After failed pool plan, D200 to form new committee

This time, district officials say, the focus of the group will go beyond the pool

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Facing the prospect of drowning once again in months-long debate about replacing the nearly 90-year-old swimming pools at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the District 200 school board voted 6-1 this week to approve a resolution that establishes a community engagement and outreach committee.

The new body will be responsible for doing a deep-dive into the district's previous pool-related community outreach efforts and clearing the way for a new course that district officials are saying would be more comprehensive than that created by all of the committees and outreach efforts of the past, which weren't enough to ensure victory at the polls last month.

On Nov. 8, voters very narrowly turned down a $44.5 million, five-year facilities plan at the high school that would be funded with up to $25 million in referendum bonds. The ballot measure — which would have led to the demolition of the village-owned, 300-space parking garage and the construction of a $21.4 million, 25-yard by 40-meter swimming pool along with a brand new 240-space garage where the current one sits, among other facilities enhancements — failed by a margin of just 28 votes.

Karin Sullivan, D200's communications director, told board members on Tuesday night that there's been at least three different pool committees, two long-term facilities planning processes, at least two community engagement processes and countless public hearings on the pools that have been implemented since she started working at the district in 2012.

"All of this process has not brought the community to consensus," Sullivan said. "In fact, we saw with the referendum vote that we are pretty much split down the middle on this issue. So, it really feels like it's time for a different, broader approach with a more community-based committee."

Joylynn Pruitt, D200's acting superintendent, recommended that the district "take a step back, because for us, it's not just about a pool. It's about academic programming, it's about equity, it's about having facilities that are going to support the next generation of learners in terms of labs that support the new national science standards and technology [that we can] take a step further."

Pruitt defined that "next generation of learners" as students who are "more consumer oriented and outcomes oriented," adding that the education landscape of the future will be less reliant on physical instructional spaces.

"There are virtual learning opportunities, but can our facilities support them?" Pruitt said.

According to the resolution creating the committee, in addition to strengthening facilities to support the needs of "the next generation of learners," the new body will also "review previous processes, make recommendations, and strengthen community partnership pursuant to district goals related to equity, academic programming needs" and finances.

Some community members who spoke during the school board's public comment Tuesday registered their skepticism of the new body, fearing that it wouldn't be much different than the district's past attempts at community outreach and engagement.

"Based on recent history, I question if this board is serious about listening to members of the community," said Oak Park resident Bridgett Baron, whose skepticism was echoed by some members of the board.

"I feel like we've committeed this to death," said Sara Dixon Spivy, who provided the sole vote against the resolution. "It feels like we're passing the buck [even though] I know that's not our intention. I'm nervous that we're not going to get further than we are."

Attempting to assuage some people's misgivings about the committee, Pruitt recalled her experience as superintendent of the school district in University City, Missouri, where she worked before retiring and taking her current position.

"In my previous district, when I became superintendent of schools, I was faced with a lack of trust and transparency across the district," Pruitt said, adding that the school was plagued with aging buildings, low student achievement, less than stellar staff and low morale. That district also didn't have any fund balance, she said.

Pruitt said the district "embarked on a major community engagement process" that was spearheaded by two bodies — a core steering committee and a much larger committee of 15 community stakeholders who represented a diverse range of skill sets, socioeconomic backgrounds and perspectives.

Those committees, she said, met with an outside facilitator twice a month, with members intermittently reporting to the school board on their progress. The project lasted roughly eight to 10 months, she said.

"We took on academic achievement, early childhood education, parent and community engagement, communications, the need to refurbish our facilities to meet our students' needs and how to finance all of that," Pruitt explained, adding that the core committee also included a bond oversight sub-committee to ensure financial accountability.

"We took it all on, but we stepped it out [over time]," Pruitt said. "That is what I'm hoping we do here. So it's not just the committee making the decision. It's the committee listening to [the voices of the community]."

Pruitt said that the administration will return to the board in the weeks ahead to recommend for approval a process of recruiting community members to fill this new body, which will also be responsible for selecting an outside facilitator.

The facilitator, Pruitt said, would be someone with no deeply held ties to the area and who can help mend relationships between different community stakeholders that may have been hurt during the controversial, multilayered process leading up to last month's referendum defeat.

After having heard Pruitt's story about her prior experience with this new committee, which the acting superintendent said D200 has never had before, Baron seemed somewhat less skeptical than she had been.

"One thing that is helpful is having Dr. Pruitt, who hasn't been around, to bring a new perspective and maybe to do things differently," said the mother of two future OPRF students who was a vocal opponent of the referendum leading up to the November election.

"One thing we haven't had on prior high school committees is an outreach to the broader community," Baron said. "She made it sound like the committee will have that much broader reach and that's attractive to me."

Bridgett Baron is married to Matt Baron, an announced candidate for the District 200 school board in the April election.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: November 13th, 2018 4:48 PM

In hindsight, the clear way to fix "a lack of trust and transparency across the district" was to form a committee made up of the leadership of the Vote YES Pool group, have them double down on the project and then start figuring out how to force the project down everyone's throat without a vote.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: November 13th, 2018 2:28 PM

Start with some limiting parameters: 1) There is such a thing as your Statutory debt limit. It's about $150 million. How much are you prepared to risk, since you don't know what the future holds of new demands? Did you anticipate the Internet and the need for Chromebooks. Perhaps half of your debt limit. 2) How much are you prepared to draw down your existing cash balance? Ideally, that would never be done, because you are giving an unwarranted gift to the next generation, who should pay for what they use, and things should be bonded --Public Finance 101. Drawing down your cash balance leads to a quicker Operating Tax Referendum, which may fail.3) What are your immediate needs? If we want to have swimming (which is not required), then a 25 yard pool will suffice, since that will always be the competition standard --other districts cannot afford more. We can rethink our absurd requirement that PE aquatics be taken twice -- that was only to fill up the two pools that we mistakenly built in 1928, and we don't have to repeat that huge error, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Do a a Pool the size of New Trier's in the Girls area, by expanding outwards. Re-purpose the Boys Pool space. Fix The Boys Lockers Rooms. Make ADA improvements in the building, for our most disadvantaged students.4) Set Priorities. Academics over PE. PE over Athletics (a 200 meter running track will not be used in PE). All of those uses over Community Use. We don't build extra capacity to serve a private swim club such as TOPS. In any case, these ideas will take so much money that the voters will have to approve referendums. Don't allow this thing to end up aborted halfway through. Get real, Board & Administration.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: November 13th, 2018 11:03 AM

One more time? Two more times? Reading the history of what led to Imagine leaves me sadly shaking my head. Does any one believe that "trust" has been restored? One way to test this is to have the citizens of OP & RF (again, yikes!) vote on this matter in 2020. This would accurately measure "trust." I'm in complete agreement with what Ms Dixon Spivy was quoted as saying almost two years ago: "I feel like we've committeed this to death." Did any one dream, per Ms. Pruitt, that her "recommend for approval a process....." would lead to a $218,000,000 expense (not including interest - which would be significant) - most of which would be to tear down the Field House, etc? I sure didn't.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 10:36 PM

Gerri: You are right: the Village has not done those repairs or required maintenance. But is that right? If the garage was owned by a private landlord that landlord would be cited for negligence. As the landlord, the Village has a ethical and I would imagine legal obligation to repair and maintain the garage up to standards. In my opinion, you, nor the citizenry of D200should give the Village a pass on this obligation. We should insist that the Village upholds its obligations and commitments.

Gerri Humbert  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 9:16 PM

Hi Amanda - the parking garage was designed to add another level of parking. It was not designed to add another level to the high school. Btw, the parking garage, if the Village of OP does $271,000 in deferred maintenance and then does annual maintenance going forward, is supposed to last 25 more years. Without this deferred and annual maintenance, it is scheduled to last 10 more years. So far there has not been any maintenance on the garage by the Village. I am not even sure if they have fixed the elevator yet, or budgeted for the $271,000 in deferred maintenance. OPRF as we know it today opened in 1907. I hope it will last another 100 years. The garage is a great solution for parking, but not for expanding the school.

Amanda Poppenk Massie from Oak park  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 8:59 PM

I've read all 27 comments, I voted NO on the oversized pool. We have a small confined campus period. Build 1 NORMAL size 25 yard deep competition pool, demo the other pool, use it for new lockers for the guys that are needed. Remember everyone, the selling point of the garage back in 2005 was that another level could be added. Why not use that add'l level for classrooms, drivers ed, 21st century classrooms, performing arts etc. That was never put on the table, why not?

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 4:29 PM

FOR JOHN PHELAN - When an organization like T200 sticks to a single belief or goal and fails repeatedly, the opposition fights harder to form a more aggressive support base. The added support base is not driven by issues; it is driven by a sense of anger born of the organization's arrogance. Anytime the organization's failures stick; bullyism increases. How does the opposition react to the bullyism? They relish it!

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 3:43 PM

Only in Oak Park can this happen

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 3:16 PM

Bill: Apology accepted. But since we are going to do a "do over" I am curious about the "number of viable options that were dismissed..." Hey, Bill I was involved in this through Petition for Referendum, D200 Vote NO. I attended virtually all the board meetings and community meetings. I read all the myriad reports. So I am really interested and curious to know about some of these other viable options. I'm serious. I'm not BSing you. I mean we're starting over so lets put 'em back on the table and discuss. But first what are they?

Leslie Sutphen  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 2:10 PM

You ask how a group of concerned citizens could ignore the opinion of its elected Board and propose an alternative solution? When citizens believe that their elected officials are being elitist and ignoring their opinions, they have every right to exercise their democratic ability to propose an alternative and let the citizens decide whose proposal will benefit the wider number of people. Sometimes a populist can manipulate opinion, but in general democracy moves relentlessly forward toward building a better society for all constituents. What is clear is that out of touch officials will be defeated by the ballot!

Ray Charleston from Oak Park  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 2:06 PM

Mr. Phelan, you asked "why do we give no more weight to opinions of elected officials than to internet postings and unelected critics." Speaking for myself, I would suggest that it is because of a distrust that most of the members of the D200 board have earned over the past 15 or so years. First and foremost in that lost of trust was the backdoor referendum that built up the unholy fund balance. I thank you for your recognition that D200's continued effort to build that surplus demonstrated a total disregard for the taxpayers of Oak Park and I commend your leadership and the FAC's approach to respect us by paying down some of that surplus by reducing the levy. But for 10 years we were aggressively overtaxed for no good reason. I must also note that you were a part of the board that showed an absolute contempt for the taxpayers when you voted to tear down a perfectly good parking lot to build a ridiculous Olympic sized swim palace and to pay for it using some of the fund balance and by issuing non-referendum bonds, thereby intentionally avoiding taxpayer input on that huge capital expenditure. Can you blame us for being suspicious of the D200 board's concern for the taxpayers after that? Then this board did everything in its power to give the swim lobby their next best choice, the 40 meter pool. Recognizing the swim parents alone could not generate enough support to build their Taj Mapool, the board increased the cost of the project to appeal to performing arts parents. Then it used taxpayer's money to hire a consultant to coordinate with the pool lobby on the vote. It also consistently presented the project in a misleading way by ignoring the fact that that the cost of buying, tearing down and rebuilding a smaller parking lot was inextricably tied to the Taj Mapool. Finally, and for me this was the coup de grace, the board sent out a mailer to further mislead, again using taxpayer money.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 1:22 PM

My mistake, Bruce. I apologize. My remarks were directed to Bill McDonald.

Dori Bernstein  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 12:15 PM

John Phelan- If the community agreed with you we would have built an olympic size pool on the baseball fields. That was your decision, as reported by the WJ on 1/14/15. It is time to bring all of the stakeholders into the decision making process. You cannot justify why a small group of swimmers should be entitled to the the spoils of overtaxation.

John Phelan  

Posted: December 16th, 2016 11:02 AM

There has been some good discussion on this chain, maybe due to the extremely narrow margin on the referendum vote. Different concerns clearly influenced people's votes on the referendum. However, the District is taking some heat here for not communicating about why it doesn't spend its reserves on the project and why different options were ruled out. I think a couple of points need to be made in the District's defense. First, communication about these issues was attempted, but was extremely difficult. They are very complicated subjects. Regarding spending the District's reserves, there are several property tax and school finance laws that make paying for the entire project out of the existing reserve extremely imprudent. I believe that even the organized opposition to the proposed design would even agree with that. As an elected official, it took me a great deal of time with significant tutoring to understand the concepts. The District convened a Finance Advisory Committee to study how to bring down the reserve in a responsible way. Despite extensive media coverage and months of open session discussions, people still have difficulty understanding what that committee did. However, the FAC recommendations are designed to reduce the fund balance over time, and its recommendations continue to be followed with every levy vote. I proposed that until one takes the time to understand those recommendations, their argument that this project should be paid for entirely out of the reserve is uninformed. Regarding the other options that were considered, those were also the subject of lengthy meetings and extensive open session discussions, both by the Board and a pool committee. Those discussions were even videotaped and made available to the public. Given those efforts, consider why do we give no more weight to opinions of elected officials than to internet postings and unelected critics? Unless this changes, we should expect more decision like Brexit and Trump.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 11:26 PM

Bill, I think the garage tear down was the lever for a lot of people. In the obvious ways--pay millions to tear down a bonded capital structure before it's even paid off?? And at a deeper level--the same taxing bodies who insisted, and fought a law suit to obtain, a parking garage that village taxpayers have been debt servicing at $1MM year for the school, are now insisting it's in our interest to flush that 'investment' down the toilet. Because, trust them this time, a $37MM pool and less parking is now the ticket. I think the faith in stewardship is what has been broken, and evidenced in the vote. And rightly so. Though the garage is the simplest, but not the most egregious, example of behavior worthy of a no confidence vote in our local governance.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 11:25 PM

Bill Dwyer: You asked a question about a garage, hello? remember? I answered your question directly and honestly about the importance of the garage to those who voted NO. Read my response to your original question if you were really interested in an answer to your original question. I don't believe I said anything about your "faulty reasoning."

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 9:26 PM

Thanks for pointing out my faulty reasoning, Bruce- so veddy, veddy Oak Park of you- but I believe numerous other people, including myself, saw a number of viable options that were dismissed for reasons that remain unclear. As someone who moved to the village in 1957 and was raised and schooled there, it disturbs me that the legitimate need for a new pool and how to go about addressing that need was handled so poorly. I find it disturbing that so many undeniably intelligent and caring, committed elected people in Oak Park so often make such incomprehensible decisions.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 9:24 PM

@Bill McDonald, it is true what you say save some unconventional solutions: underground pool. But I addressed Bill Dwyer's question at face value: the garage or rather its tear down was indeed a big issue for many who voted NO.

Bill McDonald  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 9:11 PM

Bill Dwyer: faulty reasoning on your part. There wasn't room for their proposed ultraluxury pool without tearing down the parking garage.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 9:10 PM

@Bill: No question. The garage was a very big deal. That was confirmed by the results of the Fako report and my personall experience manning the NO table at the Farmers Market. As a well known politican/businessman might say: it was YOUGE! There can be NO doubt about that. For many, rightly or wrongly it WAS THE issue.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 8:05 PM

Yes, and if the pool was scaled to actual needs, to be read as what other schools have in use and not want to have in use.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 6:57 PM

Wasn't going to weigh in on the pool issue, but I give in. Have to ask- do you think it might have passed, however tightly, if they just hadn't seen fit to propose tearing down a functional and very much needed (300 car?) parking garage? Just asking.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 6:42 PM

Karin Sullivan says that there have been "countless public hearings". "countless public hearings" This is an example of the hype that caused the pool issue to fester. And it is starting up again. Go to your calendar and count the "countless public meetings" Give an estimate. Don't give hype. Soon there will be "countless" students at OPRF High needing to learn how to swim. This is about money, taxes, buildings, minority students graduating at a lesser level white students. Facts. Not hype. This is just like the merry go round at Kiddleland. This goes round and round and we end up at the same place, just like the merry go round. By the way, they tore down both the merry go round and Kiddeland. And we are poorer for it.

Tom MacMillan from Oakpark  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 5:52 PM

The $100 million reserve is not a fun basket to be spent on whatever the pool parents want. Its taxpayer money that will need to address a lot of other needs the school will have over years to come. We voted NO to this project because it is a luxury we don't need. Somehow, the swim teams are functioning now. Gym classes happen each day. Life goes on just fine. This committee is sounding like yet another attempt to bury the pool we all just said no to within a lot of other projects so they can make it a vote on the band or on something that sounds like anything but the big luxurious pool.

Barbara Purington  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 4:37 PM

Spend the $100 million plus interest in reserve. It's tax dollars for the high school right? Set aside recommended amount, and spend the rest. It was the purpose of the back door referendum; we've already paid for the improvements--pool, classrooms, arts facilities--whatever. It shouldn't take another year to plan. Enough already.

Jacek Lazarczyk  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:57 PM

Your statement, Lanny Lutz, says a lot about you. I would guess that you are also against paying for the fire department as you have no plans to have your house on fire. That is not however how public services, including schools, are paid for.

Lanny Lutz from Oak Park  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:45 PM

When will local boards stop splashing around with deep-spending proposals abhorred by almost ALL residents without kids in the schools? ENOUGH, for crying out loud!

Roger French  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:43 PM

what a mess

Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:40 PM

We voted No on the referendum for a couple of reasons, principal among them the fact that we felt the District did a REALLY poor job of communicating the details of WHAT we would get if the referendum passed and WHY it was better than the alternative proposed by the No camp. The other reason is that the District is supposed to have a huge surplus. Was any of that money in play? Any reason why all of that money was not to be used, instead of asking taxpayers to add to their overflowing coffers? We felt very taken for granted by D200, and our response was our No vote.

Kerry Vitali from Oak Park  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:38 PM

Just pay for the pool from the existing funds and be done with it!

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park   

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:15 PM

With the release of new information about pending tax increases for District 97 and the Village, I think the argument for a bond issue is going to be that much harder to make. A new pool is certainly needed, but existing funds will have to be used.

Joan Gumbel  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 3:08 PM

OPRF needs a new pool. It's not a luxury. There should not be any question about that. Because of our "Vote Yes' sign we heard from several families on this topic. Most had issues with the additional classroom space that was required by the board in the referendum- how this project was going to be paid for and why the school wasn't funding a larger portion. Just thought you'd want to know some taxpayers opinions.

Bill Kopper  

Posted: December 15th, 2016 2:46 PM

OK outreach board. As you trumpet the virtues of the new pool, please make sure you put it in the context of what District 200 will need from the taxpayers over the next 10 years. Personally I will not vote for this luxury until you publicly state the plan for pensions, additional operating levies and a measurable closing of the gap. Coordinate with District 97 so we have an idea of how education spending is going up before you ask for the pool,

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