District 200 could build addition for Jefferson students
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials are developing plans to move preschool programs from the Jefferson Early Childhood Center into an $18 million addition that would expand Monroe Middle School into Graf Park.
But the proposed 43,000-square-foot addition is facing opposition from some neighbors who take issue with building on park land and disturbing open green space.
Two school board committees have endorsed the Monroe addition as an alternative to replacing Jefferson -- a project twice rejected by voters, first in 2013 and again last April as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for building repairs and renovations at all but one of the district's schools.
Since the April election, district officials have been in talks with the Wheaton Park District about an agreement to swap the athletic fields just south of Jefferson in exchange for a portion of Graf Park to make way for an addition on the east side of the middle school off Manchester Road.
Officials are considering transferring 4.5 acres of park land to the school district, but no deal has been formalized. That land includes a baseball field and green space.
An initial concept would put new parking east of the addition. But in response to concerns from neighbors raised at a meeting earlier this month, the school district is looking at positioning the parking closer to Manchester Road and potentially relocating an existing playground, Superintendent Jeff Schuler said.
Opponents have started a website, Savegrafpark.org, and distributed yard signs against the addition. Neighbor Chris Ewert said traffic resulting from the addition would "fundamentally" alter the character of a quiet park.
"This is a valuable piece of land, not just to the neighbors that back up to it, but also to the whole community around here," Ewert said.
The school board also has not determined how to pay for the roughly $18 million addition that could open for the 2019 school year. But officials have floated the idea of dipping into reserves and issuing debt certificates.
If the district borrowed $12.5 million and chose to retire the debt in 10 years, interest payments would total about $1.6 million, according to financial consultants. A 20-year loan for the same amount would cost nearly $5 million in interest, the analysis shows.
The district would repay the debt certificates out of operating funds instead of through a property tax increase.
"There's no separate property tax levy," Schuler said.
School board policy calls for keeping at least 25 percent of annual operating revenues in reserves. An annual audit released next month will show where reserves stood for the 2017 fiscal year that ended June 30. The 2016 fiscal year fund balance was $47,254,604, or roughly 29 percent of operating revenues, Schuler said.
The district could dip into reserves for a Monroe addition and still comply with the board's policy, Schuler said.
If voters in April had approved the request, the district would have borrowed $132.5 million and increased property taxes to pay off the debt in 19 years. The previous board also had pledged to set aside $7.5 million from existing reserves and another $14.5 million from future budgets to fund the rest of the plan.
The district would have set aside $16.6 million to demolish the old Jefferson and construct a roughly 45,000-square-foot building with 16 classrooms.
As part of the post-mortem over the summer, the board's finance and facility committees have considered other scenarios for the future of Jefferson. A "base option" would only fix Jefferson's infrastructure at an estimated cost of $5.3 million. But district officials have questioned that kind of investment in a building with other lingering problems.
Jefferson was built almost 60 years ago as an elementary school and was never meant for students as young as 3. Half the classrooms don't have bathrooms, and the ones that do are too small and not wheelchair-accessible, educators have said.
Occupational and physical therapists also work with students using large equipment in the building's hallways because of space constraints.
The board committees also reviewed scenarios to renovate and expand the existing Jefferson at an estimated cost of between $18.8 million and $22.6 million.
The Monroe addition emerged as a favorable option, Schuler said, in part because the district could preserve the existing Jefferson building as an asset. Should the board decide to move forward with the project, the district also would likely sell the former Woodland School off Curtis Street in Warrenville. The district now uses Woodland for storage in addition to facilities, textbook and science operations. Jefferson could then handle those functions.
Schuler said district officials plan to meet again with Monroe neighbors. Park district Executive Director Mike Benard did not immediately respond to inquiries Monday about a land swap agreement.