Not surprisingly the unveiling of the schematic design and projected $99.5 million cost for what is called Project 2 at Oak Park and River Forest High School has provoked numerous public comments at recent meetings of the OPRF District 200 Board of Education and at the Nov. 9 meeting of the district’s Community Finance Committee.

The plan to demolish the southeast portion of the current building and build new physical education facilities, including a new 10-lane, 25-by-40-yard swimming pool with four diving stations and a 420-seat observation gallery, plus some theater and dance space upgrades, is ambitious and expensive.

“This is the biggest project in the history of the world around here,” said one member of the Community Finance Committee at the committee’s Nov. 9 meeting.

Supporters of Project 2 say the current physical education facilities, including two nearly century-old swimming pools, are woefully outdated and improvements are long overdue.

“I don’t want to see this get kicked down the line again,” said Laura Minnis of River Forest, the mother of two current and one future OPRF students, during the public comment portion of the Oct. 27 school board meeting when the schematic design was unveiled. “We must invest in the future of OPRF. OPRF needs functional, equitable, acceptable physical education spaces. I’m asking you to please go forward with Project 2.”

Alison Welch of Oak Park, the mother of a current OPRF sophomore and a fifth-grader, spoke at the Nov. 9 Community Finance Committee meeting and implored the committee members to work with the board of education to get Project 2 financed and started in 2024, noting that each OPRF freshman class contains approximately 900 students.

“We know there’s a relationship between the quality of a learning environment and the academic, emotional and behavioral outcomes for the students,” Welch said. “Now in my opinion PE is very much an academic, emotional and behavioral experience that students are having and very important to growing into healthy adults. And we already know about the negative impacts being experienced by the subpar PE infrastructure experienced daily by just about every single OPRF student. Any delay in the process means another grade, or another 900-plus students each year, who won’t benefit from the facility upgrades.”

Opponents of Project 2 have been equally vocal. They claim the plan, especially for the new swimming pool, is grandiose and too expensive.

Monica Sheehan, who led the fight against a plan for a large new pool in 2016 and forced the issue to a referendum, which was defeated by a scant 28 votes, has also been a prominent critic of Project 2. Sheehan has been a regular letter writer to Wednesday Journal’s Viewpoints section.

In a public comment at the Nov. 17 school board meeting, Sheehan said the cost of Project 2 is so great that it would prevent needed renovation of classroom spaces. She says the proposed pool is unnecessarily large and took particular aim at the large space for spectator seating.

“The 420-seat spectator gallery is excessive,” said Sheehan, who lives in Oak Park and is the mother of two OPRF graduates. “Most meets only draw 50 to 75 people.”

Sheehan claims the volunteer Imagine OPRF committee that helped come up with the design was stacked with parents whom she described as a small special interest group.

“The Imagine subgroup that recommended the one and only Imagine pool was stacked with aquatic team parents and school employees appointed by the then-superintendent,” Sheehan said.

In a telephone interview with Wednesday Journal, Sheehan said she believes that a new swimming pool is needed for OPRF but she prefers building a new indoor pool at adjacent Ridgeland Common in partnership with the Park District of Oak Park.

“There is truly an option to doing a joint pool with Ridgeland Common, with the park district,” Sheehan said. “It’s by far the smartest approach to solving this problem.”

John Duffy, of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, called for a racial equity assessment to done on Project 2 before moving forward.

“To be clear, there is lots in the capital improvements that will benefit all students; still there are parts of the project, including but not limited to an aquatic center, that many believe are equity aversive, not equity supportive,” Duffy said.

Funding Project 2

If the school board decides to go ahead with Project 2, as seems likely, the next question is how to pay for it. The school will no doubt have to borrow a substantial portion of the cost even though it is projected to have nearly $76 million in cash reserves at the end of the current fiscal year. Sheehan is adamant that if OPRF plans to go ahead with Project 2, it needs to finance the project with bonds that would be subject to a referendum. Sheehan says the cost is so large that voters deserve the final say.

“Funding for whatever plan is imagined needs to go to referendum for voter approval,” said Sheehan at the Nov. 17 school board meeting. “It’s best practice for funding major capital projects and it’s the democratic way.”

While building bonds, which require a referendum, are the typical way for school districts to finance large capital projects, there is another way that OPRF officials are exploring — issuing debt certificates. Debt certificates are similar to bonds but they are not backed by a specific tax levy as building bonds are. Instead the borrowed money is paid back out of operating revenues. Because debt certificates are not backed by a specific revenue stream, they generally carry a higher interest rate than building bonds.

Philanthropy is another potential source of Project 2 financing. The Imagine Foundation at Oak Park and River Forest High School has been working to raise funds for the project. The school board is currently reviewing a proposal crafting options for naming rights attached to the project. No specific dollar target has been announced by the foundation.

In August the district’s financial advisor appeared before the Community Finance Committee and laid out a scenario for financing Project 2 by issuing $68 million in debt certificates and covering the rest of the cost with reserve funds.

The school board plans to decide on a funding mechanism for Project 2 by the end of the current academic year.

If they decide to sell building bonds, requiring a referendum, the soonest a referendum could take place would be in the 2024 primary election because the school board will likely not decide on a funding mechanism until after next April’s school board and municipal elections. It is not yet known when the 2024 primary election will be. It could be moved back to its traditional March date or remain in June like this year’s primary because of delays caused by redistricting.

Even a successful March referendum might make it difficult to start construction in the summer of 2024 which is the current goal. Proponents of Project 2 say that holding a referendum could delay the project for at least a year.

Supporters of the project have noted that, with current inflation levels, further delays will run up the cost of an already expensive plan.

Tim Brandhorst spoke at the Nov. 9 Community Finance Committee meeting. He said delaying the start of Project 2 because of the Election Day calendar would add to the cost of the project.

“The recent experience with the growth in costs in completing Project 1 should be instructive,” Brandhorst said. “Delaying Project 2 is going to have the same effect.”

Welch said, “I can believe that having a referendum to determine the funding of the project might actually be an irresponsible, unacceptable delay that would affect thousands of students who deserve better. Instead I feel like we, which means the collective, which means you, the board, the community, need to trust the process which got us here, trust the administration who will lead and oversee the effort and trust ourselves as a community to figure out the funding scenario that is fair and multifaceted.”

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