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updated: 9/12/2013 5:10 PM

New Jefferson referendum looms in Wheaton Warrenville 200

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The prospect of another vote to increase taxes for the Jefferson Early Childhood Education Center remains very much alive in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 as supporters of the failed April effort have re-emerged.

Former board President Andrew Johnson introduced himself to the school board late Wednesday as the new chairman of a group called "Friends of the Schools -- Yes to the Jefferson Early Childhood Center Referendum."

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Johnson said he has begun gathering volunteers for the renewed effort, should that be the consensus of a series of community meetings. The district has called part of a "community engagement" process, which is expected to begin in December.

Johnson acknowledged the timing is "tight" to get a question on the March ballot but said he has "begun laying the groundwork for that" next referendum push.

"We're looking for volunteers as we move forward and ramp up toward a successful referendum to replace this building with one that matches all 19 other buildings in the district that are curriculum driven and driven toward the needs of the kids that are in them," he said. "We have to wait for the community engagement process to complete so they can come to a decision so we know what to do. In the meantime, we're building the organization that's there to support what comes of it, is my job."

In April, district voters resoundingly said no to building a new $17.6 million Jefferson Early Childhood Center. District officials say Jefferson is not to be the only focus of the meetings and that they hope to also discuss district finances, curriculum and other facilities.

"This is another effort, on our part, to engage the community, hear from the community and let the community hear from us," said Community Engagement Committee co-chairman and school board member Jim Vroman. "I just hope and pray that we get some really active volunteers as we review such important issues as finance, such as facilities, such as a curriculum and a whole array of things."

The needs of Jefferson, however, are likely to be the focus because officials say the facility is aging and outdated. They say they have identified substantial instructional and physical challenges at the school, where two-thirds of the students, ages 3 to 5, have special needs.

Not all of the bathrooms or entrances, for example, are accessible to students who use wheelchairs and walkers. Some students receive therapy at the end of hallways and in converted storage closets at the 1950s-era building, originally designed as an elementary school.

Board President Barbara Intihar has previously stated that a future referendum question is "not even on the table at this point." Wednesday night she put the ball back in the community's hands.

"It's clear there are still needs and when the community feels it is right to address those needs, I'm sure we will do everything in our power to address them," she said. "So we're going to wait to see what comes out of the community engagement process and move forward based on that."

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