St. Charles District 303 candidates weigh in on future of Haines building
Building use has been a hot topic in St. Charles Unit District 303, where recent and impending school closures have caused a stir.
It remains a pressing issue for the seven candidates running for school board this spring, as the district grapples with the fate of the soon-to-be-vacant Haines Middle School.
Five candidates are seeking three 4-year seats: board President Kathy Hewell and newcomers Jillian Barker, Michael Bryant, Rebecca McCabe and Garrett Seaman. Incumbent Nick Manheim, who serves as the board's vice president, is running for a 2-year seat against newcomer Poonam Gupta-Krishnan.
Haines will be shuttered at the end of this academic year as part of a roughly $50 million project to upgrade the district's other two middle schools, Thompson and Wredling. The school board now is debating whether to spend millions more on repurposing portions of the Haines building -- and if so, for what uses.
The discussion follows the board's decision last year to close Fox Ridge Elementary School and realign attendance boundaries to address declining enrollment rates. The move caused a rift between the district and many parents who felt their desires and concerns were not taken into consideration.
A district parent and former Chicago Public Schools administrator, Seaman says he wants to repair that relationship through public forums and open dialogue. The school board should be engaging with taxpayers, he said, especially regarding issues as important as real estate.
When it comes to the future of Haines, he said, he hopes any proposal prioritizes students while also offering an environment for more effective teacher development.
"Our buildings are working in silos. We're not capitalizing on best practices across our entire system," said Seaman, an educational technology entrepreneur. "Providing a physical space for that to happen that they feel is involved and engaged could be a really good use."
Bryant, a district parent and a teacher in Batavia, said he believes District 303 often focuses on short-term goals rather than on the potential student impact a decade or more down the road. Administrative spaces are a large part of the Haines plans that have been presented so far, he said, "which I, at this point, have a very difficult time getting behind."
"I think something needs to be done with that building," Bryant said, "but we need to look long-term and have a long-term facilities plan to best determine how that space is going to be used."
Discussions surrounding the use of middle schools and other district buildings have been ongoing for years, and decisions are never made lightly, said Hewell, who is seeking her fifth term. As the school board explores options for Haines, she said, she believes some programs, including the special education transitions program and a partnership with the park district, "fit in beautifully."
"The board is taking its time to see what the community needs," Hewell said. "There's a lot that's possible."
Formerly an assistant superintendent with District 303, McCabe said the board needs to pull the trigger on a plan for repurposing the building so it doesn't sit empty. She likes the ideas that have been brought forth by administrators, she said, though she wishes a decision would have been made sooner out of courtesy to neighboring residents.
"Without a long-range plan (and) knowing ahead of time, the neighbors and the community are going to struggle with how we use our facilities," McCabe said.
Barker, an educator who has children in the district, supports creating more centralized administrative areas, as is the case in the existing Haines proposals. But she's concerned that the plan also calls for using about $1 million in Medicaid money to fund those renovations, rather than to support physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and other similar programs.
"For our students' mental health, I think it's important that we utilize that funding for students," Barker said.
Gupta-Krishnan, a business owner and former teacher, said she wants to see a more comprehensive evaluation of all options, including the sale, lease or renovation of the property. Though some ideas for repurposing the building seem appealing, she said she would like a better idea of the possible return on investment before committing to another multimillion-dollar construction project.
"The product of a school is high academic achievement," Gupta-Krishnan said. "Anything that diverts from that is not the best value that we get out of it."
During his eight years on the board, Manheim said, district officials have had careful, lengthy discussions about building utilization to ensure students are getting equal treatment districtwide. Board members frequently challenge administrators with new ideas and offer varying views on projects. That holds true for the future of Haines, he said.
"Our schools aren't just schools, they're community assets," Manheim said. "Anything we can do to better the district -- that's what the key of it is."