Classic school buildings still going strong

The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” seems to apply fairly well to Piatt County school buildings. As local districts ponder a variety of upgrades – from lower cost maintenance to potential $30 million projects – the age of the building does not seem to be playing into the equation.

For example, when Cerro Gordo started researching possible facilities upgrades late last year, one of the first things they were told was the 1929 high school was structurally sound and should be kept – although with the caveat that it should eventually be upgraded with classroom air conditioners and a re-distribution of classroom space to accommodate a more modern learning environment.

Facility upgrade proposals in Cerro Gordo ranged from $3 million to $13 million before the district settled on an $8 million ballot question for this April. If approved, it would include new construction that would connect the high school to the band/gym building. The connector would include a new junior high gym, office space, two new classrooms and commons area.

It would also establish a more secure entryway for the junior/senior high campus and have the extra perk of keeping students out of the elements as they pass from one building to the other.

The current CGJHS gym would be converted into an auditorium.

In Monticello, a myriad of potential high school upgrades have been discussed since voters turned back a plan to fund a new, $40 million high school. At this point, they all include keeping the original 1924 section of the high school.

Some plans have proposed demolishing the newer, 1966 addition while keeping the original section, although more recent options have looked more at mostly upgrades at the entire school.

The staying power of the older buildings does not surprise Monticello School Advisor Arthur “Buzz” Sievers, known as a local historian of all things education-related in town.

For one thing, he said the older schools were built to last.

“Because of the types of materials available for structural stability they were much stouter,” he said.

“The walls at the best of old Washington are 18 to 24 inches thick to support the work above.”

Sievers added there was controversy in the 1890s whether Washington should be constructed from bricks rated at 40 years or 60 years.

“If I remember they chose 40-year and you see how that turned out. Forty = 200 years, 60 = until you tear them down,” he said.

Smaller amounts of work are also being considered at other county schools, ranging from entryway upgrades at Blue Ridge to state-mandated health life safety work at Bement. DeLand-Weldon conducted about $2 million in upgrades on its 1968 buildings two years ago, and is also only planning building maintenance at this time.

Here is an update on building talk in Piatt County-related school districts.



Building ages: 1899 elementary school (originally a high school), 1916 high school, 1952 middle school, 1967 north addition, 1978 shop addition.

Possible projects: There is no major structural work on the drawing board at this point. The district has used school facilities sales tax proceeds to help fund installation of air conditioning in all classrooms, wifi connectivity and playground resurfacing.

“That 1 percent (sales tax) has come in real handy,” said Superintendent Sheila Greenwood.

Next up is the mandatory 10-year Health Life Safety Survey, which will dictate future building projects. Opterra Energy Services of Chicago is helping with those plans, which could also include energy savings initiatives.

“That will be our next big move, addressing that,” said Greenwood on the life safety work.



Building ages: 1939 Blue Ridge Intermediate and Junior High School with a 2013 addition; 1955 Schneider Elementary with a 1966 addition; 2000 Blue Ridge High School, which kept the 1964 ag/IT/band wing and an older gymnasium.

Possible projects: Like Cerro Gordo, a connector building has also been discussed at the Farmer City campus to link the high school with the adjacent Schneider Elementary structure. But that idea has been tabled because “it is too expensive for now (estimated at $700,000-$800,000),” said Superintendent Susan Wilson. “It is on the list for future development – likely a few years off.”

In the meantime, the district is still pursuing more secure entries to both of those school buildings. At Schneider, reconfiguring to make sure there is no direct access to classroom and open areas will make it more secure, and “create a more functional and up-to-date work space in the office areas” of the early childhood through third grade facility, said Wilson.

At the high school, accessibility is being improved at the current entryway, in addition to making adjustments that will direct visitors toward the commons and office area and away from the gym, which lies just inside the entryway. That is being done instead of an earlier plan that proposed moving the entry to a location near the current library.

The district will also undertake a $130,000 asbestos abatement project at Schneider, which came in about $95,000 less than initial estimates.

Bids for the entry work could be delivered to the school board by March, with the project being paid by health life safety funds and out of fund reserves.



Building ages: 1929 high school; 1950s junior high wing and ag/art room; 1962 high school gym and cafeteria with a 2000 band room addition; 2002 elementary school.

Possible project: An $8.2 high school renovation project that would include connecting the high school with the gym/cafeteria/band building. The connector addition would also include a secured entryway, administrative offices, two new classrooms, a junior high school gym, and conversion of the current JHS gym into an auditorium, making classrooms beneath that space more useful.

Air conditioning would also be added to the current high school gymnasium.

Voters will get their say on the April 4 ballot. The school board voted last month to ask district residents to fund the project, which would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $134 more in property taxes annually if approved.

“I think it’s going to bring us into a 21st century educational environment for our students. It’s going to make us a more connected campus,” said Superintendent Brett Robinson.

The $8.2 million effort is part of a $13 million master plan that could eventually lead to more extensive renovation work at the high school to help it accommodate modern learning standards, along with the eventual demolition of the junior high school section.



Building ages: 1968 for both high school and elementary school.

Possible projects: After a $2 million project in 2014 installed air conditioning districtwide, repaired brick and paid for new windows, the district is standing pat on major work except for maintenance needs.

DeLand-Weldon also performed $45,000 worth of asbestos removal work over the past year. Parking lot paving is also being considered.

As with other districts, health life safety work is also being considered, but interim superintendent Jeff Holmes said architects have said those costs should be minimal.

“We are very pleased there is nothing major needed,” said Holmes.



Building ages: 1896 Washington Elementary; 1917 Lincoln Elementary with 1966 and 1991 additions; 1923 high school with 1925 (Moore gym), 1966, and 2004 (gym connector and commons) additions; 1956 new Washington; 1923 White Heath Elementary with 1946, 1956, 1976 and 2002 additions; 2003 Monticello Middle School.

Possible projects: After voters turned back a pair of $40 million referendum questions that would have funded a new high school and converted the current one into a districtwide elementary building, the district is concentrating on high school renovation proposals.

Proposals run the gamut in scope and cost, from a $14 million upgrade of the current high school that would include new science labs and upgrading other areas of the building, to a $29 million option that would build a gymnasium/classroom addition at the adjacent Washington Elementary school along with high school upgrades that include new labs. If the classroom addition is undertaken, it would allow the district to reconfigure elementary attendance centers and close Lincoln Elementary.

The school board opted not to pursue funding on this April’s ballot. Instead, input will be obtained from a community facility advisor committee with the possibility of putting a new question to district voters in the spring of 2018.

If the school board rolls in expiring middle school building bonds into the project, Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said recently “I’m confident we could do a $30 million project for 15 to 18 cents (additional on the current tax rate).




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