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Lockport residents tour Central Campus, where ceiling collapsed, ahead of March referendum

About 20 residents spent nearly two hours Wednesday touring Central Campus, where a ceiling collapsed in November, to see the state of the building ahead of a March referendum to fund $85 million in renovations to the historic building, where freshmen attend.

The campus, which was built in 1909, hasn’t been occupied by students and staff since the Nov. 2 ceiling collapse in classroom 310. Given the recent frigid temperatures, Superintendent Robert McBride encouraged those on the tour to wear their coats as sections of the building were drafty.

The district has been navigating two Central Campus projects: A referendum to renovate Central Campus, and replacing the ceiling in 14 classrooms and one hallway.

The freshmen have attended classes at Lincoln-Way North High School since Nov. 15. McBride said freshmen will remain at Lincoln-Way North through the end of the school year because bids will have to be approved before construction can start.

“You might say, ‘Is it safe to be in here?’” McBride told those on the tour. “It is safe to be in here, but we can’t take the chance every single day, individuals being in here with a ceiling system that failed. We just can’t take that risk with children.”

The referendum money would be used for facility upgrades, life safety work, renovating the auditorium and general interior remodeling, according to a financial sheet from DLA Architects. About $31 million would go toward the upgrades and life safety work, including installing a second elevator, McBride said.

Renovation of the auditorium, the largest unused space, is projected to cost $7.2 million and the general interior remodeling is estimated at $24.8 million, according to the financial sheet. The remaining costs are for contingencies, including possibly using $8 million to cover the courtyard to use the space year-round.

In spring 2020, while students were remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, McBride said district officials started considering how to improve Central Campus. At that time, a structural analysis was done and about $500,000 worth of construction work was suggested, he said.

In 2022, a demographer said the district will have a fairly constant student population, and the district created a committee of residents to consider what to do with Central Campus. The committee decided it should remain a freshman center and be renovated, he said.

The committee found benefits of renovation include keeping students in the same location and being more cost efficient than building another school, McBride said. He also said it takes time to build a campus, while renovation can occur in stages while students still attend classes.

Voters rejected six requests from 2006 to 2011 to build a high school in Homer Glen, McBride said. McBride said DLA Architects found building a new freshman center would cost $145 million.

Given the difference in cost, McBride said the board decided the community should choose, via referendum, if Central Campus should be renovated.

About 67% of the building is used by students and staff, McBride said, and locker rooms under the gym and space around the auditorium could be renovated into classrooms.

The classrooms are about 500 square feet with furnaces and window-unit air conditioning, McBride said, with wires bunched in corners for technology. Replacing the heating and cooling systems and modernizing the classrooms would expand classroom space closer to 800 square feet, he said.

McBride said the pool area renovation would transform the space into classrooms, noting it isn’t accessible now for students with disabilities.

The building has one entrance and one bathroom compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, McBride said. The renovation would ensure the building becomes more accessible, including adding an elevator.

“This is a difficult building to navigate when you have a disability,” McBride said.

The hallway outside classroom 310, 308 and 304, were found to be the most hazardous sections of ceiling, McBride said. All three classrooms had the same ceiling construction style, with wire mesh covered in plaster nailed into wooden frames, he said.

As part of the potential renovation, district officials would like to see changes made to prevent other potential structural problems, McBride said.

If the referendum doesn’t pass, McBride said the district will make decisions on how to do repairs while remaining under its debt limit. That would likely only cover roof repairs and major mechanical repairs, he said.

Another option, if the referendum doesn’t pass, is asking voters in November to fund construction of a freshmen center. The district has two sites for a potential building, land behind East Campus and a piece of land at 159th and Cedar Road in Homer Glen, McBride said, but both sites present challenges.

The land behind East Campus, where sophomores, juniors and seniors attend, has a natural creek that floods, McBride said. The Homer Glen property has no water or sewer connections, he said.

Benjamin Schroeder, a senior, said he attended the tour because he enjoys architecture and will study it in college. In March, Schroeder said he will vote in his first election and he plans to support the referendum.

“It would be a shame to not see it renovated,” Schroeder said. “The front entrance and the front facade is the town, it’s Lockport.”

Michelle Vlahovic, a Lockport resident who has a current and future student of the district, said she wanted to learn how the referendum money will be spent. As a science teacher at Glenbard North High School, Vlahovic said students need bigger classrooms at Central Campus for collaboration and activities.

Vlahovic said she will continue listening to board discussions before deciding how she will vote. But after the tour, she said a new building is needed.

“This structure, we can’t just fix the bones,” Vlahovic said. “I want to know, as a taxpayer, how they’re improving the educational environment for my child.”

The district will offer tours of Central Campus, 1222 Jefferson St., starting at 6:30 p.m. most Wednesdays ahead of the March election. A tour won’t take place if another major district event is taking place.

akukulka@chicagotribune.com