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District 97 officials insist that they have no immediate plans to spend $4 million for a new central office building and that any such talk about that prospect is only conceptual on their part. A district committee is scheduled to report on options for the central office building late in September.
The Oak Park elementary school district apparently felt some backlash from a skeptical community after Wednesday Journal's report on last week's board discussion of the issue was posted on OakPark.com.
Peter Barber, president of the D97 school board, who spoke with the Journal Tuesday, reiterated that talk of the administration building's future was part of a larger discussion about the district's debt service extension base. Elizabeth Hennessey, the district's financial advisor, gave a presentation at an Aug. 23, school board meeting showing a projection of the district's borrowing plan.
The presentation grouped together the district's capital project wish-lists, including $1.8 million for next year's capital improvements, and a series of items encompassed in the referendum campaign. Added technology in classrooms, and greening of outdoor spaces at the middle schools were among the campaign items.
Barber said board members discussed but ultimately opted against the idea of taking advantage of historically low interest rates to borrow money to pay for a new headquarters.
"I want to reassure the community that the board is fully committed to being as open and transparent as possible and that this topic has been somewhat taken out of context," he said. "There has been no decision made about anything concerning the future of the building and no decision would be made without input from our community."
The district's Financial Advisory Committee (FAC), he added, has been looking at about a dozen options concerning the administration building, including housing it with a therapeutic day school or pre-kindergarten program—the FAC is a D97 sanctioned, volunteer group of roughly a dozen community members that advises the board on facilities-related issues. On Sept. 29, that group will formally present their options for the administration building to the board.
Barber added that the $4 million mentioned was the biggest price tag among the various options, which Hennessey ultimately used in her presentation. Barber said the idea would be to house the central office with some other educational entity.
The district's central office at 970 W. Madison near Home Avenue is a former auto dealership that the district purchased in the 1970s. It's currently owned by the Village of Oak Park through a "lease-back" agreement the two entities signed in 2007. The deal was made as a way to help out D97 as it was struggling with a structural financial deficit. The village bought the property and agreed to lease it back to the district for $1 a year. The deal is expected to end this year. Barber added that the village would make no plans for the building without consulting with the district first.
Barber said the district over the years opted not to take on extensive renovation of the building beyond day-to-day maintenance. He noted that the building does have a leaky roof, as well as cooling and heating issues.
According to the district, the central office covers about 20,000 square feet, including a second floor that's virtually invisible from Madison Street. The building currently houses 42 full-time and part-time employees. Along with administration and support staff, the Oak Park Education Foundation has a two-person, staffed office there. Before the real estate market tanked, the district was exploring selling the administration building and its warehouse, located at 541 Madison.
The most recent appraisal conducted by the district in 2008 listed the warehouse at $1.6 million and the central office building at $2.37 million. The district has since had no discussions about selling either building. Barber added that the FAC is currently looking at the options of either renovating the current central office or constructing a new one.
"All of the discussion about costs and details are very preliminary," he said. "The board agreed that we were not in a position to put this on the table until the Facilities Advisory Committee makes its report."
Barber maintained that the district is also open to partnering with the village or other local jurisdictions concerning sharing facilities.
"That's an absolutely great idea," he said. "The Facility Advisory Committee has discussed that possibility as well, and I know the village has expressed interest in that."