Haines Middle School is now closed. What will District 303 do with it next?
Without the bustle of students in hallways, or teachers lecturing in classrooms, or friends catching up at lunch, what is a school's identity?
That question has been on the minds of St. Charles Unit District 303 school board members as they debate the fate of the now-shuttered Haines Middle School.
Friday marked the end of an era for the 61-year-old building as the last group of sixth- through eighth-graders walked out the doors and into summer vacation. In the fall, those students will either move on to high school or move to another middle school. They won't be returning to the Haines site -- at least not for a typical school day.
The district's most probable next step is repurposing the facility, which has undergone numerous expansions over the years. But board members, three of whom are newly elected, aren't ready to commit to a multimillion-dollar project without a clearer vision of the district's long-term needs.
Closing Haines is part of a nearly $50 million plan to consolidate and update the district's middle school facilities.
Improvements to Wredling were completed last year. A major renovation and expansion project at Thompson is wrapping up this summer, just in time to absorb additional students for the 2019-20 academic year.
Board members began discussing Haines' future last fall and ruled out demolishing, leasing or selling the property at 305 S. Ninth St. Most thought the most logical plan is to knock down sections of the building with the least value and repurpose the remaining space.
But what programs should be offered? How much money should they spend? How quickly should a plan be implemented?
"We, as a school board, agree that the Haines building and property are valuable assets to the community," board President Carolyn Waibel said. "We are looking seriously at how our city partners can use the space while we consider long-term facility utilization plans."
Administrators in May recommended a $3.83 million plan to demolish the sixth-grade wing and two-story addition. The rest of the facility would be occupied by a new board room, department of instruction offices, the NorthEast Academy alternative program and the special education transitions program, which helps 18- to 22-year-olds with disabilities gain life skills.
The plan also includes a possible partnership with the St. Charles Park District, which is interested in using the gym, as well as the band and orchestra rooms, for its own programming, Assistant Superintendent Seth Chapman said.
Last week, Chapman told board members about a second potential agreement. St. Charles Public Library leaders want to rent the Haines learning resource center and sixth-grade wing from April 2020 to August 2021, while the library at 1 S. Sixth Ave. is being renovated.
That deal could alter the district's initial proposal, Chapman said, but appears to be a "win-win" for both entities.
Library officials seem open to covering any cost increases that come from delaying the sixth-grade wing demolition, he said. And they still would see a "significant cost savings" by leasing from the district rather than finding space elsewhere.
"We're being good stewards of taxpayer money all around," Waibel said.
The last thing nearby residents want to see is an abandoned building in their neighborhood, district spokeswoman Carol Smith said. Their concerns are echoed by district officials, who fear what might happen if they let Haines sit empty for too long.
"We want to be fiscally responsible and not leave a building vacant," Smith said.
Other community members, however, have urged the board to take a step back and evaluate all its options. Parent Danielle Penman suggested allowing the park district and library to occupy the building while the school district completes a facilities master plan.
"There are so many things that are uncertain," she said. "Take a pause and really see what the future of our district needs."
Before making a decision on building use, board members say they want more information on the NorthEast Academy and transitions programs, including its anticipated growth and how it would fit into the repurposed Haines. Administrators plan to make a presentation to the board this summer.
Additionally, the district is working with the library and park district to draft proposed agreements, which likely will be considered by the business services committee in July.
Seeing renderings, phased-in approaches, more substantial cost estimates and a potential timeline for the project could help answer some elected officials' remaining questions, Chapman said.
The board plans to vote Monday to authorize the ATS & R architecture firm to begin that design phase. Though it doesn't commit the district to any specific part of the plan, Chapman said, it will help move the conversation forward.
"We would like to have a plan in place sooner than later," Smith said. "But we also understand the need for the board to have as much information as possible to make the right decision."