The Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 Board of Education has reached a consensus on some aspects of Imagine OPRF’s long-term master facilities plan, which calls for a series of capital improvements estimated to cost $219 million and which could take up to a decade to complete. 

During a Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 11, most board members expressed support for the administration’s recommendation to embark on a first phase of projects that would include the renovation of 76 general education classrooms, among other instruction-related projects. The cost for those improvements is an estimated $32.6 million and could take up to four years to complete. 

Board members also expressed support for the administration’s recommendation to take $20 million from OPRF’s more than $100 million operating fund balance to create a capital reserve fund for future construction projects. 

They were also in support of immediately laying the groundwork for attracting private dollars that might help pay for much-needed improvements. 

But the board was divided when it came to how to approach the physical needs of OPRF’s south campus, where physical education classes and athletics are concentrated. 

During the Dec. 11 meeting, D200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that the board could consider committing an estimated $65.4 million to a range of projects that include the replacement of the district’s aging pools, the construction and/or renovation of locker rooms for boys and non-binary students, the installation of an ADA-compliant elevator at the south end of the high school, among other projects.

Some board members indicated that they would not support spending $65.4 million on athletics-related projects when, in their opinion, some critical options for minimizing those costs, such as exploring the feasibility of removing a mandatory swimming requirement, have not been sufficiently explored. 

“In terms of the swimming requirement, I know I asked a few months ago — echoing concerns or questions from the community — could we explore a path to allow some capable swimmers to opt-out?” said Baron.

“And the response was that it’s part of a six-year curriculum review in the physical education program. And with Imagine being charged with looking to the future and really trying to look out 10 to 20 years and beyond of preparing our students for the future, I am disappointed that we seem to be institutionally holding onto a relic of the past, of a swimming requirement that doesn’t make sense anymore.” 

Baron said that Imagine did not look into the swim requirement and that, in general, “there’s just not even an openness to exploring it.” 

Pruitt-Adams, however, said that she “would respectfully disagree” that the district has refused to look into, “or are resistant to,” the idea. She added that looking into the swimming curriculum was not the task given to Imagine, which was responsible for evaluating how facilities impact the educational environment. 

Pruitt-Adams also pointed out that changing the swimming curriculum, something she said the administration would look into, was not relevant to the size of the proposed aquatics facility. 

“If we do delay 14 or 18 months before exploring [south end improvements] further, I would ask my colleagues on the board to join me in calling for at least an exploration of that issue,” Baron said of the swimming requirement. 

Iseli said that he wasn’t ready to support the $65.4 million expenditure “until I feel we’ve exhausted” other compromises, such as exploring whether or not PE facilities need to be located on campus.

“Imagine focused on how to fit this within the footprint of the building and that’s an assumption that isn’t a hard fact,” Iseli said. “There are lots of [high schools] with PE facilities that aren’t located at their site.”

But for members like Jennifer Cassell and Jackie Moore, the discussion seemed like déjà vu. 

“I feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” Cassell said. “We need to have a better understanding of some of the uncertainties you guys are talking about, [but] I’m concerned that, in 18 months, we’re going to still be waffling back and forth about whether or not we need to have a swimming program, or extracurricular aquatics programs on campus.”

Moore said that she needs “to understand what our commitment to our PE program is” and expressed support for the notion that equity should not be limited to classroom spaces, and that PE spaces are also instructional spaces — something that Pruitt-Adams and Imagine members said has been demonstrated by student feedback they collected during the long-term facilities planning process.  

The school board could make a decision on how to proceed with at least the $32.6 million phase of the long-term master facilities plan at its regular meeting on Dec. 20. 

Correction: A previous version of this article misrepresented the views of board member Fred Arkin. This article has since been updated for clarification. Wednesday Journal regrets the error. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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