When 4,200 people sign a petition over three weeks asking for a referendum on a new high school pool, something is not kosher with the pool plan. Despite all the meetings and open forums, many Oak Parkers have a problem with spending $37 million — or more — on a pool.
Such capital project referendums have a long history in Oak Park.
In 1999, a referendum was called to build two new middle schools. For roughly $100 million, District 97 built two campuses which house thousands of students and include two 500-seat theaters. Voters approved it after much debate.
Same thing with the library. Voters approved a $30 million referendum to build the library, which opened in 2003. You can quarrel that the library spent too much, but the voters approved it.
So there is nothing unnatural about a referendum. It means the will of the voters (who pay for it) is aligned with the board that planned it. The question is: Do we need a $37 million-plus pool? In answering this, the District 200 school board faced some trade-offs.
The current pools could be rehabbed for $19 million, but only by reducing the number of lanes, so that was nixed. It could be built on the current tennis courts, but that would mean the tennis team would have to relocate, so that was nixed. It could be built on the baseball field but the baseball team would have to play elsewhere, so that was nixed.
That left the garage site. The upside? All sports programs remain on site and the swim team gets a state-of-the-art pool. The downside? The taxpayers and neighbors get the shaft.
Purchasing and tearing down a 10-year-old parking garage adds millions to the cost, and 300 cars that park in the garage would head to the streets.
The size of the pool also matters.
The board settled on an 8-lane, 50-meter pool with a diving well even though only one other high school in the state has such a set up. Archrival Fenwick, like nearly every high school, is content with a 25-meter pool.
The board rejected the following cheaper options: a 50-meter pool with no diving well or a 25-meter pool with no diving well. These should be back on the table if the referendum fails.
In addition, the board should be upfront about the total cost of the building program. Completing the redo of the old pool space will cost money, and the architect estimates an additional $17 million to do that for a total project cost of $54 million. Politically, I understand why proponents want to keep this cost off the table, but it would not build trust for the board to approve a $37 million pool only to later add millions more.
A few other things: Legal challenges to 4,200 signatures supporting the referendum would poison the well in our friendly neighborhood. It’s not a good idea. Also, if the referendum fails, the board should not draw down additional funds for the project from its $100 million rainy-day slush fund. That would be dirty pool.
The voters will decide if they support the pool plan. If it is voted down, the board should sharpen its pencils and reduce the cost, even if that means inconveniencing a sports team.
A good lesson for students (and something we forget in Oak Park) is that life is full of compromises.