The future of the Jefferson Early Childhood Center and other facilities in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 could begin to take shape this week at a series of community forums.
All four sessions will be held at Jefferson, a building opened in 1958 that ranks high on the district's list of priorities to replace. The first 90-minute forum begins at 6 p.m. today at 130 N. Hazelton Ave., Wheaton. The others are scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 30 and Sept. 4 and from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10.
One conceptual proposal reviewed by the school board earlier this year would demolish the existing Jefferson when a new one opens on what is now an athletic field at the 10-acre site near the DuPage County Fairgrounds.
But before the board formally votes on the future of Jefferson, or any other facility, officials plan to use the forums to highlight the services at the school and seek input both on a potential project at that site and scenarios to upgrade other aging facilities.
If the district decides to pursue plans for a new building, voters would have to approve the proposal as part of a referendum question, board President Rosemary Swanson said.
Jefferson Principal Stephanie Farrelly said the 26,507-square-foot building doesn't meet the physical and instructional needs of the 250 students enrolled there, including those with special needs.
"There are a number of challenges we face on a daily basis," Farrelly said.
Teachers use converted storage closets to instruct students who require minimal distraction, she said, and the end of hallways to provide therapy for students with sensory needs.
"We're using every available space here in the building to help support and teach students," Farrelly said.
The school's gymnasium and hallways lack air conditioning, preventing some students who are "medically fragile" from attending Jefferson, Farrelly said.
Another issue is the school's design, intended for elementary school students, not the district's youngest learners, ages 3 to 5, Farrelly said. Students use step stools throughout the building to reach sinks and other areas.
"We're trying to teach children independence skills," Farrelly said. "Because a lot of our students are learning how to walk or have difficulty balancing by themselves, it is a safety concern for them stepping on stools, so they need assistance. When you're trying to build that independence, it's a little bit difficult to do when a child isn't able to maintain their balance and do things for themselves."
In a portion of one wing in the building, classrooms do not have bathrooms, creating long lines in common bathrooms and taking away from instructional time, the principal said. For classrooms that do have bathrooms, they are not accessible for the almost 20 students who use wheelchairs or walkers.
In addition to the forums, Rosemont-based ECRA Group is expected to conduct a survey in October to ask the community about the district's facilities and present its findings to district officials by the November school board meeting. The board on Aug. 15 passed a $15,200, one-year agreement with the firm.
The forums, meanwhile, will include a tour of Jefferson and a brief exit survey for community members. Several stations set up in the school's gymnasium will address funding options and conceptual designs.
In a presentation to the school board in May, conceptual plans by Chicago-based Legat Architects estimated the cost of a new Jefferson near $18.3 million. That figure would increase to an estimated $24.6 million if the district decided to move its administrative offices to the new building. The offices currently are in the School Service Center in Wheaton.
To finance a new Jefferson, officials are looking at a $14.4 million construction grant the district received earlier this year from the state Capital Development Board. In 2003, the district applied for the grant to fund classroom additions at Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South high schools.
But in June, the board unanimously approved using a portion of the grant -- about $2.8 million -- to pay off a five-year lease for network upgrades the district rolled out more than a year ago. Superintendent Brian Harris said the upgrades, among other things, added wireless Internet access to all schools.
If the district does pursue a referendum question, it probably will come in April 2013.
"The issue is: Do we throw all our capital monies into this project, or do we ask the community to foot the bill for some of it or maybe split it?" Harris said. "We don't know yet. That's some of the feedback we're looking for over the next few weeks."
Even if the board decided to earmark all of the district's capital funds to build a new school, a referendum question likely would ask voters whether the district can issue bonds to construct a new Jefferson, Harris said.
"We have to get community approval if we're going to borrow money and if we're going to rebuild a facility," he said.
Swanson said the community input will help the district develop plans for Jefferson.
"It's essential that we do something for that program," Swanson said. "Those kids deserve to have what they need in order to learn the best that they can in order to get a good start."