Current plans would add a track and soccer field west of the school. Baseball and softball would shift to park district and school fields south of Lake Street. (Provided by OPRF and Park District of Oak Park)

Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 is working with the Park District of Oak Park to revamp and share portions of its athletic fields on the school campus and across Lake Street at Ridgeland Common. The two taxing entities have signed a Memorandum of Agreement and are working toward a formal agreement that could come by this summer.

Among the improvements being proposed is a new track with space to host field events like discus and pole vault. The latest renovation endeavor, which D200 officials hope to complete by the 2023-24 school year, comes amid discussions of long-term maintenance plans and ongoing Imagine OPRF capital projects.

The school district and park district held a town hall meeting May 4 to answer questions from families, students and community members who sought details on the project’s costs, timeline and potential impact on the surrounding residential areas. Superintendent Greg Johnson, who led the nearly hourlong presentation and moderated the question-and-answer session, was joined by Jan Arnold, park district executive director and Nicole Ebsen, OPRF athletic director and Ron Anderson, operations chief. 

According to the school district’s plans, renovation of the athletic fields centers mostly on the west field, otherwise known as the back field, which rests behind the school building and along Linden Avenue, said Ebsen. 

She said the district started to consider updating its athletic fields after learning the school’s agreement to use Concordia University Chicago’s outdoor track facility in River Forest will expire in 2024.

With plans still in an initial phase, the project’s cost has yet to be determined, Johnson said. At this point, the district hopes to lock down those details by the summer, put out a bid by next fall and begin construction next summer and be ready by the 2023-24 school year, said Karin Sullivan, OPRF spokesperson, in an interview following the meeting.

At the May 4 meeting, Johnson said the district looks to fund the project through its cash reserves, and the project itself will take about four to five months to complete.

Restoring the fields is also separate from the next phase of the Imagine project, which seeks to focus on the high school’s indoor athletic facilities, Johnson and Sullivan said. Phase 2 of the Imagine project, which includes renovating the swimming pool, locker rooms and several physical education and multipurpose classrooms, has yet to be finalized or approved by the school board.

“We have to find a home for our largest and most diverse program, for our boys and girls track,” Ebsen said of the district’s loss of the Concordia’s facility. She told attendees that she and other officials thought to partner with other neighboring high schools or Triton College in nearby River Grove, “but really what led us down to this is the realization that we would become kind of second to the home school.”

If the district were to go in that direction, OPRF’s student-athletes would be bused to the other schools, may have later start times for practice and come home later in the evenings.

“That’s something that we quickly realized is not necessarily a long-term solution for us,” she said.

The back field – which houses the baseball and softball fields – will be transformed into a full 400-meter, eight-lane track with a competitive field for events, including discus, pole vault and shotput, as well as a triple, long and high jump, she said. The district also plans on placing a 65-yard by 110-yard multi-sport synthetic turf field in the middle of the new track, topping off the space with a 600-seat bleacher. Johnson said repairs to the west field would benefit all students; it would be available for physical education classes or to other teams, including the marching band, cheer, drill, Special Olympics and more.

But what does that mean for the baseball and softball fields?

They would be relocated, Ebsen said to town hall attendees. The baseball field would be shifted to the south field on Lake Street, which is right across from the high school. The south field is already a turf field and typically used by the school’s soccer, lacrosse and field hockey teams. The softball field, however, would be moved to the Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex, an Oak Park park district facility. The Ridgeland Common site is also a turf field.

Ebsen said having turf fields are a major benefit, especially for the school’s baseball and softball teams, as synthetic turf reduces maintenance, eliminates mud and prevents rain-outs unlike natural grass.

“Our freshman softball program, just for example,” she said, “has played five games right now to date and will unlikely be able to complete their conference schedule at the rate we’re going with predicted weather in the upcoming weeks.”

During the presentation, Johnson told attendees the school and park district plan to replace Ridgeland’s synthetic turf field, which is nearing the end of its lifespan; scoreboards and fencing around the field’s perimeter. Johnson said the district and the Park District of Oak Park have already voted and approved a memorandum of agreement (MOA), allowing the two entities the chance to “invest” in each other and share the space together.

The next step is to create an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the District 200 School Board and the park district board, which would spell out the details of their relationship, Johnson said. A draft of that IGA would likely be presented to both boards in June, and more meetings would be held continue the conversation, he said.

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