By Bob Skolnik
Last week Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye held meetings at each of the elementary schools in Riverside Elementary School District 96 to brief the public about plans to add on to the elementary schools and to solicit feedback from parents and community members.
The district and school board are inching closer to making final decisions with an eye on at least building an addition to Ames School in 2020.
"It was really a great opportunity to engage with the community, to hear from the community related to our long-range facilities but also to hear other things that were on their minds," Ryan-Toye said of the meetings, which drew smallish crowds ranging from seven to 20 people.
The Ames addition is by the far the largest project the district is undertaking. That addition is expected add 14,000 square feet and cost about $11.5 million. Once it is completed the district's pre-kindergarten program will be moved to Ames from Blythe Park School, which will permit Blythe Park to become a two-section school and relieve enrollment pressure elsewhere.
Smaller additions are planned for Blythe Park and Hollywood schools, and the lower level of Central School will be remodeled after the district offices move this summer to a building on Harlem Avenue.
At Blythe Park, Central, and Hollywood one main goal is moving the schools' offices to create secure entrance vestibules. Adding playground space at Central, Hauser and Hollywood is also a priority.
"When I came here in 2016 I was kind of surprised by this idea that we play in our parking lots," Ryan-Toye said.
Ryan-Toye said the district is striving to find the right balance of meeting student needs, handling rising enrollment and being fiscally responsible.
"We don't want to underbuild and we don't want to overbuild," Ryan-Toye said.
The district is considering spending $20 million to $25 million on facilities improvements.
Some parents at the meetings wanted to be more ambitious, with some wondering about a full-day kindergarten program.
The bulk of the money for the additions is expected to come from cash reserves, but the school board has not ruled out borrowing a portion of the money.
The remodeling of the Central School entrance, which is not handicapped-accessible, is perhaps the one area most in flux. Initial plans called for moving the main office closer to the entrance by trading places with a classroom.
But that classroom, which receives loads of natural light, is considered to be perhaps the nicest classroom in the school and board members and community members didn't want to turn that classroom into an office.
No clear choice has yet emerged for the Central School entrance.
"Securing the front entrance to Central is very challenging," Ryan-Toye said. "I think if it had been easy, it would have been solved in the past."
At Hollywood School district officials are debating between a 2,500-square-foot addition and a 1,300-square-foot addition. The smaller addition will be adequate if a special education class run by the LaGrange Area District for Special Education (LADSE) can be moved to another school. The district rents the classroom to LADSE but would prefer to have that class meet at Ames or Central.
"If we can't figure out how to do that, we might be recommending the larger addition," Ryan-Toye said.
Hollywood School parents are especially keen on turning the current Hollywood School parking lot into additional play space, but that requires finding some other spot for teachers to park their cars.
The precise boundaries of land owned by District 96 and the Hollywood Community Association also needs to be determined.
At Blythe Park, in addition to moving the office across the hallway to be closer to the street and constructing a secure vestibule in front of the current main entrance, the main change would be ripping out the first few rows of seats of the auditorium to create space to hold music classes.
District officials and their architect had considered totally remodeling the auditorium into a multipurpose room. They have since backed off of that idea after the Blythe Park community expressed a strong desire to preserve the auditorium.
A previous plan to add on to the back entrance of Blythe Park School has been put on hold for now.
The school board will discuss the path forward at its May 15 meeting when the district's architect will be present. One issue will be whether to do work on all the schools at once or to stagger the work over two years.