A milestone involving the flood-prone Gurnee Grade School was reached Tuesday, bringing a sense of relief to entities that have worked for years to solve the problem.
The Lake County Board voted unanimously to authorize $2.76 million in funding from its Stormwater Management Commission budget to buy three parcels forming a triangle-shaped site, including the school and a maintenance building, on about six acres.
"This was a huge step," said John Hutton, superintendent of Gurnee Elementary District 56, which owns the school built in 1954 just west of the Des Plaines River on Kilbourne Road near Old Grand Avenue.
That paves the way for a closing on the vacant building and grounds, likely in mid-March. An environmental survey and structural analysis will follow, with the information to be included in demolition bid documents.
By early summer, the site where volunteers nine times during the past 15 years have had to build sandbag walls to protect the school, will be cleared. Discussion of that possibility began about five years ago.
"We were all kind of stuck in bureaucracy until SMC swooped in and helped us," Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik told county board members before the vote. "When this (school) comes out, we may actually have a flood and not have to sand bag."
As planned, the stormwater agency would own the property until the buildings are demolished, the basement of the old school is filled in and the site graded and restored. The site then would be conveyed to the Gurnee Park District.
A $3.2 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will be used for the purchase and demolition. The source of the money is federal disaster relief and block grants, according to Mike Warner, executive director of the stormwater agency.
The school and park districts will split the estimated $75,000 cost of engineering services.
In a presentation before the vote, Warner told the county board the school was located "pretty much in the middle of the flood plain." Regulations regarding building in those areas did not come into effect until 1978, he said.
Flooding became a common problem at the school, with a tab for each occurrence amounting to about $300,000 -- not counting the cost of relocating students or damage to the building, according to Warner.
"I've really been looking forward to this," said County Board member Steve Carlson, who represents the area. "It helps the environment, it helps the taxpayers and most of all it helps the kids."
While talks continued about possible solutions to the issue, voters in November 2010 approved giving District 56 permission to borrow $28.5 million to build a new school, administrative offices and other projects. Administrators last summer moved to the new facility adjacent to Spaulding School in Gurnee. About 450 students in January relocated to the new Prairie Trail School in Wadsworth, leaving Gurnee Grade School vacant.
Hutton said the district has not decided how to use the windfall from the sale, although it will involve an enhancement to the school district and community.
"We don't want to go through this process quickly," he said. One possibility discussed with the park district involves a pavilion, "so future generations will remember Gurnee Grade School," he added.