District 709 meeting focuses on crowded school facilities

Steve Stein
sstein@pekintimes.com

Build a new high school. Build a new middle school. Keep addressing more pressing facilities issues while searching for the best long-term solution.

All were discussed Sept. 30 by the District 709 School Board in a special meeting that focused entirely on facilities.

Recommendations by a facilities advisory committee to build a new high school and transform the current high school into a grades 5-8 middle school or build a new grades 5-8 middle school are among those being considered by the board.

In both cases, the grades 7-8 junior high school would be closed and the district’s four K-6 elementary schools would become K-4 buildings.

Among the current facilities challenges the board is tackling are classrooms filled to capacity, crowded common areas such as cafeterias and gymnasiums, finding space in elementary schools for state-mandated daily physical education that will begin next year and updating the outdoor athletic facilities at the high school.

Residents will have four opportunities to weigh in on facilities during a 709Connect community engagement initiative that will begin Oct. 22.

The big facilities issue for board member Tim Taylor is the junior high school, “which is reaching the end of its useful life span.”

Board member John Applen said he wants residents to trust the board.

One way to do it, he said, is to gauge their reaction to a facilities plan not on a grand scale that would provide space for daily physical education and all-day kindergarten at each of the elementary schools.

Board member Tom Neeley said he’s heard concerns from residents about having fifth-graders in the same building as sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

He also worries about a sizeable investment that will be needed at the high school if a new high school or middle school is built.

Superintendent Lindsey Hall said there’s a perception in the community that the district is pushing for the construction of a new high school.

“That’s not the case,” she said. “Nothing has been decided.”

She also said there are no plans to close Jefferson Elementary School, the district’s oldest school, which opened in 1928.

“There are 350 students at Jefferson and we have no place to put them,” she said.

“Also, the building continues to serve us well.”

Hall said none of the district’s buildings are showing their age, “but the reality is our newest building is Lettie Brown (Elementary School), which was built in 1977, and no school building has an indefinite life span.”

She also said the junior high school’s three-acre campus and the high school’s 22-acre campus are problematic.

The district had about 3,900 students in 1977. This year, it has 2,865.

“Those who look at those numbers and wonder why we have space issues have a valid point,” she said. “But the ways we serve children now are so different than it was nearly 40 years ago.”