Mayor Bob Seyller replied to the Oncken email in bold letters: Cortland Trustees, Please do not enter into an email dialog as it may become a violation of an open meetings act. He then expressed his displeasure that the Host Fee Agreement left Cortland out

But there were no discussion of the potential repercussions of siting a new elementary school so near a leaking landfill slated for major expansion in those minutes or emails. On March 11, 2010 Mike Verbic did address the county board with a public comment during the public hearing process to address his concerns after hearing some of the testimony presented.

Dear DeKalb County Board Members, I am writing on behalf of the Board of Education of Community Unit School District 428 regarding the proposed expansion of the DeKalb County landfill. We recently built the new Cortland Elementary School near the existing landfill. We were aware that the landfill would need to be expanded soon to accommodate the waste needs of DeKalb County. We were not aware of any consideration to grow the landfill to what is being proposed during the planning stages of our new school.

Since completion of the school, our students, their families and staff have occasionally smelled the odors emitted from the landfill. Everyone thought that it was normal to notice the odors due to the proximity to the landfill. No one knew that the odor should have always been contained within the landfill site or many would have already complained.

According to a recent complaint filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency dated December 16th, 2009, Violation Notice L-2009-01456, Clinton Landfill, Incorporated violated Section 9(a) of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act due to malodors being detected beyond the landfill boundary. Odors were detected over a mile north of the facility. The Clinton Landfill also violated 35 Ill. Adm. Code 811.311 (d) due to their landfill gas system having not been designed and operated to prevent malodors caused by the unit to be detected beyond the property boundary.

Both of these violations may be applicable in the case of our elementary school.

We are concerned regarding the health and safety of our students and staff at Cortland Elementary due to relevant data. Waste Management has indicated that the current site is leaking. According to the State of New York Department of Health, women living near solid waste landfills where gas is escaping have a four-fold increased chance of bladder cancer or leukemia. A 1990 study found in the American Journal of Epidemiology found an increased incidence of bladder cancers in northwestern Illinois where a landfill had contaminated a municipal water supply. An additional study found in the American Journal of Environmental Sciences titled “Toxicity Testing and the Effect of Landfill Leachate Regarding the Behavior of the Common Carp” observed behavioral changes for individual fish at different leachate concentrations. The observations included a decline in general activity, loss of balance, breathing difficulties, excessive mucosal secretion and gathering at the surface of the — for breathing. We urge you to conduct your own tests on the soils, water and air surrounding the existing site prior to your consideration for the expansion.

The landfill risks are only the beginning. We are also aware that truck traffic will significantly increase near Cortland Elementary. There is significant data for anyone to research on the internet which shows the direct correlation of carcinogens in the air and cancer cases.

Please consider the health and safety of those living or learning near your proposed expansion. We understand the financial gain potential for this expansion and the desperate need for these revenues in our county. We only ask that you do your due diligence in this matter by verifying the long-term safety of this proposal.

Best regards, Mike Verbic, President,
Board of Education District 428.

So how was the site location for Cortland Elementary School chosen? Short answer — with tunnel vision.

Mayor Seyller reply-all to Riley Oncken email
November 12, 2007 Cortland Town Board Meeting
November 26, 2007 Cortland Town Board Meeting
November 29, 2007 Cortland Town Board Meeting”
May 12, 2008 Cortland Town Board Meeting
July 28, 2008 Cortland Town Board Meeting
August 25, 2008 Cortland Town Board Meeting
October 27, 2008 Cortland Town Board Meeting
October 26, 2009 Cortland Town Board Meeting
October 29, 2009 Cortland Town Board Meeting

About Mac McIntyre

Mac McIntyre has more than 30 years experience in the multi-media industry working as a freelance writer, graphic designer, broadcast and television production and publisher/editor. He has been designing and maintaining websites, including this one, since 1997.
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