How to weigh in on middle school facilities in Wheaton Warrenville District 200
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 will hold a series of forums starting tonight to gather public input on potential facility projects at three of its four middle schools.
The district has started a community outreach process that could culminate with school board members deciding whether to pursue a future referendum question.
District officials have been discussing how to address significant infrastructure issues at Edison, Franklin and Monroe middle schools in Wheaton -- buildings that date to the 1950s and '60s. School board members have studied several concepts but have not yet proposed a specific plan.
The least expensive option would tackle only high-priority infrastructure projects -- work to replace mechanical systems, roofing or flooring -- at an estimated cost of nearly $42 million, officials say.
The most expensive option would involve comprehensive improvements to the three schools at an estimated cost of $148 million to $155 million.
Within each of the schools, officials have highlighted areas for improvement, including science labs, building security, physical education locker rooms, performing arts spaces and library learning centers.
"We've identified needs," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "We've identified some ways that the needs could be addressed, and that information is now being used to really comprehensively ask the community for their feedback before the board returns to specifically identifying a solution."
Officials plan to have board members review that feedback by December, so they have the latter half of the school year to "arrive at some clear direction," Schuler said.
The district built a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center after voters approved its last referendum request in 2018. Instead of seeking a tax increase, the district used a borrowing mechanism called a lease certificate to replace Jefferson. The district is paying back the lease certificate out of operating funds, not through the bond and interest portion of its tax levy.
But the district is now on track to pay off its tax-backed referendum debt in two years.
"I think it creates a good opportunity for conversation in the community," Schuler said. "We're in a place that the district hasn't been where all of our debt does expire in two years. And so I think that creates a space for a conversation with the community about if they'd like to reinvest some portion of those savings back into these middle school priorities."
Voters in 2017 rejected a broader request to borrow $132.5 million to pay for repairs and renovations at all of its campuses except Hubble Middle School.
As part of its referendum post-mortem, the board reviewed and re-prioritized facility projects. Since then, the district has dedicated at least $7 million per year for security upgrades as well paving, roofing, mechanical and plumbing work, among other projects.
"They really focused heavily on the highest-priority capital improvement needs, especially at our elementary and high schools," Schuler said.
But the middle school science labs are still outdated and undersized, officials say. Locker rooms and bathrooms are original to the buildings. There are also safety concerns because of limited sight lines in some school hallways, officials say.
Built in 1953, Franklin is the oldest middle school in the district. The health office lacks privacy because of its proximity to the school's main entrance, Principal David Bendis said in a virtual tour of the building.
"It is not conducive to treating more than one student at a time," he said.
The district has scheduled four town-hall meetings on the condition of the three schools. The first will start at 6 p.m. today at Edison Middle School, 1125 S. Wheaton Ave., Wheaton. The others are set for 6 p.m. Oct. 3 at Monroe and 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at Franklin. A virtual session will be held via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 10.
"Doing nothing will not be an option," Schuler said. "The board will have a decision to make. It's just a question of what they do."