Members representing District 113 and those affiliated with the community group Education First exchanged views in a panel discussion about what's next for the $133 million renovation proposal for the district's two high schools.
The conversation was moderated by District 113 Assistant Superintendent Sue Hebson.
Topics touched on included the Highland Park High School buildings built in 1914, the Deerfield High School library and fields, technology in the classroom, the schools' infrastructure as well as maintenance, repairs and operations costs.
Different approaches to shared goal
While it was clear by the end of the discussions that both sides support improvements at the two high schools and preparing for the long-term future, each would take a different approach.
The Education First panelists emphasized updating and maintaining the current facilities wherever possible, while those representing the district contended that new facilities were the most cost-effective long-term solutions.
Sam Shapiro of Education First spoke of the organization’s three biggest concerns with the district’s plans:
- The process used before officials asked voters to approve a $133 million referendum on the April 5 ballot.
- The large scope of the project.
- The plans made in regards to maintenance, repair and operations.
“The process omitted some key steps along the way,” said Shapiro, who is a management consultant. “[The scope] was too much for the community to digest. We recommend that the district scale back the scope of this project, like the field houses.
"We should find creative solutions instead of expansion,” he added.
Brad Paulsen, an architect who spoke on behalf of the district, countered that the school system had sought long-term solutions and had been diligent in its decision-making.
“This was not to be a shorter term fix,” Paulsen said of the failed referendum. “We partnered with a variety of different consultants throughout the process. We believed the plan was fiscally prudent and responsible for the community.
"Careful consideration went into the process and how things would be sequenced,” he noted.
On the building systems issues, Education First panelists called for more comprehensive studies to determine the needs of each building in the school district. They also want independent contractors to give estimates for what each step of the process would entail.
“Independent cost estimates must be developed,” said Shapiro. “[Letting architects and engineers give estimates] is like letting the students grade their own papers.”
He criticized the district for allowing a wish list of “wants” to get in the way of more pressing “needs.”
Architect Gerald Meister added that the district needed to be more clear about its plans to use funding to maintain any new improvements, which should include planned and unplanned expenses.
“We could spend a lot of money putting in these systems, but if they're not maintained, it's meaningless, wasted money,” said Meister. “There was no analysis of the operating costs.”
Robert St. Mary, an engineer speaking on behalf of the district, said that while such a specific analysis had not been done for the district, those involved in the planning had years of experience with developing similar systems for numerous high schools.
“Wight [& Co.] has done so many high schools,” he said. “They understand this business. We can't go in saying it's ‘X’ amount of pipe [needed], but we have the past experience to be able to estimate these kind of projects.”
St. Mary said he did a comprehensive walk-through of both high schools with a focus on replacing equipment that had exceeded its useful life.
“We are approaching 40, 50 to 70 years on some equipment, over two-and-a-half times its useful life [of 25 years],” the engineer said. “We must bring them up to code.”
Ventilation and water problems
St. Mary explained that ventilation is a huge factor in regards to energy costs, noting that new ventilation system designs would prove energy efficient.
Also discussed was the Deerfield High School library, which suffers from water leaking into the stacks area. Education First dismissed a plan to extensively renovate the culprit, a neighboring open courtyard area.
“If I have water in my basement, I don't rebuild my house,” said Shapiro.
Leanne Meyer-Smith, an architect who spoke on behalf of the district, said the district wished to cover the courtyard area and reclaim it as technology space for the library.
The two sides of the panel also discussed the district’s wish to build field houses that would include new pools at each high school. The district said that the size of current pools do not support the need of classes or swim teams.
Education First recommended that, rather than build two news pools, the two schools either repair their pools or share one newly constructed pool.
Education First members concluded with points needed for the future, including prioritizing of needs, identifying alternative, lower-cost solutions, needing to see cost estimates and the evaluation of timely options for a long-range capital plan.
The district ended by reiterating the concept of a three phase plan and determining everything needed and wanted, sharing this with the community and supporting a third-party estimator.
“I see a theme of upgrading and maintaining and improving infrastructure of these two schools,” said Richard Becker, a member of Education First. “[But that’s difficult] especially in this economy, when people can't pay their real estate taxes. We need to go back and look at the basics.”
Paulsen thanked Education First for meeting with district representatives and said he hoped for more insight in the ongoing process.
“We look forward to working with your group to come up with the next plan,” he said. “We're very open minded and there's a unique opportunity here which could be beneficial to the entire community.”
Hebson said after the discussion that she thought the meeting went well.
“I noted at the beginning that this was an opportunity to listen and learn, and I think that’s exactly what happened,” she said.
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly said that Education First recommended the two high schools share Deerfield High School's pool. We apologize for the error.