The Imagine OPRF citizens committee is getting ready for its next face-to-face with the community. It’ll be next week and the purpose is to tell people what this committee of 30 volunteers has learned about the Scoville Avenue campus after six months of intense study.

And as the four subcommittees – academics, performing and fine arts, athletics and extracurriculars, safety and security – work to prepare their Power Points, their colleagues keep taking the red pencil to any point that sounds remotely like a proposed solution.

This meeting is not intended to offer any solutions. Rather it is intended to be “a list of problem statements” with the high school’s physical plant. The group wants to tell people what they’ve learned, and then listen to make sure they aren’t missing key issues with the aging edifice, aren’t overstating concerns they’ve identified.

That’s what committee co-chairs Mike Poirier and Lynn Kamenitsa told the Journal last week as we sat in a dingy windowless room on the school’s second floor.  Meeting with citizens won’t be the only listening the committee has been doing. In fact, so far they’ve sat down with faculty, staff and 649 students (they’ve heard from that many more in an online survey) and heard clearly that windowless classrooms aren’t conducive to anyone’s learning or well-being. Not that anyone has a solution to that since there is a vast internal core to this building that precludes natural light. Though there might be an upgrade from 1960s fluorescents.

Once Imagine OPRF hears from taxpayers at its meeting on Feb. 27, the next steps go into high gear as the school board which appointed this committee at the strong urging of Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams is looking for actual ideas and recommendations by June.

The superintendent pushed the school board to take this route after Oak Park and River Forest voters defeated a facilities, OK, mainly a pool replacement, tax referendum a year ago November by just a couple of dozen votes. That was deep polarization and the still-new superintendent recognized that tweaking the ask and going back out for a new vote fast was not a path forward.

So we have Kamenitsa and Poirier, leaders of the competing sides on the pool vote, now co-chairing this mammoth master facilities planning process. Spend 90 minutes in said windowless room with this pair and you figure out they’ve each become admirers of the other but mainly of the 30 diverse folks on their committee.   

Kamenitsa said that as a long-time Oak Parker she has always heard about how Oak Park and River Forest have so many talented people and that taxing bodies ought to use that talent instead of high-priced consultants. While there is an architectural firm offering some input, and a communications consultant working to involve the public in the process, the hard work of assessing what works and what is failed or obsolete at the million square-foot campus is up to the committee, she says.

A few glimpses into what the committee is learning. The building is structurally sound and the infrastructure – roof, boiler, plumbing, etc. – has been well maintained. The fieldhouse at the south end of the school is according to Poirier “the most inefficient space in the building.” It is also where the pools reside, where the boys’ locker room is ancient and the indoor track has mostly square corners. The co-chairs said they have heard a lot of requests from students for more privacy in the locker rooms, a remake that might help address issues of gender neutral bathrooms and other matters related to equity as it ties to gender identity.

Students, they have been a bit surprised to learn, want to spend more time in the school and crave shared spaces where they can study and socialize after 5 p.m.  

While the school’s enrollment is well off from its peak 20+ years ago, more space is needed for the vastly expanded number of students, some 600, who are enrolled in special education. Kamensitsa also notes the great increase in the number of girls playing sports in the Title IX era.

Have to say that so far this has been an impressive community led effort. Can it hold together into the solution phase, the costing out phase, the prioritization phase, the pool phase? Time will tell.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...