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Article updated: 4/3/2013 11:53 PM

Wheaton College, backers resist giving up land for school

By Christopher Placek

A Wheaton College official and local residents on Wednesday criticized plans of Glen Ellyn School District 41 to acquire college-owned land for a new junior high school.

The school district has expressed interest in purchasing a 15-acre site at 1825 College Ave., which the college uses for art studios, a campus maintenance workshop, warehouse storage and not-for-profit Christian ministries.

Superintendent Ann Riebock has been talking to college officials about a potential purchase since June 2012, but the college has said the land isn't for sale. District officials have indicated they may pursue eminent domain proceedings if the college doesn't want to sell.

Dale Kemp, the college's vice president for finance, said during a community forum Wednesday at Hadley Junior High School the college "carefully and strategically" plans for its property needs years in advance, and in this case, purchased the property on College Avenue 15 years ago for its long-term "educational and religious mission."

"Wheaton College will vigorously defend itself against any attempt by the district to take our east campus by eminent domain. We encourage you to reconsider your course and to implement other alternatives to address your stated facility needs," Kemp said.

The school board plans to vote Monday to make a formal offer to the college to purchase the site. If the college rejects the offer, a resolution to pursue eminent domain could be considered by the school board as early as April 22.

Riebock said the district has been looking for land to build a new school in an effort to reduce overcrowding. There are 32 portable classrooms at the district's five schools. Together, students in those classrooms represent a full school, she said.

She also said the portable units are aging and present indoor air quality issues, while some parents have raised safety concerns due to students moving to and from main school buildings.

A real estate and land planning consultant hired by the school district found that "the only viable piece of property that could be considered to build a new school" was the Wheaton College property on College Avenue, Riebock said.

The district has proposed converting its current junior high school into an elementary school that would also have space for the district's early childhood preschool and dual-language programs.

Building a new junior high school would allow the district to "right-size" its elementary schools, Riebock said.

Kemp suggested the district consider renovating its facilities, such as Hadley or the now-vacant site of the former Spaulding Elementary School on First Street between Forest Avenue and Park Boulevard.

Riebock said the Spaulding site has been deemed "too small."

Glen Ellyn Village Trustee Pete Ladesic, who has served on various District 41 site selection and boundary committees in the past, said the Spaulding site should be considered as an option, or existing buildings could be expanded by building up, since three district schools are only one floor.

"There are alternatives, but sometimes it seems like it's fallen on deaf ears," Ladesic said.

Some 100 residents attended Wednesday's community forum, and those who spoke were opposed to district's plans.

Mark Taylor of Wheaton, who is also president and CEO of Tyndale House Publishers, a Christian publishing company in Carol Stream, said District 41 is attempting to "steal" the land from Wheaton College.

"It's entirely inappropriate for one educational institution to grab land from another educational institution," he said. "Just because you may have the right, doesn't make it right."

Steve Miller of Glen Ellyn told school board members in attendance they should be "getting a sense this isn't going to fly."

"One of the Ten Commandments is 'thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's property,' and I think it's especially important we keep that in mind," Miller said.

Some residents expressed doubt a tax increase referendum question to build a new school could pass, since the last one failed decisively in 2007, and they questioned whether the district was "putting the cart before the horse" by not asking voters if they favored a new school before trying to acquire the land.

"The cart for us first was to look at land and what we might be able to build (a school) on," Riebock said.

The school district and college have maintained each would have a strong case if the matter were to go to court.

Land: Glen Ellyn school board to vote Monday on making formal offer

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