District 58 moves toward solving the ‘Longfellow Problem’

After decades of discussion regarding what to do with the Longfellow Center and surrounding property, Downers Grove Grade School District 58 has decided to sell the property, and while some community members disagree with the decision, others are in full support.

The Longfellow Center sits at 1435 Prairie Ave., and has not been used as a school building for 43 years, said John Miller, a former District 58 school board member and current Citizen Task Force member. The space houses the district’s curriculum, technology and buildings and grounds departments, including staff offices as well as materials. It also has professional learning and meeting space for staff.

Maintenance on the building has been continually deferred, leading to what some board members have referred to for years as the “Longfellow problem.”

In April, the school board authorized the administration to prepare a resolution for the sale of Longfellow. At the May meeting, the resolution to sell was unanimously approved, and the board is now accepting bids on the property at a minimum price of $3.8 million.

The district plans to rent office space for 10 years to house facilities currently located at Longfellow.

While the discussion regarding Longfellow has been going on for more than a decade, critics said the decision to sell the property was hastily made. They also contend the current administration did not consider community feedback. The critics have offered several concerns regarding the sale, including issues with the district’s financial analysis, the fact that Downers Grove is landlocked, and stormwater concerns linked to the development of houses on the property.

Joe Leo, who served on the school board 15 years ago, said when the issue came up during a February 2020 board meeting, he and a group of concerned residents asked to be informed about plans for Longfellow but didn’t hear anything further until a year later. Leo is a member of the community group Plan Smart 58, which opposes the sale of the Longfellow property.

“I don’t want this to be seen as an adversarial issue, but it is becoming that,” Leo said. “The district formed a group based on our 2021 concerns to look at their financial analysis, but a decision to sell had already been made. … We wanted the district to pump the brakes and think about a long-term plan.”

Proponents of the sale disagree. The Longfellow conversation has been a continuous flow for decades and cannot be judged solely on one administration as a separate issue, said Tammy DeStefano, a member of the district’s financial advisory committee and District 58 parent and graduate.

Regarding the district’s long-term facility plans, DeStefano said it would be impossible for the district to determine what the best choice will be 10 years from now when the anticipated leasing period expires.

The short-term flexibility of renting will allow the district more time to consider several long-term facility options such as the possibility of partnering with the village of Downers Grove, Superintendent Kevin Russell said. Russell said the district does not currently intend to lease long term.

Russell said via email that community feedback was a key part of all discussions.

Miller said opponents’ voices were heard.

“[Opponents of the sale] talked on the record during public comment periods of meetings … so the conversations were there,” Miller said. “People can’t keep saying they didn’t know, especially when the people screaming the loudest were on the school board during times when this was talked about. To say they didn’t know, it’s not honest.”

The district’s Citizen Task Force for Facilities and the financial advisory committee discussed the issue in an effort to assess multiple options for the Longfellow building. Both recommended that selling the property was the best option. The financial advisory committee is made up of individuals with backgrounds in real estate.

A small group of community members also was put together by the district, including individuals opposed to the sale, Russell said.

“Although not every member of [that] working group endorsed the sale, the district appreciated hearing each group member’s perspective and understanding their concerns as we developed our recommendations for the board of education,” Russell said via email.

The district determined that because of deferred maintenance, the cost of repairing and renovating the Longfellow building would be $5.2 million. Of that total, an estimated $2.3 million would be needed to cover deferred maintenance, according to projections from the district’s architects and contractors.

The district believes the decision to sell demonstrates fiscal responsibility and will allow the district to create a more efficient administrative workplace. The district has $245 million in facility needs, of which an estimated $111 million is a result of deferred maintenance to buildings, according to a 2012 full-facility audit completed for the development of the master facility plan.

Russell said the district plans to spend a large amount of the Longfellow sale proceeds on addressing maintenance needs for district schools. For example, he said, there are schools in the district that lack air-conditioning or need urgent upgrades to plumbing, HVAC and electrical.

“If you look at it microscopically, it’s one building with one purpose, but if you look at the big picture, you have to do what’s best for the kids … and Longfellow is never going to be any newer. It’s always going to be an old school,” Miller said. “Why would the district take money out of in-use schools to fix Longfellow? Any other scenario requires a reduction in funds to those school buildings.”

Longfellow School was built in 1927. The school closed in 1978 and was leased to a church organization. In 1981, the district’s instructional materials center and maintenance department moved to Longfellow, and in 1986, renovations were made to Longfellow to provide board and staff meeting spaces. In 2013, the curriculum office moved to the building, district officials said.

Opponents of the sale said they believe the financial analysis is not sound. Terry Mahoney, a member of Plan Smart 58 and resident of the Longfellow community, said as a corporate treasurer he believes the district’s analysis is skewed.

Plan Smart 58 has completed its own financial analysis that determined the district is almost $1.5 million better off by keeping Longfellow. Russell said the district’s financial advisory committee thoroughly reviewed the sale and does not concur with the analysis by Plan Smart 58.

“In my opinion, it is not a well-done financial analysis,” Mahoney said. “It seems like they included things in favor of selling the land and omitted things in favor of keeping it. … There should be a desire to get feedback from the community, but it seems like the district is intimidating rather than inviting feedback.”

Critics also argue that the land should not be used for the development of houses because Downers Grove is a landlocked community. Miller said land use is not the school district’s responsibility, and the park district has been aware of the possible sale for years.

A final decision regarding whether the board will accept any bids will be made at the school board’s July 8 meeting.

“If the district spent funds updating Longfellow, it would need to come up with those funds, as well as the funds to manage the deferred maintenance in the schools, which doubles the impact,” Russell said. “If we kept Longfellow, it would be at the expense of our 13 schools.”