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Article updated: 3/26/2013 9:01 PM

Oak Brook voters to decide fate of new school proposal

By Marie Wilson

First of two parts

Voter response to two questions on the April 9 ballot in Oak Brook could lead to development of a new school for Butler Elementary District 53 on village-owned land at the Sports Core.

One question will be posed only to residents within the borders of District 53. It will ask voters to approve or deny a tax increase so the district can borrow $15 million to help finance the proposed $40 million school.

The other question relates to the proposed site of the K-8 school: the Sports Core east of the Oak Brook Public Library. All Oak Brook residents will see a ballot question asking to approve or deny the sale of no more than 8.5 acres of Sports Core property to District 53 for construction of the school.

If voters approve the tax increase and give permission to sell the land, District 53 officials say they will move forward with plans to construct an almost 120,000-square-foot building with 28 classrooms to replace the aging Brook Forest Elementary and Butler Junior High schools.

If voters reject either or both questions, district officials say they likely will focus instead on making $12.2 million worth of required life/safety improvements to the existing schools using surplus funds accumulated by cutting costs.

As the April 9 election nears, school officials are explaining why they believe one new school is the best option to serve the district's 465 students.

Benefits of building

A new school would help high-performing Butler District 53 provide better services for special education students, earlier access to Spanish and other classes for gifted students, and a learning environment more conducive to the digital age, Superintendent Sandra Martin said.

"We would be able to equip the new school with the most recent technology to make it energy efficient and also provide students with the best connectivity to the Internet and resources," Martin said. "Our faculty is very excited about this prospect of teaching children in a new environment and having the opportunity to be part of the design process."

School board President Alan Hanzlik said the district began studying its facilities more than a year ago as part of a master planning effort. A state-mandated life/safety study was completed two years earlier than necessary, and Hanzlik said it determined Brook Forest and Butler would need $12.2 million of work within 10 years to keep the buildings safe.

The study found the schools have limited accessibility for students with disabilities, limited food preparation facilities and safety concerns about student pickup and drop-off areas. Brook Forest has irregularly shaped classrooms with too few electrical outlets and temporary walls creating noise distractions. Butler has limited space for musical and theater performances and the school, at 2801 York Road, is not centrally located in Oak Brook.

Hanzlik said pouring money into the current schools to make the necessary life/safety repairs is not the best long-term financial option.

"The problem with that, as we analyzed it, is after 10 years we will have spent $12.2 million and still have two older buildings," Hanzlik said about Brook Forest, built in 1971, and Butler, built in 1958. "We didn't want to get into the cycle of continuing to invest in these structures if, in fact, there may be a better solution."

The board began examining three possibilities for future facility use, including maintaining both buildings, renovating and expanding Butler to include a K-5 wing, and building a new school.

The new school option rose to the forefront.

Hanzlik said maintaining both existing schools would cost $48.7 million over 50 years -- about the same as it would cost to build and maintain one new building over the same period.

Expanding Butler would require buying five or six houses and displacing their owners to gain the amount of land recommended for a school with nearly 500 students, Hanzlik said. It would cost $36 million to $39 million -- almost as much as the proposed new school -- and it would retain the building's 54-year-old core.

New school plans

The new school would offer additional security and separate wings for elementary and junior high students who would use shared spaces, such as a gym, cafeteria and auditorium, at different times, Martin said. Those shared spaces could be rented by community or business groups in the afternoon and evening.

Moving to a K-8 campus would save on lawn mowing, snow removal, janitorial services, heating and air conditioning and administrative costs, including the salary of one principal, Hanzlik said. Savings are estimated to total $570,000 a year, and that money would be put toward paying off debts incurred to build the new school.

"We can certainly make that building quite a bit more efficient than our two old buildings," he said.

District officials say the new school has not been fully designed, but preliminary concepts include space for additional students in case more Oak Brook subdivisions annex into District 53. About 40 percent of Oak Brook residents do not live within the district's borders, but some neighborhoods have been working to join by trying to leave their current district.

Cost considerations

Martin said the proposed $40 million cost of the new school includes the building itself, land acquisition, the development of a water retention area and installation of a new traffic signal on Oak Brook Road.

The board is asking voters to fund $15 million of the total price with a tax increase that would cost the owner of a $500,000 house an estimated $187 more a year for the 20-year life of the loan, Hanzlik said. Other funding would come from a $10 million to $14 million loan the district can afford with current tax revenue, a $6 million chunk from reserves and $5 million from selling the properties on which Brook Forest and Butler currently sit to be developed as single-family homes.

Interest on the taxpayer-funded loan is expected to cost the district an additional $9 million, Hanzlik said.

Still, the cost of building the new school and maintaining it over 50 years is expected to be $47.2 million -- slightly lower than the $48.7 million estimated cost of maintaining the current buildings.

Some residents are questioning the math and whether building a new school is worth the upfront cost.

"I see the 50 years as just something you're doing to make the dollars and cents sound good, but it doesn't make sense to me," resident Esther Paice said at a forum held by Citizens for A Better Oak Brook, a political action committee formed to support approval of both ballot questions.

Former Oak Brook Village President Karen Bushy is among vocal opponents of the new school plan. She said the board is too willing to tear down "two perfectly good schools" and spend millions on development of a new facility.

"People don't understand that the property tax increase will be passed along to the businesses," said Bushy, who lives within District 53's borders. "That will affect the income for the entire village and our ability to continue to pay our bills."

But funding is just part of the equation. A new school also would require land, and district officials say the Sports Core offers the only viable option.

Coming tomorrow: A closer look at the proposed site for District 53's new school.

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