Morris High School seeks upgrades on safety concerns, modernization, accessibility

Mark Walker explains the flooding issues in the boiler room at Morris Community High School.

The concept of school looks a lot different in 2023 than it did when Morris Community High School was built 70 years ago, which is why staff and members of the 101Next Committee led tours of the building on Monday.

The school is seeking input from the community on a plan to either renovate the building or construct an entirely new school. Building a new school in four phases, according to Green Associates Architects Steve Chassee, is the cheapest of the options.

This option would see the remaining portions of the school used while new parts are built so as to avoid interrupting education.

The cost for that would come in at $126 million. The funding for this would come through a bond issue which would be placed before voters as a referendum during an upcoming election.

“The proposed $126 million referendum will be issued in multiple series and will be paid off over a total of 27 years,” the infographic reads. “The bonds will be structured with level annual principal and interest payments. Bonds will be available to community members to purchase.”

The direct cost to taxpayers would come in a property tax increase needed to pay for the bond payments. For example, a home assessed at $100,000 would see an estimated $334 increase on property taxes. This would be accomplished through bond issues, as explained by an infographic shared at the open house.

According to the graphic, the district has never placed a building bond referendum on the ballot before, but Minooka Community High School has completed capital improvement projects thanks to a successful building bond referendum in 2006.

That sounds like a lot of money, but the school has many safety concerns that need to be addressed. Student Services Director Lori Dite said there are more than 40 doors and the student tour guide said many students have to cross a parking lot to get to their classes since all the classrooms aren’t in the same building. Even classrooms that are in the same building aren’t accessible from within the building.

Joanne Engle explains the state of the field house at Morris Community High School, where the gym floor has holes in it.

Barb Rath said the classes in this building, a detached building that was formerly the agriculture department, aren’t all the same types of classes. It houses the band room, a social studies course and one of her businesses classes. The doors throughout the building also lock between class periods, which means late students often miss more class time.

“We’re in a different era,” Rath said. “You go back 30 years and you didn’t have to worry about somebody coming because, you know, that just wasn’t a thing.”

Dite said the main building entrance, which faces east on the far northern end, is the entry point where a staff member welcomes visitors. That staff member can’t always be there, though, so when the front office staff has visitors they have access through the basement, the second floor and more.

Visitors have to walk all the way down the hallway heading south before they can check in. Dite hopes a new building will have a more secure entrance.

There also are overall concerns with the infrastructure. Science teacher Carolyn Dow said the science labs are outdated and the poor climate control inside the building makes upkeep on materials difficult. These would be problems even if basic functions of the building weren’t falling apart.

“A student was sitting at the lab table the other day and the side of the table just fell off, right onto the floor,” Dow said. “The student just kept working because that’s par for the course around here.”

Dow said that in her 18 years at the school, administration has tried to fix things as they come up, but the school has ventilation problems that aren’t easily fixed. This is a problem in a science lab because chemicals need to be stored at specific temperatures in specific environments. If the ventilation isn’t working properly, the chemicals become useless. There also is issues with equipment such as Bunsen burners corroding.

Ceiling tiles have fallen on teachers’ desks because of leaking fluid.

“I’m an advocate for improving this school, and I have been for a long time,” Dow said. “That’s why I’m here tonight. I think our kids and teachers deserve better. When I go out in the community and get asked about the school, I’ve had more than one person tell me that it’s about time.”

The front entrance at Morris Community High School.

Building Director Mark Walker said the boiler room has issues with heavy rainfalls. Water leaks through the concrete walls during consistent rainfalls.

These are only some of the issues the school faces. Others include the gym floor in the field house – which has needed to be replaced and is now splitting in two – and the lack of elevators.

Certain parts of the school have lifts that can get students with physical disabilities up and down the stairs but they’re inconvenient and slow, and cause students to miss class time.

The 101Next Committee presented the plans to the Morris Community High School Board listing the four-phase plan as an option that wouldn’t be as pricey that could be completed in eight years. It also preserves the school’s existing footprint.

It is not yet known if this referendum will be on the ballot for the March 2024 election.

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec covers Grundy County and the City of Morris, Coal City, Minooka, and more for the Morris Herald-News