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updated: 12/14/2012 2:20 PM

District 200 nearing verdict on Jefferson referendum push

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  • Voters in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 may get a chance to vote in April on whether to fund plans to replace the aging Jefferson Early Childhood Center with a new building for the district's youngest learners.

      Voters in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 may get a chance to vote in April on whether to fund plans to replace the aging Jefferson Early Childhood Center with a new building for the district's youngest learners.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer


Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials have slightly downsized a plan to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center in response to a community survey and recommendations from staff.

After meeting with district and Jefferson officials, Chicago-based Legat Architects shaved off about 3,700 square feet from the proposed design for what now would be a 59,000-square-foot building on a 10-acre site at 130 N. Hazelton Ave. in Wheaton.

The move also reduces the project's estimated price tag from $18.3 million to about $17.6 million.

The school board is expected Jan. 9 to decide whether to place a referendum question on the April 9 ballot asking voters to approve a property tax increase that would allow the district to issue bonds to finance the project.

Officials said the project also calls for razing the existing 1950s-era Jefferson once the new building is complete. Originally designed as an elementary school, the aging and outdated facility now houses the district's youngest learners ages 3 to 5.

Two-thirds of the students who attend Jefferson have special needs. Officials and parents have pointed to instructional and physical challenges for students who, in some cases, take instruction in converted storage closets. In addition, not all the bathrooms and entrances are accessible for students who use wheelchairs or walkers.

Only one school board member, Jim Gambaiani, has declined to identify his position on the referendum issue.

"That's a tough question for me," Gambaiani said. "I've had a different view of this opportunity, and mine is more on the financial side. We've now got some different numbers, (but) not significantly different numbers."

Gambaiani said he needs to study the figures and especially how a bond issue would affect the district's debt.

The rest of the board expressed initial support for moving forward with a referendum proposal. Superintendent Brian Harris recommended at a Nov. 28 meeting that the district seek support for a bond issue to finance the entire project.

If voters signed off on a $17.6 million bond issue, officials say the owner of a home valued at $300,000 would pay an additional $23 to $59 in property taxes to the district, depending on how the board elects to structure the debt. The tax increase would take effect in 2014.

"If the community wants this, then the community should have it," board Vice President Barbara Intihar said. "This is their chance to say, 'yes, I want it, and I'm willing to pay for it,' or 'no I'm not.'"

"This is clearly not extravagant," school board member Andy Johnson said. "It's not a Taj Mahal. It's appropriate. It's what we need to do. We've been talking about it year, after year, after year. It's time to finally do it."

Among the revisions, architects trimmed spaces in classrooms for teachers' work stations and redirected the areas to "collaborative team rooms."

"We're not taking away student learning space," Harris said. "We're taking away teacher space and having it located in a different position ... and a more collaborative environment."

A community survey conducted by Rosemont-based ECRA Group in the fall showed 34 percent of 1,035 respondents favored pursuing the least expensive of three options for changes at Jefferson.

"I'm going to make it crystal clear," Harris said of the revisions. "This is responding to the community survey that said, 'hey, build a facility that's going to meet kids' needs but also design a facility -- and we'll support it -- that is most cost-effective."

Board members also backed a design scheme that would build the school around an open courtyard and expand a sensory garden at the site. Jefferson staff "overwhelming" supported that proposal, Harris said.

If voters approved a referendum proposal in April, construction could begin in March 2014. Demolition of the current, 26,507-square-foot Jefferson could begin in May 2015. Students would move into the new facility in August 2015.

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