The five candidates for the District 200 school board may comprise a diverse spectrum of opinions on a lot of issues, but one hot-button topic of virtually unanimous consent among the candidates is that Oak Park and River Forest High School is a very old building with urgent infrastructure needs.
“There needs to be a master plan. There need to be engineering studies,” said Fred Arkin, a local businessman and freshman wrestling coach at the school. “As we go toward 21st-century learning and getting technology in the classroom, there’s going to have to be reconfiguration.”
By reconfiguration he means a wholesale rethinking of the best ways to utilize the high school’s 1 million square feet and to what ends.
This was done to some degree in 2012, when the Long-Term Facility Planning Report was completed. The report “detailed some of the anticipated facility needs,” which included “addressing increased student enrollment […] improving safety and security, developing more universal science labs, and renovating the aging pools,” according to a statement on the district’s website.
But according to board member Sharon Patchak-Layman, who is running for re-election, that planning process was shelved during discussions of replacing the school’s two swimming pools, both of which are nearly 90 years old.
Patchak-Layman said the firm working on the Long-Term Facility Planning Report, Legat Architects, had come up with two versions of a comprehensive approach to getting more useful space out of the building. She also said that there were discussions on both the physical and educational needs of students.
“For years, we talked about [whether or not] our students were best served in the building and are our seniors best served,” she said, adding that the idea had been floated about to have OPRF seniors take dual credit courses at Triton in an overall attempt to get them used to the college experience.
But those long-term, philosophical, discussions broke down under the urgency of replacing the pools.
“The schools at Oak Park had been on a 20-year cycle,” said Patchak-Layman, noting that the school would go to a referendum every 20 years to borrow money for capital improvements that would, in turn, be paid down over the next two decades. The school renovated the football field during one of those cycles, she said. She noted that she thought the pool would be in the next 20-year cycle.
“In the meantime, they were patching, putting in the air-handlers, fixing the locker rooms and doing those kinds of things,” she said.
But when after drainage problems, the bill abruptly came due and the pool’s numerous age-related deficiencies could no longer be shielded from various regulatory measures by grandfather clauses. It would have to be fixed or shut down.
Earlier this year, the board passed a motion to build a new long-course pool facility on the site of the baseball field. But that appears to be only a fraction of the school’s infrastructure problems.
According to the 2012 Long-Term Facility Planning report, “The building has been minimally maintained and virtually unchanged” since 1967 and some “instructional spaces are outdated and do not have current technology or proper wiring, exhaust or other necessary or required amenities.”
“I do not understand how we got to the end of the lifespan of these pools without having a better plan in place,” said candidate Sara Dixon-Spivy. “Without a long-term, comprehensive plan, this is just going to drive up huge price for the taxpayers to the point where I don’t know if a referendum will be passed.”