The facilities bond referendum for Oak Park and River Forest High School represents a dilemma for our community.
We have a significant infrastructure problem, posed by our two 88-year-old leaking pools that can no longer be adequately maintained and were built on opposite sides of the building to separate boys and girls. We have growing enrollment school-wide and in our performing arts department in particular. And we have the challenge of adapting our 20th-century building for 21st-century learning.
On the other hand, we are a community dedicated to racial and economic diversity and are concerned about the cost of the project and the overall level of our property taxes.
I have led conversations about this dilemma for three years and am writing to share my personal perspective. I worked hard to hear all viewpoints, some of which did not emerge until after the board adopted a plan for a 50-meter pool on the garage site without replacing the lost parking on campus. The critique and petition drive regarding that plan by a group of community members led to a good compromise. The approved facilities plan reduced the pool size by 20%, saved 80% of the on-site parking spots, and lowered expected costs by nearly 10%.
These community members made a valuable contribution but continue to argue that there is a suitable and substantially less expensive two-pool alternative. I believe they are now misinterpreting the facts, however, and that no cheaper solution exists.
We did consider a two-pool approach but determined that retaining separate pools on opposite sides of the building, one of which would be shrunk to four lanes and not have a girls’ locker room nearby, was a poor solution. In addition, meeting the needs of performing arts would require a $10.7 million addition, and renovating the boys’ PE locker room would cost $2.5 million more under that plan.
In total, the five-year plan with the inadequate two-pool solution would cost $39.9 million plus $270,000 for deferred maintenance on the garage. Significantly, that design also requires the loss of a gym, which would likely cost several million dollars to replace in a future renovation.
By comparison, the projected cost of the board’s adopted plan is $44.5 million. However, the purchase price to acquire the garage from the village of Oak Park included in that estimate is $2.7 million, which the village will use to pay off the amount it still owes on the garage. The portion of that purchase price attributable to Oak Park residents, which is 2 million dollars, is therefore satisfying a debt they already owe and is not a new cost.
At a real cost of $42.5 million, and taking into account the gym that would need to be replaced, the two-pool plan would probably be more costly than the approved plan.
Without a lower cost alternative, the challenge we face is that addressing the agreed-upon needs of the school will cost over $40 million. I believe that it is in the best interests of our students and our community to make this investment and that borrowing a portion of the cost is both fair and fiscally prudent.
I hope you come to the same conclusion and will join me in voting Yes on Nov. 8.
Jeff Weissglass is an Oak Park citizen and serves as the District 200 school board president at Oak Park and River Forest High School.