Imagine OPRF, a volunteer-driven, year-long effort to assess the massive and aged physical plant that is Oak Park and River Forest High School came to the public and to the school board Tuesday night with its plan.

To the surprise of no one who has closely followed this ambitious planning effort, the draft plan is expansive and it is expensive. The committee proposes undertaking the first notable updating of the school in a half-century in five phases over, at least, 6-10 years. In some detail, the Imagine OPRF plan lays out phases 1, 2 and 3 with a substantial $145 million ballpark price tag attached.

In two villages feeling the pressure of steep property taxes, this is a consequential number. No one should deny that or sugarcoat it. 

Having effectively and inappropriately “pre-taxed” its constituents by some $100 million over a decade or so does give the school district a notable down payment on this necessary updating and remaking of a high school where the oldest parts date back more than 110 years. Wednesday Journal has been beating this school about the ears for a long, long time over its unfair and unethical collection of excess tax dollars. But the reality is that the money is banked and is best invested in long-term capital projects than leaked out in overly generous pay raises.

(Which reminds us: What is the status of the faculty contract negotiations? Is everyone content to work without a contract? For how long?)

Paying down the reserves will need to be blended with other long-term financing options inevitably requiring some sort of tax increase referendum. There is a lot of studying left to be done.

None of us, though, ought to be dismissive of this draft plan. Old buildings used for dynamic purposes need more than floor wax and occasional rewiring. Education has changed — the way we teach and the way we learn. This fine old building has not changed much in the 50-plus years since the last addition and upgrades were made.  

Our thanks to the intrepid volunteers who dove into this complex project. They considered changes in technology, the growth of special education, the need for added vocational opportunities, expansion of essential arts and athletic extracurriculars, the ways the building could foster equity and opportunity, and the need to support collaboration among teachers. 

Open community meetings are planned as early as next month. This plan will surely evolve. The response of the school board and the administration will certainly be debated in next spring’s school board election. There are many, many questions to be asked, refined and answered.

Here’s the challenge to Oak Park and River Forest: Let’s have a discussion that draws more people in rather than dividing us into camps. Let’s find consensus, not victories. Let’s respect the strong work of this committee rather than undermining it, knowing that the process will continue. 

Investing in our public high school is a necessity and an opportunity. It’s not a battle.

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