The first community forum on the future of the Jefferson Early Childhood Center drew both advocates for a new facility and neighbors concerned about the scope of a potential project at the Wheaton site.
Roughly two dozen people attended the forum Monday night, held in a gymnasium without air-conditioning at the school -- one of the challenges in a building that has remained largely untouched since it opened in 1958 at 130 N. Hazelton Ave.
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials sponsored the forum to gauge feedback on design and funding scenarios for a new Jefferson and to collect input on other aging facilities.
While the school board has not formally decided on the future of Jefferson, officials are considering a potential referendum question in April on plans for a new building.
The forum also emphasized the services for the 250 students enrolled at Jefferson, more than half of whom have special needs.
"The bottom line is this facility has been deemed inappropriate," Superintendent Brian Harris said. "It is clearly not the best situation we have for kids with these cognitive and these physical needs."
Harris said the district has determined replacing Jefferson is more cost-effective than renovating it.
A tour of the building showed converted storage closets serving as instructional spaces and areas at the end of hallways where students receive sensory therapy with trampolines and other equipment. Not all of the bathrooms and entrances in the building are accessible for students who use wheelchairs and walkers.
Officials say the building also was designed for elementary school students, not the district's youngest learners, ages 3 to 5. The tour highlighted step stools scattered throughout the building that allow students to reach sinks and other areas.
Last year, enrollment met the building's capacity of 289 students and forced officials to add phonology and speech services at Madison and Johnson elementary schools, Harris said.
Students are eligible for the district's special education services when they turn 3. Harris said the rolling enrollment at Jefferson is expected to meet the building's capacity again midway through the school year and require the use of satellite sites.
One-third of Jefferson's students pay tuition and do not have special needs, Harris said.
Also Monday, Chicago-based Legat Architects presented two design concepts at one station set up in the gymnasium.
Both proposals would demolish the 26,507-square-foot Jefferson and build a new facility on what is now an athletic field at the 10-acre site near the DuPage County Fairgrounds. The footprint would jump to 62,900 square feet with a capacity of about 360 to 380 students, Legat President and CEO Patrick Brosnan said.
Another proposal would add a second story to a wing along Manchester Road to accommodate the district's administrative offices, currently housed in the School Service Center in Wheaton.
Nickey King, a neighbor who lives on Hazelton Avenue, criticized the loss of green space in the design concepts. While she supported an overhaul of Jefferson, King said kids in the area use the athletic fields for sports and other activities.
"You're changing the whole neighborhood dynamic," King said.
Judith Zapf, a parent of a former Jefferson student who now attends Washington Elementary School, helped lead the tour of the building. Her son, now 6, was born with a rare condition that left most of his organs in a sac outside his body. He attended Jefferson with a feeding tube and received speech, physical and occupational therapy, his mom said.
Seven surgeries later, her son no longer needs the district's special education services, she said.
"I'm here because if they can help one more child with a bigger and better building, it's worth it," Zapf said.
To fund a new Jefferson, officials are exploring whether to use some or the remainder of 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.
In June, the school board approved using a portion of the grant -- about $2.8 million -- to pay off a five-year lease for network upgrades unveiled more than a year ago, including the addition of wireless Internet access in all district schools.
Another property the district is reviewing is the former Woodland School in Warrenville, currently being used as a storage facility. The district is considering whether to sell the site or renovate it for additional storage. Harris said the property has an estimated value of $500,000.
In addition to three more scheduled forums, the district will seek community input through a survey conducted by Rosemont-based ECRA Group. The firm is expected to conduct the survey in October and outline the results to district officials by the November school board meeting.
A five-question exit survey at the forum did not specifically address funding options, but asked attendees which of the two building concepts is "most appropriate."
Harris stressed that Jefferson is the district's priority after a decade-plus effort to upgrade or replace other facilities.
"It has never had any major overhauls," he said.
The 90-minute forums will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 4 at Jefferson. The final forum is scheduled for 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10.