District 200 board members are facing more questions than answers following a special meeting Feb. 14 that featured a discussion on major maintenance plans at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Board members requested the meeting Monday night, hoping district administrators could iron out the details of numerous long-term renovation projects before delving further into the district’s financing options.
In the last few months, the board and the administration considered incurring debt to fund waves of maintenance projects stretching over the next decade. Members of D200’s Community Finance Advisory Committee met almost two weeks ago to talk about options for taking on debt and advised against borrowing money at this time, citing the district’s healthy cash reserves and the need to learn more about which maintenance projects were being prioritized.
“We’re now an hour and 15 minutes [into the meeting, and] we have [yet] to talk about facilities and what the needs are,” said board member Kebreab Henry Monday night. “My thought was to discuss what has been proposed, what is necessary, what it means – ‘We need to do this part’ – and then do financial because we did not discuss facilities tonight.”
Henry, who sits on the finance advisory committee, said conversations about the district’s hefty list of maintenance projects have gotten off track and spiraled into conversations about renovations specific to the school’s swimming pools, which has remained a source of contention between community members and District 200 over many years.
Some critics such as Oak Park resident Monica Sheehan have disputed the $14 million price tag for revamping the aquatic center, which includes installing an eight-lane competition pool with three additional lanes and a diving area; a 600-seat balcony for spectators; additional storage space; changing area and deck repairs among many things. Those renovations make up just a portion of Phase 2 of the district’s five-part Imagine OPRF capital project and have yet to be finalized and approved by the board.
Based on previous plans and initial discussions in 2018, Phase 2 was estimated to cost around $64.5 million and has not been updated since.
“Bottom line, the Imagine pool and natatorium are inequitable in terms of cost and size and need to be right-sized,” Sheehan said during Feb. 14 during public comments. “They do not align with your strategic plan policy to ‘make fiscally responsible, student-centered decisions that allocate resources to ensure excellence and equity for all.’”
Other residents joined Sheehan and voiced concerns over the board and administrations’ recent inquiry on issuing non-referendum bonds to fund future capital projects, which they say would ultimately exclude or overlook community input.
“Trying to avoid a referendum is just wrong, and it will only increase community mistrust of D200,” said Judith Alexander, another Oak Park resident, told the board during public comments.
During the special meeting, board members Fred Arkin and Ralph Martire expressed frustration over administrators’ presentation and said they expected a breakdown of the district’s facility needs with an emphasis on the projects that take priority. They talked about reexamining Phase 2’s plans to see whether it overlapped with the district’s other major maintenance projects. Arkin also suggested bringing district Athletic Director Nicole Ebsen into the conversation and understanding the needs of the athletic department, staff and students.
Instead, presentations led by Superintendent Greg Johnson, Executive Director of Operations Ron Anderson and financial consultant Robert Grossi dove into the district’s current financial state, dispelling myths about the installation of an “Olympic-sized pool” and a run-through of construction updates and a 10-year maintenance plan, including Phase 1 of the Imagine OPRF project, which is expected to be completed by 2023.
“I don’t see the term ‘need-based,’” Arkin said. “I don’t see the term ‘student-focused, and I don’t see anything having to do with an equity evaluation or an equity lens, and that’s very concerning to me.”
Board member Gina Harris also urged the board and administration to take another step toward transparency to counter the spread of misinformation among community members.
“I would love for us to get even more clear on our information that we share and how we share it because the misinformation is really challenging to hear right now,” Harris said.
Johnson said the board’s message was clear and apologized for missing the mark during the special meeting. He added that the presentation on the district’s 10-year maintenance plan is part of a “comprehensive approach,” and “that’s what we’re really trying to communicate here.”
“There are elements of that 10-year maintenance plan that have to continue to go on regardless of what happens with anything related to Project 2, and that 10-year maintenance plan is merely or actually completely designed to communicate what those needs are,” Johnson told the board.
“I think once we get a feel for what we want to do for Project 2, what it is, what is its scope, what needs are we exactly trying to meet with that, I think we’ll be in a better situation to figure out those cost benefits or those balances between how we want to deal with the various ways we could potentially fund it, and then that will have an implication on how we go about carrying the 10-year maintenance plan.”