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updated: 6/19/2017 10:21 AM

Wheaton Dist. 200 weighing future of Jefferson building

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  • Officials in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 say they're taking plans to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center off the table.

    Officials in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 say they're taking plans to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center off the table.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

After two failed attempts to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials are taking plans for a new building off the table and studying scaled-back alternatives.

The school board's facility committee last week began discussing the future of Jefferson, an aging and undersized building that houses the district's youngest learners, two-thirds of whom have special needs.

A "base option" before the committee would only fix Jefferson's infrastructure at an estimated cost of $5.3 million. But district officials are questioning that kind of investment in a building that also faces other lingering issues.

So the committee will spend the next several months vetting several scenarios and giving updates on its progress at meetings of the full board.

The district is going back to the drawing board now that voters have twice rejected a bid to build a new Jefferson, first in 2013 and again last April as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million plan for construction projects at all but one of the district's schools.

A new early childhood center also got lukewarm support in a post-referendum survey of 2,614 residents, parents, alumni and employees. Roughly 38 percent of those surveyed said the district should keep a new Jefferson as proposed in its facility plan, while 30 percent said the district should revise the project to reduce costs. About 26 percent said the district should pull the plug on a new building entirely.

The committee is revisiting some alternatives that the district previously has floated for the state-mandated early childhood program. So far, the preliminary list of options includes:

• Renovating the existing, 1950s-era Jefferson and building an addition.

• Building an addition to nearby Monroe Middle School. The district would have to reach an intergovernmental agreement to construct the wing on park district land.

• Building an early childhood addition at another school.

• Repairing and replacing infrastructure at Jefferson and leaving the rest of the building as-is.

• Converting an elementary school into an early learning center.

That latter option likely won't stay in the mix because of enrollment trends, but the district won't definitely rule it out until officials receive the results of enrollment and building capacity studies in July.

The district's demographer, John Kasarda, is updating his last major enrollment study from four years ago with new projections. As of early May, enrollment stood at 12,947 students.

At the same time the board weighs the future of Jefferson and architects crunch numbers for each scenario, the district has updated a capital plan that calls for an estimated $88.6 million in projects completed over eight years. That price tag includes $5.3 million for Jefferson infrastructure work.

The district has not yet decided whether to seek voter approval of a different plan. Board members also could consider budget cuts in fiscal year 2019 to reallocate operational funds for capital projects.

If voters in April had approved the request, the district would have borrowed $132.5 million and increased property taxes to pay off the debt in 19 years. The previous board also had pledged to set aside $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets to fund the rest of the ill-fated plan.

The district would have set aside $16.6 million to tear down the old Jefferson and construct a roughly 45,000-square-foot building with 16 classrooms on the same site.

Jefferson was built almost 60 years ago as an elementary school and was never meant for students as young as 3. Half the classrooms don't have bathrooms, and the ones that do are too small and not wheelchair-accessible, educators have said.

Occupational and physical therapists also work with students using large equipment in the building's hallways because of space constraints.

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