The Litchfield School District is moving forward with a construction plan for one new facility and an addition to an existing facility as part of health life safety upgrades to the district’s elementary school buildings.
“Even though it’s been awhile, we have been working on how we can proceed and what we can afford,” said Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau.
The board held a special meeting on Monday evening, Aug. 31, at Sihler School to discuss the project, with all board members in attendance. Kevin Myer of FGM Architects and Cory Noder of Poettker Construction were also on hand for the presentation.
Prior to the presentation, the board unanimously approved health life safety amendments for all four elementary school buildings, including $4.9 million at Sihler, $4.3 million at Madison Park, $4.8 million at Colt and $3.4 million at Russell, for a total of $16.8 million in health life safety improvements to the buildings.
Dr. Fuerstenau said that was one of the district tasks to clean up the pervious amendments, which were several years old. Information was consolidated by FGM Architects and brought up to date in one single document.
Dr. Fuerstenau said that as they began discussions, they were immediately able to rule out Madison Park and Sihler schools, due to their age.
“Madison Park has outlived its days. It needs to be replaced,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “And it’s very difficult to have pre-K at Sihler School. It was time to look for a new home.”
They began to look at Colt and Russell as possibilities for a new early childhood education center, housing all the district’s pre-K through first grade students. Both buildings are in need of renovation, but Colt has more space and parking already available. The district also liked the idea of having the elementary buildings on the south side of town and the middle school/high school complex on the north side of town.
The existing Colt School structure will house the kindergarten and first grade students, who will have a separate playground from the pre-K students. The entryway/commons area between the existing structure and the new pre-K addition will also serve as a cafeteria and a storm shelter, freeing up the gym for physical education classes throughout the day.
Board member Mike Fleming asked about traffic flow and Myer said they are still working on it, but that there were plenty of options that could be developed. Board member Mark Bloome asked about drainage issues, and Myer said additional drainage will be added to the project.
Building and Grounds Coordinator Bob Witter asked about the boiler system, and Myer said it would be a complete new system, along with a new roof and plumbing.
“We are still in the planning stages, and none of those decisions have been made yet,” Myer told the board. “The next steps will be having a conversation about what is needed in that building.”
After deciding to make Colt School an early childhood education center, the district shifted its focus to a new home for the district’s second through fifth grade students. At their last regular board meeting, the board approved a $150,000 purchase from Litchfield Unlimited for the old Milnot property in downtown Litchfield.
Dr. Fuerstenau said they would be able to accommodate growth in the district at both new facilities.
The new second through fifth grade building will face State Street, but will be set to the back of the property, allowing parking up front, as well as student drop offs. The district purchased the L-shaped property, which does not include the current home of Litchfield Sports, Inc., which is still open and operational.
The new facility will feature a secure entryway and commons area, that will serve as both a cafeteria and a storm shelter. Both facilities will be warming centers for food, as meals will be cooked at the middle school and high school complex, as they are now.
The second and third grade wing will be on one side, while the fourth and fifth grade wing will be on the other. Each wing will have its own playground, and the school will share one gym facility. It will be home to 22 classrooms.
Fleming said he was glad to see how traffic flow had been figured into the plan. Bloome asked about the Litchfield Sports, Inc. property and if it could be used for future growth. Dr. Fuerstenau said that was a possibility, but was not in the plans now.
Bloome added the parking lot will be nice for the city for downtown functions, like the summer Pickers Markets.
“There won’t be too many school districts in the state of Illinois that can say their oldest building is 20 years old,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “All the district’s facilities needs will be taken care of with routine maintenance over the next 30 years. And it’s all done without raising any taxes through bonding issues.”
When the projects are finished, Dr. Fuerstenau said they would likely tear down Madison Park School, and possibly the Russell School building, with plans to sell the Sihler School building.
Following the buildings presentation, Noder of Poettker Construction offered a timeline for the projects. After the kick off meeting on Aug. 31, the team will meet with teachers and administrators to survey needs and begin official design development. They will continue to work on that through the end of the year with budget review as well. The team hopes to bid out the projects in mid-January with construction to start as early as March or April. Noder expects both buildings to be complete by the start of the 2022 fall school year.
He said at this time, they are unsure which building they will start on first, since Colt School currently houses students. Noder added they could work on the pre-K addition at Colt while students were in session, but they could also do work in the summer.
Fleming said he thought it would be wise to work on the Colt project when the building was vacated.
John Hanafin of the Litchfield News Herald asked if the company had checked with the utilities yet on St. John, as it’s not far from an old Ameren coal tar site. Myer said they are not that far into the project, adding that some of that work had already been done by Litchfield Unlimited, though.
The project is now set to begin its design phase.
In other business, the board unanimously approved a resolution to participate in the Illinois School District Liquid Asset Fund to secure bonds for the project. Dr. Fuerstenau said since it’s a large sale of bonds, the district will need help. Fleming said that the local banks could have trouble with bond issues that large and they have to meet certain requirements.
Dr. Fuerstenau said the resolution would be filed and he and Business Manager Della Witter would be the official signers to the account.
In personnel news, the board unanimously approved Scott Zobrist as a volunteer coach for the high school football program.
Dr. Fuerstenau told the board the district just completed the ninth day of the new school year. After meeting with the teachers and administration team on Friday, Aug. 28, they have decided to continue the hybrid, in-person model indefinitely.
“Our kids are doing a phenomenal job and the parents are supportive,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “This was a big undertaking, and it still is each and every day. But I don’t see any reason to change what we are doing at this point.”
Board member Gregg Hires had praise for parents who are trying to juggle the hybrid schedule with their own work schedules, and encouraged the district to continue to work toward returning to school five days a week.
“We need to do whatever we can to help parents,” Hires said. “They are trying. Remote learning is tough. We have to get back to in-person learning.”
Even after discovering the district had its first positive case last week, Dr. Fuerstenau said their plan in place was working.
However, they have run into some problems with some students who have chosen all-remote learning logging into and participating in the education system. The district’s social worker, Larry Blevins, has been visiting homes where students have not been participating in the remote learning process.
“Remote parents had a choice and they have a responsibility as well. So do the students,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.
He said Wi-Fi is currently available at Litchfield Public Library and in the parking lots of all the school buildings. They are also working on a grant to help provide Wi-Fi to families who don’t have it, but he reiterated that students have to do the work.
“If you don’t do the work, you’re not passing,” he said. “It sounds harsh, but that’s the way it works. The fact of the matter is that students have to do the work. There is no free pass this year.”
Following his remarks, each building superintendent gave a report to the board, including the number of students enrolled in hybrid and remote learning in each grade level, as well as absences to start the school year. District-wide, about a third of all students have selected remote-only learning, while the remainder participate in the hybrid program.
Adam Favre, principal at Sihler and Madison Park, noted that the First Baptist Church in Litchfield will be open for some hybrid learners on remote days to help parents who work. Their program starts after Labor Day, and is not affiliated with the school district, but will follow district safety guidelines.
Colt and Russell Principal Jeremy Heigert said his teachers organized a “tech night” at Colt and Russell to help parents navigate the use of Chromebooks, and it was a huge success.
Litchfield Middle School Principal Dr. Russ Tepen said they are working on virtual MAP testing, which is helping to place kids in the right classes.
Hires asked if the district had considered using Edgenuity for remote-only learners, similar to the high school.
“For those who have selected in-person learning, it should be somewhat of a privilege to get that teacher’s undivided attention,” Hires said. “That way the teachers can focus on the hybrid learners.”
Dr. Fuerstenau said the teachers do focus on the hybrid learners when they are there, and Dr. Tepen said they only use Edgenuity for supplemental programming. Curriculum Coordinator Jennifer Thompson said the district did not purchase the full program for the middle school, like they did at the high school.
Litchfield High School Principal Doug Hoster said enrichment teachers at the high school have been checking in on all-remote learners at this time, following up with classroom teachers for those who need extra help.
Thompson reminded all remote learners to log into the Clever for attendance by 3 p.m. each day and then click on any of the apps to be counted present that day.
The district will continue to post monthly calendars and will continue to follow the hybrid schedule indefinitely at this time.
Board members will host their regular September meeting on Tuesday evening, Sept. 22, beginning at 6 p.m. at Sihler School. That meeting includes a budget hearing and a meeting of the Fogleman trustees.