Wheaton parks leader defends talks of possible land swap with District 200

Wheaton Park District officials have drawn criticism from some residents for even considering a land swap that would give Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 space for an $18 million addition of Monroe Middle School.

Park district Executive Director Mike Benard has not yet made a recommendation to commissioners for or against such a deal. But in a letter to residents, Benard defends the decision to engage in a "dialogue" with the school district about the possible exchange of properties.

If both sides approve a land swap, the school district would use a portion of Graf Park to build a roughly 43,000-square-foot addition to the middle school along Manchester Road. Preschool programs would move out of the aging Jefferson Early Childhood Center and into the new wing.

In his letter dated Saturday, Benard acknowledges the park district has received pushback for taking up the issue at all. Opponents have started an online petition with more than 1,000 signatures and distributed yard signs against the addition that they say would fundamentally alter the character of the park.

"Some have expressed concern, disbelief, and some outright anger that the park district would even consider this proposal that seemingly benefits the school district in a disproportionate fashion to the park district," Benard wrote. "To explain, I submit that it is in the entire community's best interest for all local governments to consider, discuss, research and plan as collaborators rather than independent 'turf'-oriented, single-focused entities."

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 in 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 election, officials have informally discussed an agreement to swap the athletic fields just south of Jefferson in exchange for about 4.5 acres of Graf Park. Of that land, the building addition and parking lot would occupy about 2.4 acres, with the rest remaining green space.

"I firmly believe that residents in general appreciate a businesslike approach to government operations and services," Benard wrote. "It is businesslike to explore partnerships that may create multiple successes. It is also businesslike to efficiently make a decision and move forward after research, evaluation and discussion with all stakeholders (including you) is conducted. Sometimes a better and different result is discovered only though the process of discussing other options."

The park district purchased the land in 1972 from William and Bernice Graf for $145,500.

"Our legal review of the related purchase documents in our possession identifies no covenants or restrictions of record on the transaction with the Grafs," Benard wrote.

But a state grant that reimbursed the district for some of the purchase costs may have some strings attached.

"These grants typically come with some encumbrance on the uses of the land," Benard wrote. "I have yet to locate the original grant agreement which would depict the exact footprint of acreage in Graf Park that is encumbered by this grant."

Once he tracks down the agreement and reviews the latest addition plans by the school district, Benard plans to make a recommendation to the park board about whether to proceed with a land deal.

He noted that the school district is refining designs based on feedback from neighbors "to make the footprint of the building and parking lot possibly less offensive and intrusive." The school district also is still reviewing another option that would use the open space behind the existing Jefferson for a new building.

The Monroe addition emerged as an option, in part, because the district could preserve the existing Jefferson building as an asset. Should the school board decide to move forward with the project, it likely would 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.

District 200 could build addition for Jefferson students

  Official say they would intend to preserve an existing playground either at its current location or elsewhere within Graf Park. Bev Horne/
  Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials are considering whether to build an addition to Monroe Middle School to house preschoolers. Mark Black/
  The addition would be built on the east side of Monroe Middle School and into Graf Park. The park district would have to agree to a land swap deal with the school district. Mark Black/
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