Time for a District 214 referendum? 'We're not saying that word right now'

From new roofs to playing fields, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 has unveiled a list of $852 million in upgrades to complete over the next decade at its six aging schools and administration building.

But officials caution the all-encompassing review of district facilities still needs to be prioritized — not all of it has to be done, they say — and then budgeted.

Could it mean going to taxpayers in a tax-increase referendum — the first in more than five decades?

Many around the state's second-largest high school district, based in Arlington Heights, will only refer to that option as “the R word.”

“We're not saying that word right now,” said Superintendent Scott Rowe, who took the job in July and came to understand the no-referendum streak as a “point of pride” for school board members.

“It's something that stuck with me and it's not something that we take lightly and not something we're rushing towards,” Rowe said. “There are opportunities and options at our disposal before we have to think about that.”

The 10-month review by Arcon, an architecture firm that specializes in school design, and a team of consultants evaluated all building components at the six high schools and Forest View Educational Center — from windows, doors and roofs to HVAC, plumbing and electrical.

Specifically, the early plan calls for:

— $206 million of site improvements, including replacement of bleachers, running tracks and exterior lights, along with upgrades to athletic fields and press boxes;

— $181 million of architectural renovations, mostly within bathrooms, science classrooms and theaters (including lighting, seating, stages and curtains);

— $198 million of new mechanicals, like rooftop units, air handlers, heat exchanges/pumps and storage tanks;

— $114 million for upgraded electrical, such as switchgear, LED lighting and controls, and fire alarm systems;

— $108 million of improvements to building envelopes, such as replacing portions of roofs, single pane windows, and doing tuckpointing; and

— $43 million for plumbing and fire protection.

“Our primary focus was on your existing assets and making sure all the maintenance-type items that keep these buildings going for many more years to come are identified on here and accounted for,” George Demarakis, a principal with Arcon, told the school board recently. “It wasn't tied a lot to the curriculum side of things. That's a whole different process. But really our focus was on the buildings themselves.”

Board member Mark Hineman asked if the school buildings could last for 100 years; the district's newest building is half that age.

“With proper maintenance, yes,” Demarakis replied.

In fact, there's a lot of equipment long-past the expected replacement date — take the air handling units installed in the Rolling Meadows High School theater in 1972, for instance — that is still operational, officials said.

That means the district's next task is to prioritize the list of projects and formalize a 10-year facility plan for the board's approval a year from now. Then the board would have conversations about funding, Rowe said.

But in the short-term, the board on Thursday night is set to approve $343,000 worth of purchase orders for new HVAC equipment to be installed next summer at Elk Grove and Wheeling high schools. The orders come amid long lead times and supply chain constraints, officials say.

Rowe said the goal is to bring capital projects to the board as early as 18 months in advance to start the bid process and get the best prices.

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