Building project, per pupil spending issues in Grass Lake District 36 race
One of the smallest school districts in Lake County might feature one of the most competitive elections on the April 4 ballot.
Nine candidates are running for four open board seats governing the one-school district -- Grass Lake School near Antioch -- where 194 students attend prekindergarten through eighth-grade classes.
The candidates seeking 4-year terms are incumbents Cynthia Collins, Deborah Fogel, Susan Kozenski and Ron Lobodzinski, a challenger slate of Andrew Williams, John Frendreis, Russell Page and Susanne Tauke, and Jim Heischberg, who is not aligned with either group.
"I do feel like I'm kind of in the middle in this," said Heischberg, 55, a drivers education instructor. "I don't want to get caught up in any kind of clique here and I'm trying to not side with one side or another. I'd rather look at both sides and see what decision is best."
At issue for the candidates are the amount of money the district spends on each pupil and the cost of a $6 million construction project to tear down a portion of the Grass Lake Road school and build a new wing.
Information about the project is available on the district website at gls36.org.
The challengers said the price for the demolition and rebuilding project is too steep. They are also critical that a large portion of the new wing would be used for administrative offices.
"We don't dispute the need for renovation," said Frendreis, a 62-year-old political science professor. "But the cost per square foot is way out of proportion."
The new wing also will feature a learning center and classrooms and will make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project is being funded from the district fund balance, and no tax increase was needed, officials said.
Lobodzinski, 52, a self-employed businessman, Fogel, 44, a stay-at-home mom, and Kozenski, 57, a tax consultant, said the improvements were needed because the older wing -- built in 1947 -- was falling into disrepair.
Lobodzinski said the board hired a construction manager to "find the most economically feasible way to build the state-of-the-art building." He also said the cost per square foot is equal to that in other public projects, and the administrative offices will add nursing stations and student special service areas.
Kozenski said the renovation project "is necessary and long overdue."
During a Daily Herald endorsement interview, Fogel said the construction project addresses security needs because people now enter the building through the administrative offices. It addresses issues for younger students now taking classes in the basement, she added.
Superintendent Terry O'Brien said the project's $6 million price tag is the final construction cost. Officials said an asbestos abatement has been completed, and bids have gone out for the remainder of the work.
Officials said District 36 spends $20,514 per pupil, compared to the state average of $12,821 in 2015.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the average percent of District 36 students who met or exceeded state standards on the PARCC test in 2016 was 29.8, compared to the state average of 33.4.
Frendreis and Page, 60, a college instructor, said the district is spending "60 percent higher than the state average" per student, but individual student test scores are not achieving a mark equal to the money spent.
"For the amount of money they have been collecting and the expenses per student, the quality of education should be higher," Page said.
Williams, 59, a director of building codes and standards, argues test scores should increase because of the amount of money spent per pupil. Tauke, 70, a home developer, said in her Daily Herald questionnaire, "the school system is not functioning properly; the money is ample, but the results are poor."
Collins, 58, an accountant, said the board lowered the tax levy for homeowners the previous two years to reduce the cost per student and has been working with administrators to increase test scores. Those two areas should show improvement in the future, she said.
"The board has addressed and put resources including personnel and money into tweaking the scores," she said. "We hear from the high school that our students are prepared when they go. We have a lot of work still to do, but we feel proud of our outcome."