By Terry Dean
Changing District 97's school boundaries as a way to solve overcrowding at some of its schools might be a more attractive — and far less expensive — option compared with spending millions of dollars to construct new space, according to some members of the district's school board.
Board President Bob Spatz stressed that no decision or commitment has been made right now on either adding space or changing boundaries. The board, he says, is exploring conceptual ideas and options the district could choose. One board member, Peter Traczyk, thinks changing boundaries is the better option to explore. Other members remain noncommittal at this point but are open to discussing the impact of boundary changes.
STR Partners, the district's architectural firm, estimates a cost of $250,000 to $500,000 to add a single classroom.
STR conducted a capacity study last summer, showing Beye and Longfellow schools exceeding their capacities by 2017. Other D97 schools either hit or fall just below their maximum. D97 officials, however, note that enrollment could fluctuate between now and 2017. The enrollment projections were done by Lisle-based Ehlers and Associates, a company hired by D97 in 2011 to examine enrollment trends. By 2018, D97 enrollment is projected at just over 6,000 kids, according to Ehlers. It is currently around 5,800.
STR, which took over the district's architectural services last year, included the firm's findings in its capacity study.
Spatz said the board is considering all of the options outlined by STR, included going to a grade-center model in the district. The district could have, for instance, a K-2 school or a building with only grades 3-5. But that model, like all the other options, has pro and cons, Spatz noted.
"You could have parents with kids in four different schools. You could have a child in kindergarten at one school, one in the fourth grade at another school, one in the middle school and a student at the high school, so that would be an issue," Spatz said.
The grade-center model, he added, would also impact the neighborhood-school concept, which is extremely popular among Oak Park parents. Such a model in Oak Park could also impact the district's busing costs, Spatz said, with students having to travel to multiple buildings.
As for constructing new classrooms, or simply reconfiguring current spaces, STR noted that some programs, like pre-kindergarten at Longfellow, would have to be moved to another building. For Spatz, relocating PKP is a "non-starter."
The PKP space — including pre-K-sized bathrooms — was specifically constructed for Longfellow, Spatz recalled. He said moving it to another school would require construction work at that building.
"It's all about cost-efficiency. If you find that three or four classrooms at Longfellow are needed, then maybe you could do it," Spatz said. "But if we're talking just one classroom, you may want to look at switching a room here and there, versus causing additional work and spending more money to build space at another school."
Spatz noted that Lincoln School, three years ago, did construct new classrooms, including adding a second-floor space, on land right next to the school. But other D97 schools don't have such available space, he said.
As for simply moving a handful of kids from a "large" school to a smaller one, that's not as easy as some might think, Spatz said. He warned that it doesn't take much for a "small" school to quickly go over capacity given how enrollment fluctuates. Shifting students would also impact class sizes and the number of class levels in a building, he explained.
The next step for the district, Spatz added, is getting feedback from the building principals.
"We're looking at capacity proactively and transparently," he said. "We're looking at this now because enrollment is going up in a few years. If it goes up faster than we thought, then we've already done our due diligence and had talks about what we could do. If it goes up slower than we thought, we haven't spent any money and we simply have more information that we can consider."
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