By Terry Dean
Architects for District 97 began a walk-through assessment last week at its school buildings as the first phase of a comprehensive capacity study for the district.
STR Partners is overseeing the study.
D97 commissioned STR to look at capacity issues at its eight elementary schools and two middle schools. Some schools, like Lincoln, have had space issues as enrollment district-wide has grown. Lincoln, two summers ago, built additional classroom space onto its building, including a second-floor. Overall, district enrollment will approach 6,000 students in the next three years, a 5 percent increase from the current student body, said Bob Spatz, president of the D97 Board of Education and a member of the district's Facilities Advisory Committee.
Enrollment, which is currently around 5,500 kids, has grown 20 percent in the last decade, Spatz says.
The capacity study is part of the district's 10-year capital plan currently under development by the board and administration. That plan includes looking at accessibility in the buildings. An internal D97 committee is examining accessibility needs at the buildings, though some schools are mostly accessible now for students with special needs.
Heating and cooling issues at the schools are also part of capital planning. Those issues recently heated up when some parents complained about stifling classrooms during a string of 90-plus-degree days earlier this month. Parents urged the district to improve air conditioning in the buildings. They also complained about heating and cooling problems during the winter.
They brought their concerns to the D97 board on Sept. 10 and at the FAC's Sept. 12 meeting.
The proposed capital plan was among the items discussed by the FAC, which is a volunteer group.
The plan will include a kind of priority wish-list of things needing to be done and when to do them. That priority list will help the district manage the many projects it plans to undertake, explained Graham Brisben, a member of the D97 board who presented the capital plan thinking to the FAC.
Brisben also encouraged the district to start thinking in terms of overall infrastructure.
"I think, traditionally, capital planning and capital expenditure have been thought of as just facilities," he said. "Our position is: We'd like to make sure we're including both facilities and equipment, and assign a new definition to capital expense, which is, essentially, any depreciable equipment or infrastructure asset."
Concerning heating and cooling, FAC members discussed several possible solutions. They also addressed some of the solutions suggested by parents, including simply buying air-conditioning units for individual classrooms. Doing that, however, isn't as easy as it sounds, said FAC member Ralph Muehleisen.
Window units raise many school building code issues, including excess classroom noise and blocking light from the outside. Window units would then likely need to be drilled into the walls, which would result in a cost for the district beyond the purchase of the unit itself, Muehleisen explained.
And while air-conditioning units would address heat, they don't address ventilation,which the buildings need.
Any redo of classrooms would need to address heating, venting and air conditioning, said Muehleisen and Norm Lane, D97's director of buildings and grounds.
Concerning enrollment, the district's full-day kindergarten program, which launched in 2009, is a major driver. Another driver, officials noted, is changing neighborhood demographics.
"Best guess, from talking to a couple of realtors I know, is that it is a generational change happening," Spatz said. "The baby boomers, their kids are basically getting out of high school now and college and they're downsizing. And there are more new families moving in."