Education

Millions at stake and so much more as District 161 board members consider building upgrades

Flossmoor School District 161 board members are considering recommendations from its Long-Range Planning Committee on how to invest millions of dollars in updates at district schools.

At the same time, board members say they are reluctant to ask taxpayers through a referendum to fund a portion of the remodeling projects, instead considering bond sales as the central source of funding.

After holding several meetings with stakeholders to determine what projects should be prioritized, the LRPC initially made recommendations for major work at three schools, Parker Junior High School and Western Avenue and Heather Hill elementary schools.

The LRPC is working with Wold Architects and Engineers, a firm contracted by the district, to conceptualize and create sample designs of the proposed upgrades. At the May 31 board meeting, board members heard a presentation of the suggested upgrades.

At Western Avenue, potential changes were presented in two options that include adding to either the front, or the front and rear of the school building. Doing so would increase the amount of available space to include more restrooms, and increase the size of the office and staff break rooms.

Many of the trustees seem to be in favor of a plan to relocate the Heather Hill office, which they say creates a security risk. The office is currently situated near the center of the school, causing visitors to walk through a length of hallway before reaching the office to check in.

The Parker plan includes creation of a Cafetorium, a multipurpose space that would serve as a cafeteria and music auditorium. It also would provide a centralized district kitchen that could prepare and serve meals for all schools. Currently, district schools with kitchens make their own meals, while those that lack a kitchen use food service vendors.

Estimated combined costs of these projects ranged from about $11 to $13 million. 

Already included in the long range plans are full upgrades for each classroom in the district, including technology, furniture, sound and paint, at a total cost of $3 million. 

Also projected is the Long Range Facilities Maintenance 10-Year Plan, which includes repair and upgrade projects for items such as exteriors, interiors, bathrooms, heating, electrical, playgrounds, parking lots and accessibility, for a cost of $18 million. That work will be paid for through a fund balance of $6 million, bond sales and an existing tax levy of $2 million.

At its June 27 meeting, the board discussed the school building remodeling plans. Member Cameron Nelson said he doesn’t think the board has a clear vision of what facility ideals the district should be striving for. 

“Without a clear vision of what we think the schools should look like, it becomes difficult to parse out Option A vs. Option B,” he said. “We don’t have a clear, rational basis for choosing one over the other.”

Plans being presented, he said, may continue to fix smaller problems, while ignoring larger, more impactful issues. It’s one of the reasons some of the district’s schools feature unusual architecture, such as strange hallways configurations and indoor walls with exterior windows.

“The architecture at Heather Hill is like an acid trip – it’s weird,” Nelson said. “These weird problems have continued because (the district has) addressed buildings piecemeal instead of having a long-term plan.”

Board member Michael Rouse questioned the approach of separating the decisions of building remodeling plans, and the district’s vision of future instruction.

“The purpose of a school is not to look nice; it’s what’s happening in the school,” Rouse said. “So consideration of any project relevant to buildings is going to be dependent on our instructional philosophy and our instructional practices. 

“If we’re moving forward in our instructional philosophy, then that’s going to move forward our need for new buildings. But we have to think of those two in tandem, not in isolation.”

During its most recent meeting on July 18, the board stepped back from the LRPC’s initial plans, rethinking the scope of what building upgrades could and should be completed over the next 10 years. It considered three new sample plans at that meeting.

One project added to the mix is a potential pre-K center for the entire district, built at the Normandy Villa Elementary School location. Board members are considering a scenario in which the district would share the center with Homewood School District 153.

Board president Carolyn Griggs said she is drawn to any long-term plan that includes a pre-K center, which would provide services that could help the community “shoot the gap” for young children in need of an educational boost.

“If we’re worried about making sure we’re putting in place equitable solutions for all our students, we’ve got to get to the kids sooner. That will do the most to move the needle,” Griggs said.

District Associate Superintendent Fran LaBella reminded the board that creating a new center would involve creating new staff positions and other ongoing expenses, compared to the one-time expense of remodeling a building.

Rouse said he believes it’s too early to make a decision about a pre-K center. 

Board member Christine Vlietstra said the pre-K center sounds like a wonderful idea, but she wants to maintain focus on some more pressing problems, such as the “safety hazard” presented by the Heather Hill entrance-to-office distance.

Board member Misha Blackman said the pre-K center presents a number of questions to which the answers are not yet clear, namely the costs. 

About the entire long-term planning debate, Blackman encouraged the discussion, even though it has caused some recent board meetings to exceed two hours as members hone the district’s values.

“This is how we’re supposed to feel. We’re supposed to be conflicted. The confusion gives me more confidence in us getting it right,” Blackman said. “If this is uncomfortable and it feels like we’re spinning our wheels — I think we’re actually moving forward.”

Discussion on the plans will continue at the next several board meetings. In addition to the upgrades, the board will consider what the “base” classroom at District 161 would look like, and what it would cost to implement, said Superintendent Dana Smith.

“This is hard work. It’s a lot of money, and it’s not ours. I know how seriously we take that as stewards of the community,” Smith said.

All materials related to the Long Range Planning Committee’s work are available for public view

Age of district schools and remodeling history:

  • Western Avenue, built in 1948, three additions, last one in 2001
  • Parker Junior High, built in 1953, seven additions, last one in 2015
  • Flossmoor Hills, built in 1959, three additions, last one in 2002
  • Serena Hills, built in 1960, one addition in 1962
  • Normandy Villa, built in 1966, two additions, last one in 2000
  • Heather Hill, built in 1968, two additions, last one in 2002

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