Future of McHenry’s Landmark School questioned as board faces reality of building costs

First public hearing set for April 22

The future of McHenry's Landmark School, seen on April 12, 2024, has been called into question over the cost of upgrading and maintaining it.

To bring Landmark School, a 130-year-old building and working elementary school, up to modern code would cost McHenry School District 15 $10 million to $13 million, the school board learned in recent days.

After a presentation on all of the work needed to upgrade the school, including an elevator, gymnasium, plumbing and other mechanical work and more, the board unanimously voted to host public hearings on the building’s future.

“In a specific and independent analysis of the facility needs of Landmark School, it was estimated that associated costs could range between $10 [million and] $13 million. Considering the scope of this project, the district determined that a larger conversation amongst our community was appropriate to gather input on this matter,” Superintendent Josh Reitz wrote in a prepared statement.

The first public hearing on the school’s future is set for 6 p.m. April 22 at McHenry Middle School, 2120 Lincoln Road, McHenry.

Landmark School is considered a “school-of-choice” center by the district. The building houses the district’s sole year-round calendar, with the school year beginning in July with “frequent and longer vacations” throughout the year, according to the district’s website.

Principal Margaret Carey, left, and teacher Jessica Hodge, helped to water the newly-planted pollinator garden at Landmark School, 3614 Waukegan Road, McHenry, on May 23, 2023.

Students can attend if an older sibling did before them, but otherwise enrollment is filled via a lottery system. Originally, the school offered a multiage classroom, in which students stayed with the same teacher for two years. That program has ended, parents with students there now said.

Dorothy Wolf was one of the first parent-teacher organization co-chairs at Landmark after the district’s multiage, year-round program was moved to the building in the early 2000s.

“The building itself was in bad shape. It was hot, the stairs were an issue, and there was a trailer outside that ended up being a teachers lounge. The gym was small, but we had smaller class sizes,” Wolf said.

Enrollment at Landmark is about 200 students.

I don’t think anyone expects it to be up to modern standards.”

—  Dorothy Wolf, former Landmark parent-teacher organization co-chair

“The parents didn’t care. The education they were getting was better than in a traditional classroom,” Wolf said.

Parents also would step up to fix what they could at the school, she said.

“There are literally bats in the belfry,” Wolf said, noting that at dusk, residents can see bats fly out of the building’s bell tower. “I don’t think anyone expects it to be up to modern standards.”

Other parents with students currently at Landmark said that for them, the building is less important than the programming offered there.

“At this point, if the building isn’t safe for our kids, that is the building. We have to save this program. This program is absolutely amazing,” Maggie Drabczynski said.

She has a second-grade student there, and another child is set to begin kindergarten there in the fall.

“My second grader is reading at a fourth-grade level,” Drabczynski said, an achievement she credited to the year-round program.

The year-round program allows students to retain more learning than they might over a typical summer, Drabczynski said.

Parent Chris Moore said his older son, now in sixth grade, attended Landmark, and his younger son now is in third grade there.

“The only way to get in there is if you have a sibling there or won the lottery,” Moore said. “For us, it is about the program that is offered. After the pandemic, it was so hard to get kids back on track, and the teachers worked so hard to do this. Then the district goes and does this without asking parents.”

Both Drabczynski and Moore said they are aware that a developer has approached the city about building apartments in the lot next to Landmark School, at the former McHenry city hall property at 1111 N. Green St.

“I am thinking that this is another way of [the develope] having more space,” Moore said.

In response to a question from the Northwest Herald, Jen Tossey, the district’s communication and digital media coordinator, said, “There has been no discussions from any developer regarding the Landmark property.”

During the school board meeting Tuesday, the district’s engineers noted that overflow parking at 1111 N. Green St. used by the school would go away if the lot is developed.

No comments were made regarding any offers to the school district for the Landmark lot.

The building does not have state or federal landmark status, but it does have a protected status from McHenry.

Assistant City Clerk Monte Johnson, liaison to the McHenry Landmark Commission, said the school has been named a landmark by the city.

According to city ordinance, “No exterior construction, alteration, demolition or removal is permitted on property, and structures nominated or designated under this chapter as landmarks or preservation districts, except as shall be approved by a certificate of appropriateness or certificate of economic hardship.”