A proposed tax increase to finance a $17.6 million bond issue to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton is drawing fire from some for its price tag and praise from others who say a change is long overdue.
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is seeking voter approval April 9 to borrow $17.6 million to build a new Jefferson and demolish the existing structure at 130 N. Hazelton Ave. If the ballot question wins approval, officials say it will cost taxpayers about $23.4 million over 11 years.
The district on Thursday held the first of three forums to highlight challenges in the 1950s-era building and outline plans for a new facility.
Officials said during the forum that replacing Jefferson is more fiscally sound than renovating the former elementary school that now serves preschoolers ages 3 to 5, many of whom have special needs.
They say the existing building is aging, outdated and lacks the necessary accessibility and amenities for children in wheelchairs and walkers. Enrollment also has reached the facility's capacity of 289 and forced officials to add satellite sites at Madison and Johnson elementary schools.
Superintendent Brian Harris said the district would have only two options to house Jefferson students during a renovation. Using on-site mobile units "would be very, very costly," he said, and the only other choice would be to scatter students to other schools.
"It would create some costly and significant challenges transportation-wise, equipment-wise," he said. "We'd be paying people to drive a lot, and that's not a very good use of staff time."
But some critics are pointing to earlier, cheaper options the district considered. One design scenario presented last year estimated the cost of renovating Jefferson within its existing footprint of 26,507 square feet at roughly $8.3 million. Remodeling plus building an addition had an estimated cost of $15 million.
"I can't see why you can't cheaply renovate like most of us would do if we renovate our house," said Joe Jeffrey, a Wheaton resident.
Harris said once renovation reaches a certain threshold, the district legally is required to address the entire building's accessibility and safety issues.
"We just can't pick and choose," he said.
School board member Andy Johnson criticized talk of a "hodgepodge" approach to Jefferson given the district's renovations at elementary schools and Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South high schools, as well as construction of Hubble Middle School -- all backed by referendum money.
"Why do the kids at Jefferson and the staff and the community deserve to go on the cheap for Jefferson when we've presented quality, curricular, program-driven buildings that the community has approved in 1999, in 2003 (and) in 2007?" Johnson asked.
In 2006, when the district was looking at design plans for a new Hubble Middle School, officials also explored possible renovations at Jefferson and pegged the cost of remodeling at $13.4 million, a price based on bidding that would happen in 2008, officials said.
Harris said plans by Chicago-based Legat Architects estimate a higher cost now due in part to inflation and more detail after officials conducted site visits at other early childhood centers in suburban school districts and fielded feedback from Jefferson staff. The size of the building also increased by 9,824 square feet to address student needs, officials said.
"It was really to just kind of tell us what are we talking about here," board President Rosemary Swanson said of the 2006 proposal. "It wasn't anything that you should be really look back and say, 'Why can't we do that?' because there was no real meat to the plan."
Other opponents argue the district should use part or all of what's left of a $14.4 million construction grant it received last year from the state Capital Development Board.
The district applied for the grant in 2003 to fund classroom additions at Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South high schools. The school board already has approved using a portion of the grant -- about $2.8 million -- to pay off a lease for network upgrades, including the addition of wireless Internet access in all district schools.
Officials say they want to use the remaining $11.6 million to bolster their fund balance to protect the district against unseen emergencies, late state payments and to perhaps address other aging buildings.
During the forum, Jefferson Principal Stephanie Farrelly outlined barriers for students at the school. The building still has its original boiler from 1958, while the gym and hallways lack air conditioning, preventing medically fragile children from attending Jefferson, she said.
Some students who require minimal distraction receive instruction in converted storage closets because of space constraints, Farrelly said.
"No child should be educated in a closet," she said.
Office space for both teachers and related service staff, such as speech and language pathologists or occupational and physical therapists, is housed in classrooms because of a lack of space.
Students who require sensory therapy are using large equipment like trampolines at the end of hallways.
"It's a fire-safety hazard to have it set up in the hallway," Farrelly said. "In addition, it's a very loud activity, and it's very distracting not only for the child who needs that sensory regulation, but it's also distracting for the classrooms around there."
This year, Jefferson has so many students in walkers and wheelchairs that staff members are parking on the street to create a staging area for buses picking up or dropping off special-needs students between the building and a playground, Farrelly said.
Lisa Wagner, who's leading a group called Friends of the School in support of the referendum with her husband Dan Wagner, said a new building is "the right thing for our community long-term."
"When I look at where Jefferson is and I see the experience kids are having, I get scared for their safety and for the future because it can't operate the way it is," she said.
Two other forums are scheduled for 7 p.m. March 6 at Jefferson Early Childhood Center and 7 p.m. March 11 at Wheaton Warrenville High School.