At a heated, pressure-packed meeting yesterday that stretched well past midnight, the District 200 Board of Education after several years of seemingly stalled deliberation and debate, voted unanimously to direct the administration to construct a 50-meter swimming pool on the site of the parking garage adjacent the high school.
The decision to build on the site of the garage was one of two possibilities on the decision table. The other was to build the pool on the baseball field and relocate the school’s softball program to Triton College. According to the district’s cost estimates, this option, at $36,000,000, was nominally the most cost-efficient, but it came with a host of complications that were illuminated by many in the audience of at least 100 at last night’s meeting. Those gathered at the meeting were almost unanimously in support of the garage site option.
The total estimated cost of the pool construction on the garage site is $37.5 million, which includes $3.5 million to purchase and demolish the existing garage, which is currently owned by the Village of Oak Park. The board will decide on ways to finance the project during future meetings. Construction of the pool is expected to begin in June of 2016, while a target completion date is set for the 2018-19 school year.
Oak Park Village President Anan Abu-Taleb said he’s eager for the village to be unburdened by the garage, which he said is “not a very good business model,” but he is waiting on more specifics regarding the pool construction before formulating a plan of action.
“I want to collaborate with [the school board and the community], and if it makes sense for the community as a whole, we are going to support it, and if not we are going to voice our opinion,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
Last night’s board meeting was the final at which outgoing board President John Phelan, in addition to board members Sharon Patchak-Layman and Ralph Lee, would have voting powers. New board members Sara Dixon-Spivy, Jennifer Cassell and Fred Arkin will be sworn-in at a special meeting on April 30.
The exodus of the current board’s three longest-serving members loomed over the night’s discussions, with some audience members leveraging the members’ impending leave-taking to sway them from voting in favor of relocating the softball program.
“Do you really want to be one of the board members who voted to take away green space and plot a pool down in the middle of two softball fields?” asked Ron Steele, a former River Forest park district commissioner. “Then do you also want to be known as the board members who took away two softball fields and destroyed a sport, because eventually that’s what’s going to happen.”
Critics of the softball relocation plan lodged several pointed criticisms at the measure. Some in the audience said the decision to move the softball program, the only single-sex sport that would be displaced, would constitute a violation of Title IX, an amendment of the Higher Education Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex “under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Oak Park resident Gary Kaplan seized on what he noted could be the board’s breach of a resolution authorized on Jan. 13 to build the pool on the baseball field, only if an off-campus site can be secured by April 23 to house any sport that would be displaced.
“Today is the deadline and no off-campus site has been secured for baseball or softball or tennis,” Kaplan said. “To be clear, an unconsummated plan to share one or possibly two softball fields at Triton, under Triton’s control is not the same as securing.”
Several members of the school’s junior varsity softball team, who showed up fully clad in their uniforms, said that relocating their sport to Triton would negatively affect their academics, allowing them less time for tutoring and other support.
“What happens when we need extra help in school?” said softball player Katy O’Shea, who added that playing games on campus increases the team’s visibility in the community, especially among younger, aspiring softball players in Oak Park’s and River Forest’s feeder leagues.
“A move to River Grove for the softball program will undercut the relationship between OPRF’s softball program and the youth softball organizations which have supplied the program with highly skilled players,” said Bill Sullivan, former president of Oak Park Youth Baseball & Softball.
“It would strip these organizations of necessary facilities to conduct their leagues by offering geographically undesirable locations as an alternative, threatening their continued vitality and in the end threatening the long term quality of player available to OPRF,” he said, adding that the estimated 15-minute commute time made by the board in an April 14 memo “fails to include loading and unloading time for [the softball] teams.”
In the end, however, the softball option never seemed to be in serious play among board members, none of whom even entertained the measure with so much as a comment in support of the motion. More diversity of opinion materialized on the issue of parking associated with building the pool on the garage site.
While five board members preferred to build the pool on the garage site with off-site parking only — a plan with no added costs — board Vice President Jeff Weissglass originally mentioned his preference for a two-level facility on Scoville Avenue to accommodate 266 spaces. This scenario would cost an additional $10,300,000, according to estimates provided in the April 14 memo. After witnessing the overwhelming support for the least expensive option, Weissglass defaulted to that position.
Lee preferred to build on the garage site with parking included, a plan that would cost an estimated $11,800,000 and entail adding 118 more spaces. Building the pool on the garage site would displace up to 300 parking spots, potentially forcing faculty and staff members to walk half-a-mile to school and exposing nearby homeowners to the irritation of other people’s cars parked on their curbs.
“I know what it is like to have people parking in front of my house,” Lee said. “I live about five blocks from [OPRF] and within a block from Beye School. The teachers from BeyeSchool park in front of my house every day — and I don’t like it. I want that space reserved for whenever my daughters decide to come visit me.”
The district has stated in the past that it worked with Jill Velan, Oak Park’s parking and mobility services director, to identify “the possibility and process for providing on-street parking for up to 300 cars.”
District 200 Superintendent Steven Isoye, however, said the current parking plan is not sufficiently fleshed out.
“Right now we have sketches of parking plans,” he said, adding that the task of narrowing identifiable parking options will be “a future discussion for future boards.”