Wilmette, News

From necessary fixes to a brand-new school, all options are on the table as Avoca D37 collects feedback for school renovations

Improvements could cost anywhere between $30 million and $90 million over several years

Avoca District 37 officials are looking for the public’s input on what to do with aging facilities across their two schools, Avoca West elementary and Marie Murphy junior high.

The facilities and their challenges were the subject of recent town hall meetings held on Saturday, May 10, and Tuesday, May 23, when Superintendent Dr. Kaine Osburn detailed multiple ideas for fixes and funding.

Osburn said during the May 23 presentation that one of the district’s goals over the next five years is to create facilities that are “sustainable, flexible and physically support staff and students.”

Throughout the evening, Osburn stressed multiple times that the district is not near a decision and described it as a “funnel process,” where the district is begins with all their potential options. As the process continues, that funnel will narrow.

After the meeting, Osburn told The Record that the district is “many, many months” away from making any final decisions.

“We’re looking for the board to look at all this information in the summer, and then talk about what more do we need to go to the community with to narrow it down even more,” Osburn said. “So, we’re talking many months.”

The district is looking to make improvements of varying degrees over the next several years with improvements costing anywhere from $30 million to $90 million, the latter of which would fund a new all-grades (pre-K thought 8) school.

Along with the district’s architect, Carrie Matlock, president of DLA Architects, Osburn shared that as part of a 10-year report the district learned that both of the district’s schools are facing similar issues that “need to be taken care of throughout time,” such as the heating and cooling systems.

“Those are the types of things that you really want to plan for, just like you would in your home, and have that on a plan to replace,” Matlock said.

Avoca West in Glenview does not currently have air conditioning, and Osburn said adding it is one of the district’s goals.

Other issues the report highlighted include maintenance of the exterior of the buildings (tuckpointing, concrete work and roofs), the addition of LED lighting, replaced cabinetry, improved windows and doors, and enhanced technology infrastructure. Building-exclusive issues include the need to renovate bathrooms at Avoca West for ADA accessibility and address flooding at the Marie Murphy recreational fields.

In total, the estimated cost of the most-pressing work districtwide is $29.6 million – $19.2 million at Avoca West and $10.4 million at Marie Murphy.

Osburn said that figure does not include security improvements, such as improved camera and intercom systems, which he said the district will price out this summer.

The district’s financial situation, however, complicates matters.

“We don’t have any (set-aside) money for any capital projects of any kind,” Osburn said. “We only, at this point, have operating funds to pay for capital projects. So, that is a challenge.”

Osburn added that the “operating balance is not really enough to invest in any potential improvements for staff and programming. We’re basically in a status quo model right now.”

He also shared, however, that district finances have shown recent improvement. The district is in the second year of a small surplus after running a deficit for seven years and faces little debt.

Osburn then shared the district’s financial options, on which the district is collecting feedback.

As recommended by a district committee, Avoca 37 can either: continue operating as it has with no planned capital spending; spend approximately $30 million over the next five years to address the most-pressing concerns; spend $45-50 million over the next five years to address the pressing issues and fund learning-based improvements; or construct new buildings.

Osburn said one option would be to replace Avoca West with a new pre-K through fifth grade school, while also addressing life, safety and maintenance issues at Marie Murphy at a cost of approximately $55-60 million over the next five years.

The most ambitious option would be spending $90 million over the next five years to build an entirely new school for pre-K through eighth grade. He stated if the district ends up pursuing this option, the upper and lower grades would occupy different wings of the school.

Osburn also provided estimates on property-tax increases for the various options, which for the most-expensive option would rise approximately $1,700 annually on a $500,000 home.

Following the meeting, participants filled out a form ranking the most important issues facing the district They could also add their comments.

Additionally, a district facilities and finance committee surveyed staff and students to learn their priorities. Staff showed interest in school safety, music and performance spaces, and specialty art studios and science labs, while students said they want more natural light, a modernized library and cafeteria, and spaces to socialize.

Additionally, Osburn told the audience that there will be more town halls in the fall to provide updates on the process and he encouraged residents to let their neighbors know about the process the district is undergoing, and to share the video recording of the town hall when it is sent out.

Osburn said he wants the entire District 37 community to be aware of what the options are.

“The most important thing is not whether or not somebody agrees with a position or disagrees,” he said to the audience. “It’s that they come and they hear and make an informed decision. We want an informed community because, in the end, it’s an informed community that’s going to support our schools, not a community who feels they were left in the dark about something.”

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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