As Oak Park and River Forest High School's Imagine OPRF work group finishes up the information-gathering and assessment phases to come up with long-term solutions for the high school's facility needs, community members and district officials involved in the process are almost giddy about how smooth it's going.
"I'm in my sixth year of working with these facilities discussions, and I feel like we are really getting somewhere now," said Karin Sullivan, District 200's communications director, during a Nov. 16 board meeting.
Sullivan credited the work group's 43 volunteers, which includes community members and some district employees, for the progress.
The District 200 school board created the work group in December 2016 on the recommendation of Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, who spearheaded a similar effort at her former district in Missouri. The OPRF work group first met in August and is on track to make recommendations by early 2018.
But work group leaders and district officials said they're not in a rush to draw conclusions or force a process they believe feels a lot more organic and naturally collaborative than previous initiatives.
The road to replace OPRF's swimming pools stretches back at least a decade and is littered with dozens of community meetings, two long-term facility reports, a pool upgrade and relocation study, and other pool and/or facility-related documents. Those often contentious prior community efforts resulted in a failed referendum in November 2016.
The ballot measure, which would have used up to $20 million from the district's fund balance to pay for a $44.5 million five-year facilities plan, lost by 28 votes.
The Imagine group — which is divided into four teams that study academics/student achievement, athletics/extracurriculars, performing and fine arts, and physical conduction/safety and security — has been combing through those prior documents while conducting their own research and fact-finding.
Last month, the group held its first community engagement session, during which around 60 community members participated. The chairs of the four work teams updated the public on the process. In addition, a representative from Perkins + Will, the architecture firm hired to consult the Imagine group, did a presentation on learning spaces of the future.
"The feeling [among participants at the engagement session] was that this process was different," said Pruitt-Adams at last month's board meeting. "That it is open and transparent."
One of the Imagine group's two co-chairpersons, Mike Poirier — who had been against the November 2016 referendum — also described the group as a "fully community driven effort." Lynn Kamenitsa, the group's other co-chair, supported the November referendum.
The two Imagine committee leaders, along with district administrators and board members, reinforced Pruitt-Adams' description of the current community engagement process.
Poirier said that at last month's community engagement session, "a lot of community members were little bit surprised that they weren't going to be reviewing plans and proposals, and that they were engaged so early in the process. And even the next community engagement meeting won't be plans and proposals. The next meeting will be us sharing our conclusions."
"We're working hard with our teams to no have them hone in on solutions," said Kamenitsa. "Even with all the data, we're still trying to grasp what happens in this building, how and where it happens, and what the shortcomings are. There are some themes that have emerged, but they are not solutions."
District 200 school board member Tom Cofsky praised that wait-and-see approach.
"What I'm hearing, which excites me, is that it's more needs-driven than solutions-driven as a process," Cofsky said. "Solutions are preconceived."
Poirier said that "there's been very little chatter about solutions" among the work group members.
"Once people dug into the complexity of the issue and the complexity of understanding the current state [of facilities] and the job entailed in them, we all realized we have plenty on our plate," he said. "Solutions can wait."
School board President Jackie Moore said that, with all of Imagine's progress, she would still like OPRF students to be more directly involved in the work group's efforts. Poirier and Kamenitsa said that they're thinking about how to implement some best practices to incorporate a diverse array of students into effort.
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