New school building: Why is it needed?

Note: District 88 is seeking funds to build a new high school and remodel existing sites, with a bond referendum on Aug. 12. The following article is the second of five articles to address some questions about the referendum.

Q. Why are the school building projects needed?

The school district says it has run out of space in current buildings and lacks necessary spaces for academics, athletics and fine arts. Over the past school year, a task force made up of community volunteers considered many options to fix the space issues, said Superintendent Jeff Bertrang. The options considered included adding on to existing facilities, building new elementary schools and building a new high school.

The task force determined that adding gym spaces, a performing arts center and academic spaces at the current high school complex would take away existing green space and parking areas, and add to the traffic congestion and safety issues with busing. Building a new high school campus would allow the district to meet the needs of the schools and community, determined the task force.

The district has new programs that have taken up space in buildings designed in the 1960s, educators further explain. At Jefferson, the district has added all-day everyday kindergarten, computer labs, special education programs, pre-school programs and support programs. At Washington, it has added computer labs, special education programs and Head Start programs.

The high school, which was designed for grades 10-12, now has grades 7-12. The building was not designed for grades 7-9 programming, educators say. The district has added multiple computer labs, added new state-required curricular areas, increased the number of grades from three to six, and has only one gym for all of the physical education and athletic programs. It currently uses six portable buildings and the old district offices to hold math classes. Pre-school and programmed child-care are also held in the old district offices, called the annex.

The former high/middle school on State Street (now sold to a private group) was closed down in 2007 because it was not keeping up with fire and building codes, recounted school officials. The costs to upgrade the facility were too high to justify using the space for education, they said. The district continues to use the auditorium, through a lease with the new building owners. It is the only auditorium the district has access to, for all concerts, plays and presentations, say officials.

Educators say the district needs additional classrooms at elementary sites, safe and secure entrances, safe bus loading areas, more academic spaces throughout, more phy ed spaces, more athletic spaces and a performing arts center located at the same site as the students.

Q: Why not build onto the present high school campus?

A: The community task force which studied this matter considered and eventually discarded such options. They would aggravate traffic congestion and parking issues. Part of the campus is “unbuildable” because a main city storm sewer lies underneath the parking lot and football practice field.

Q. I hear existing buildings were designed with the potential to add more stories onto them. Is it true? Why not do that?

A. Yes, in the 1960s, the high school was built with the idea a third floor could be added, says Bertrang.

“When the district was looking at options to add classrooms in 1995-1996, they had a study completed about this fact,” said Bertrang. “The structural study came back saying the materials used in 1966 would not meet the current construction codes and specifications to build a third floor. Because of this, they built the 1996 three-story addition to the south that provided 12 classrooms.”

Q. Why did we not remodel the former school on State Street instead of selling it? Would it not have been less costly than a new school?

A. In 2005, the cost of a plan to update the former middle school over an eight-year period was calculated at just under 10 million, recalls Bertrang.

He says he is having consultants Krause Anderson reviewing the cost. “We need them to review the information and update it to next year’s construction costs, so we are looking at apples to apples comparisons.”

Q: Why did we not tear down this school, then, and build on a site we already own?

The former school is “landlocked,” with not enough green space. Options were studied in former years, including buying neighboring blocks, and these options were discarded as impractical, says Bertrang.

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