Highland Park schools at the fore in 2013
Highland Park High School freshmen (from left) Angela Gutman, Caroline Berkman and Jessie Becker walk the indoor track at Highland Park High School. Track and pool upgrades may be part of a referendum queston in April.| Michelle LaVigne ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 23, 2013 4:54PM
The condition of Highland Park’s school facilities — and the hefty sums required to update them — will be a dominant theme in 2013.
Both North Shore District 112 and High School District 113 are girding to make difficult choices in fiscally tough times, and contested school board elections in both districts this spring are sure to stoke the debate.
The Township High School District 113 School Board must decide by mid January the scope of the facility projects to include in an April ballot question — or whether to go to referendum at all. School officials, staff and dozens of citizens have spent the past 18 months examining why a $133 million referendum failed and refining a list of priorities that might be acceptable to the voters.
The board will resume its deliberations at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 7. The deadline for approving a referendum question is Tuesday, Jan. 22, and the school board has scheduled two community meetings Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 23 and 24, to explain its decisions to citizens.
A new Long Range Facilities Master Plan for Highland Park and Deerfield high schools has identified needed upgrades to the buildings’ infrastructure, including the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems. The plan calls for improved accessibility, instructional technology and building security.
The list of projects includes new multipurpose gymnasiums at both high schools and eight-lane swimming pools with diving wells to address safety issues.
Architects from Perkins + Will say Highland Park High School in particular is showing signs of age and reflects the way the building was expanded as needed in multiple stages. The connected buildings are constructed on 49 different levels.
While earlier plans called for replacing three buildings that date back to 1914, the new plan recommends repurposing one of the those buildings and replacing two others.
“The board is using the master plan as a road map to help determine what to do now and what can be saved for later,” said George Fornero, superintendent of High School District 113, which includes both Highland Park and Deerfield high schools.
“For example, if the Board of Education decides to build new multipurpose gyms for physical education at both high schools in the next five years, our architects have designed a plan so that those gyms can be turned into field houses 20 years down the road. Whatever we do now won’t go to waste in the future.”
In North Shore District 112, a 60-member committee of parents, citizens and staff has begun grappling with whether the district should reduce the number of school buildings or perhaps reorganize the schools into grade-level centers, with some schools serving children in grades K-2 and others educating pupils in third through fifth grade. Currently the district serves 4,300 pupils in eight K-5 elementary schools and three middle schools serving sixth through eighth grade.
Many of the district’s 12 school buildings — with an average age of nearly 70 years — are in need of costly repairs or possible replacement, according to the report from a citizens’ advisory committee that examined district finances in late 2011 and early 2012. The group cited inefficiencies, like small buildings and class sizes, that may warrant consolidation.
The current group, the Superintendent’s Citizen Finance and Facilities Advisory Committee, is looking at finances, facilities and school configuration models.
The 44 committee members with children in the schools were selected in proportion to each school’s population.
“Committee members are a diverse group representing every attendance area in the district and bring with them a wealth of professional expertise, community leadership experience and knowledge of the district,” said Superintendent David Behlow of North Shore District 112.
The district has hired a consulting firm, K12 Insight, to develop a communications plan to educate the community and elicit participation from all areas of the district.
Grade-level centers serve fewer grades in each building and draw students from a larger attendance area. Schools that serve fewer grades, with more class sections per grade level, can better balance class size and achieve efficiencies by avoiding the need to add classroom teachers when enrollment passes a tipping point.