Long road led to next week's groundbreaking for District 73 kindergarten center

After years of planning and revisions, District 73 ready to break ground on project

A milestone project years in the making for Hawthorn Elementary District 73 begins in earnest Monday with groundbreaking for a $13.5 million kindergarten center in Vernon Hills.

Intended to relieve crowding at District 73 schools, the 18-classroom facility will be attached to the Vernon Hills Park District's Sullivan Center on Aspen Drive. It's the first big project funded by a $48.7 million building plan approved by voters in November.

The kindergarten center is part of a cooperative effort to create a concentration of public facilities at that location, including the Sullivan Center and nearby Aspen Drive Library, which is undergoing a $6.8 million expansion. District 73's southern campus is across the street.

"We're looking at this as more of a campus setting with a variety of agencies," said David Brown, village engineer/public works director. "All off these uses in one area will complement each other."

For the school district, getting to this point was not easy. The approval and finally coming construction of a kindergarten center has involved exhaustive studies, community forums, public hearings, plan revisions and a referendum with voters' rejection, before voters in November agreed to raise taxes to fund a comprehensive building plan for the district.

Despite the setbacks, school board members remained dogged and confident this day would come.

"It's been a long, thoughtful journey from the time we first identified a need, and this project is the result of the input and collaboration of all stakeholders," said Robin Cleek, who in April was reelected to a second term and subsequently selected as the new board president.

"The board is thankful the voters supported the additional space, and by prioritizing the kindergarten center, we can provide relief at each of the elementary buildings as soon as the 2020-21 school year."

Officials have maintained that the consolidated kindergarten is needed to ease crowding at its elementary and middle schools.

Enrollment has grown by nearly 500 students over the last decade, bringing the district's total to more than 4,200, and more students are expected as young families move into existing homes. The kindergarten center will accommodate up to 500 students.

While voters approved a bond issue to fund construction of the new center and upgrades at existing schools, they rejected a second measure seeking to raise taxes to provide $1.3 million a year to maintain and operate the new and renovated buildings.

That meant cuts to eliminate an existing deficit and provide for those costs. In March, the school board authorized about $1.5 million in cuts over the next two years. About $1.1 million of that will be in 2019-20 and includes nearly two dozen teacher assistant and school clerk positions.

There also were other bumps. Vernon Hills' advisory planning and zoning commission was concerned with the flow of buses and cars, a parking lot expansion and other aspects of the kindergarten center, and forwarded five negative recommendations to the village board.

But those concerns were overridden by village trustees, who said plans sometimes need to be reworked in an imperfect situation.

The village over the years has primed the pump for the development along Aspen by providing underground stormwater storage for the entire area, donating property for the library building and parking, and planning to contribute about $200,000 for traffic enhancements and parking.

"We've contributed in a number of ways," Brown said. "We've been working together on planning for the better part of a decade."

As the kindergarten center progresses, the school board will interview architects for the next project or projects, according to Cleek.

"We're still planning to address the needs at Hawthorn Middle North next," she said.

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