District 200 officials again ask voters to approve Jefferson plan

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 projects that would be funded by a proposed tax increase on the April 4 ballot.

For the second time in four years, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is seeking voter approval to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center with a building designed for the district's youngest students.

Voters handily opposed the district's first attempt in 2013. But construction of a new Jefferson is now part of a larger $154.5 million plan that would pay for projects at all but one of the district's schools.

The latest ballot question asks voters to allow the district to borrow $132.5 million and increase property taxes to pay off the debt in 19 years. The current board has pledged to set aside $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets to fund the rest of the plan.

The owner of a $322,300 home - the average in the district - would pay $180 to $295 annually in additional taxes for the first nine years of the loans.

The district has scaled back the size of a new Jefferson to a roughly 45,000-square-foot building with 16 classrooms. The plan that voters rejected called for 20 classrooms.

Inside the existing Jefferson, educators say they remain constrained by a 26,507-square-foot building never meant for students as young as 3. Jefferson was built almost 60 years ago as an elementary school. That former use is still evident in bathroom faucets and light switches that are too tall for preschoolers to reach on their own.

What's more, the building was never designed for the services that educators provide for Jefferson students - two-thirds of whom have special needs - as part of a state-mandated program.

  Elizabeth Taylor, a physical therapist at Jefferson Early Childhood Center, works with Lydia Martinez, 5, on a scooter board in a hallway cluttered with file cabinets and copy machines. Brian Hill/

Occupational and physical therapists work with students using large equipment such as scooter boards in the building's hallways because of space constraints. Preschoolers who need minimal distraction also receive one-on-one instruction in a former storage closet. And window air-conditioning units - there's no schoolwide system - pose distractions for children with sensitivity issues, Principal Stephanie Farrelly said.

Accessibility also is a persistent problem for students in wheelchairs and walkers, Farrelly said. Some Jefferson students are learning to walk or trying build up their core strength.

Half the classrooms don't have bathrooms, and the ones that do are undersized and not wheelchair-accessible, Farrelly said.

"To have our youngest learners who are actually going through toilet training not having a bathroom in the classroom poses great challenges," she said.

Children in walkers or wheelchairs must use a bathroom in one wing of the building.

"The difficulty that we have with this space is there isn't any privacy," Farrelly said. "There's only one toilet in this washroom, and you're talking about over 70 children on this side alone needing to use the washroom in addition to anybody who's in walkers and wheelchairs on the other side."

If voters approve the funding request, the district would set aside $16.6 million for replacing Jefferson. Construction of the new building could begin in early 2018 south of the current childhood center. The old building would be torn down before students move into the new Jefferson at the start of the 2019-20 school year.

The district primarily houses early learning programs at Jefferson, but it also has satellite rooms at Whittier, Madison and Johnson elementary schools. The new building would allow the district to bring all its early learning services under one roof.

  "We're trying to do the best that we can with the needs of the students," Jefferson Early Child hood Center Principal Stephanie Farrelly said. Brian Hill/

"There's more network. There's more coordination," Farrelly said of having all Jefferson staff in one building. "There's more leveraging of services and support that we have for all of the students."

Visitors would funnel through a more secure entrance directly to the main office. Classrooms would have accessible bathrooms and "integrated therapy" spaces that allow students to meet with speech and language pathologists in a dedicated area with minimal distractions, Farrelly said.

The plan does have skeptics among some candidates who are running for four available seats on the school board. Marcus Hamilton suggested during an interview with the Daily Herald editorial board that the district instead reconfigure the building.

"I hear people talking about how terrible Jefferson is and how it doesn't meet the needs and how we're stuffed in every nook and cranny and what not," said Hamilton, who opposes the ballot question. "And when I walk through, you know the building itself I think has great bones, certainly not a building you want to tear down."

But district officials contend that capital infrastructure projects at Jefferson alone - "just simply fixing existing systems," Superintendent Jeff Schuler says - would cost roughly $5.8 million.

"We've got a significant need staring us in the face, and we're going to need to address it," he said.

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