Oak Grove School nearing the end of a 5-year, $14 million transformation
While the pace slows at many schools during summer break, there has been no breather at Oak Grove School in Green Oaks.
For the fifth summer, construction workers moved in as soon as school let out in June, working on a carefully planned, $14.1 million remodeling of the K-8 school at the south end of O'Plaine Road.
Now, with only a few weeks until the start of the new year, the pace has ratcheted up, even though the scope of work isn't as broad as the past two years. School officials are relieved as the project to reconfigure space, conserve energy, improve the layout and security, and upgrade technology is almost done.
"We really, truly have a new building on the inside. There's no other way to look at it," said Lonny Lemon, superintendent of the single-school Oak Grove District 68.
On schedule and on budget, Lemon said that, barring unforeseen circumstances like late material deliveries, "I think we'll be OK."
School starts Aug. 19.
School board member Craig Dowden, who graduated from Oak Grove in 1978, hosted a reunion there a few years ago. Quite a few former students marveled at how the building had not changed.
At the time, he was proud, he said.
"But in retrospect, I should have ... realized how far behind the facility was in being able to offer the best opportunities for our current students," he said.
Dowden, a member of the committee that reviews completed, ongoing or proposed work on a monthly basis, said Oak Grove has been transformed from an outdated building with limited technology to one of the most progressive in the area.
The $14.1 million was raised without asking voters for a tax hike, which Lemon thinks is this school board's legacy.
"To do it without having to go to a bond referendum is unheard of," he said
District 68 borrowed $1.5 million to complete the project this summer but expects to save money in the end. The loan will be paid back quickly, and the money will keep additional work from being delayed -- thereby costing more money. The bulk of the project is being financed through available funds.
"The board made sure the right projects were done in the right order for the right price," said Lane Hasler, board vice president and chairman of the facilities committee.
In 2010, the district commissioned a study to assess what at the school needed to be repaired, replaced or corrected. The result is an intricately choreographed makeover that has been a constant during every summer of Lemon's tenure, which began in July 2012.
"I'm not near as nervous (about finishing in time for the opening of school) as I have been in the past," an upbeat Lemon said during a recent tour. This year the $3 million package of improvements is focused on the junior high portion of the sprawling building.
With this summer's work, District 68 will have remodeled most of the school, except the elementary classrooms in the 1997 addition, whose updating is part of "the long-range plan to be implemented in coming years," said architect Peter Graves of GravesDesignGroup, which has been involved since the initial analysis.
Oak Grove was built in 1954 and has had six additions for a total of 145,000 square feet. There are 52 classrooms with the ability to divide two into four smaller classrooms.
"We enlisted input from the teachers when we were doing our work -- not every classroom should be the same," said Hasler, a board member since 2009.
Each summer has had its own extensive work list that called for gutting some areas and consolidating others to make new, functional classrooms and work spaces, such as the green-screen production studio, administrative offices and conference areas.
New roofing, windows, utility systems and other conservation measures, plus flooring, ceilings, more handicapped accessibility, and upgrades to the exterior grounds and play areas were all part of the program. As well, all classrooms and large group spaces are now air-conditioned.
Accommodations have been made for current and future technology.
"When I started, we had 20 megabytes of bandwidth. Now we have 300," Lemon said.
The upgrades will reduce maintenance and materials costs -- "$10,000 a year just on (floor) wax," Lemon said. Hasler singled out maintenance staffer Oswaldo Suarez for making suggestions that saved substantial money.
The facilities committee is shifting the final phases of construction into a maintenance program, Dowden said, so future boards can more easily address issues.
"If future boards adhere to the master plan we created, the money will be there," Hasler added.
Board members and others think the improvements have an ancillary benefit -- helping local homes retain value and attract buyers.
Lemon said enrollment has remained at about 820 students since he joined District 68, despite there being fewer new kindergarten students at present than graduates.
"We like to think it's because we're a desirable school district," he said.