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Unit 40 ponders build new or update existing buildings

The clock is ticking for Effingham Unit 40 School Board for deciding how to address its building issues next year.

A majority of board members agreed Monday night the district should seek contractor proposals on spending several million dollars on Life-Safety issues at Central Grade School and Effingham High School through an extension of bonds over several years.

The high school work would include more than $5 million for replacing the roof and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the 19-year-old structure. The Central School work would include asbestos abatement in several classrooms and hallways, as well as roofing and window replacement.

Superintendent Mark Doan explained the high school HVAC units and roof had a warranty of 15 years. The asbestos issue at Central is part of an ongoing effort to enclose or remove the fibrous material in older buildings that pose a respiratory health hazard when not contained.

“You have no choice to fix your buildings. You wouldn’t want your own house to go down,” said board member Brian Wick on the Life Safety proposals.

But the school district is considering a school facilities sales tax to raise up to $2.8 million per year for major renovations or constructing of a new education building for elementary grades or the possibility of placing junior high students under the same roof.

That could cost $36 million or more. New construction could help the school district reach its goal of having only three attendance centers in the future, Doan said.

“Our overarching goal is getting down to three buildings. Now we have eight buildings. Almost all of them have Unit 40 kids,” Doan said.

The other option, in addition to the Life Safety work, is updating Unit 40 buildings to bring them up to 21st Century standards. The junior high building is now more than 75 years old and Central School is approaching nearly 40 years of operations. The other elementary schools were built decades ago as well.

Doan asked the board members for a consensus on whether they preferred building new or renovating existing structures. Their stance could determine whether it was feasible to pursue a referendum for the school facility tax on the April 4 ballot. He reminded them a board resolution on a referendum must be approved by Jan. 17, which would require a special board meeting prior to that day.

The district could pursue $20 million in bond money to complete the major renovations, including the expansion of Central School to welcome more grades there, plus work at the junior high building.

The referendum option had some board members questioning voter reaction.

“If you only do it to ‘spruce up’ it might not pass,” said board member Chris Koester.

Assistant Superintendent Rem Woodruff, who has worked with Doan and others on crunching the numbers on the building needs, took a stance on the issue.

“The question is do you do what you can afford or extend yourself beyond what you can afford?” Woodruff said on the new versus renovation question. “Renovating the junior high and adding to Central makes sense. Fixing up the high school does as well. That is living within our means. I’d love to have a new elementary school, but we can’t afford to do that.”

Board member Jane Willenborg cautioned there will not be enough time to sell the referendum to the voters. Wick was also skeptical about taking that issue to the voters in April.

“There’s not enough time. It’s a futile exercise,” Wick said.

Doan countered there would be nearly 90 days to promote the public question.

But he did say postponing a decision on new construction will only add to the final cost.

In other business, the board approved a mowing contract with no cost changes from last year and curriculum updates for the next school year. Those updates will include a dual credit course on the history and culture of the Third World as well as a combination course with other school districts on manufacturing skills.

The EJHS seventh grade girls basketball team was honored for its state tournament appearance and Central fifth graders talked about the Umbrellas for Peace program, as presented by Kristyn Bowman and some students. The effort showed how children can generate a meaningful pay it forward program in a community.

The board conducted a long closed session on personnel and discipline issues as permitted through exceptions to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

On employment matters, the board approved hiring Christina Jones as a paraprofessional and Kristin Harvey as an EHS assistant softball coach. Resignations were accepted from April Karpus-Weddle as football cheer coach, Andrea Davis, a paraprofessional nurse, and Joyce Green, a teacher. Green will end her work at the close of the current school year.

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