Lockport High School pivots renovation plans for Central Campus

Lockport Township High School District 205 Central campus in Lockport, Sept. 19, 2023.  The campus serves as a freshmen center.

Lockport — Lockport Township High School District 205 is reconsidering its options for renovating Central Campus after its ballot initiative requesting $85 million for the project was rejected by voters on March 19.

Freshmen students have not been attending class at Central Campus since November when a third-floor ceiling spontaneously collapsed overnight, however, even before the emergency arose the district had been exploring options to renovate the 115-year-old building.

While the referendum, which would have funded a complete overhaul of the facility was unsuccessful, that has not delayed repairs on the ceiling, which are already underway.

Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride said that the demolition of the antiquated plaster ceilings which were at risk of collapse has been completed and the school has already been visited by structural engineers to determine if more additional work was necessary.

“We looked up into the attic, since we can’t do that once the ceilings go up and we found some masonry and carpentry work was needed,” McBride told the Herald-News on Wednesday. “There was some tuck-pointing and rafters that needed to be reinforced but not too much. It’s already being worked on as we speak.”

Once the additional structural work is complete, the school board at its special May 13 meeting will vote to approve a contract to install the new ceilings. That work will be completed over the summer, which will bring the school back to the condition it was in at the start of this school year and allow the new class of freshmen to begin attending classes at Central in August.

Central serves as the freshmen campus and for some special education classes. East campus is for sophomores, juniors and seniors and the main special education center.

Unfortunately, fixing the ceiling does not eliminate the pre-existing issues at the Central campus, which will still need additional work even without the renovation bonds.

Lockport votes on a Lockport Township High School District 205 referendum to renovate and preserve the Central Campus building on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Lockport.

Options for paying for renovations

School board President Ann Lopez-Caneva said that the board was exploring multiple options to secure funding for necessary repairs and had assembled an advisory committee to assist in the process. The district has sent post-election surveys to community members to receive new feedback.

“We are thankful for the support we received, and grateful for all the work of the referendum committee,” Lopez-Caneva said. “The community gave us their answer though, and now we need to move forward. Despite the disappointment of this result, the board is focused on getting essential repairs done and keeping the building functional as a school.”

While any plan will require board approval, Lopez-Caneva said at this time the board is “leaning towards” pursuing Life Safety Bonds to pay for renovations to major structural systems within the building.

Life Safety Bonds do not need to be approved by voters as long as they do not exceed the district’s debt service limit, which McBride and Lopez-Caneva noted is currently somewhere between $35 million and $40 million.

President Ann M. Lopez-Caneva does the roll call at the Lockport Board of Education meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Lockport.

Projects which could be funded by Life Safety Bonds include creating a security vestibule at the entrance, replacing antiquated electrical and HVAC systems, repairing and replacing the windows and roof, installing fire sprinklers, and renovating the bathrooms.

Those improvements are estimated to require about $26.2 million in bonds, and would likely prevent another catastrophic failure which would force students out of the building again.

One of the other major renovations that was planned for the referendum funds was improving the building’s ADA compliance, which is not something that could be funded with Life Safety Bonds. However Lopez-Caneva noted that they could be paid for with Working Cash Bonds, provided the total debt taken between the bond types did not exceed the debt service limit.

“We want to stay under that limit,” Lopez-Caneva said. “We need to have some debt available in case something urgent comes up at one of the schools again, so it’s a matter of prioritizing projects.”

Some of the ADA measures which are still being explored include restaging the main entrance to Door 15 to make it more accessible, replacing the building’s elevator and possibly installing a second one, widening some narrow doorways, and making the gym’s bleachers accessible for wheelchairs. These modifications could cost an additional $1.2 to $2 million.

The only elevator at Lockport Township High School District's Central Campus in September 2023. The campus is 114-years-old and needs upgrades to be more ADA compliant.

McBride noted that the planned, necessary renovations would create more space within the building – particularly by removing the old boiler and radiators – without the referendum funding, there is not much renovation that can be done to reutilize those spaces immediately. Rather, they will likely be renovated and repurposed gradually over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.

It has still not been determined what will be done about creating more space for the Lockport Academy and CCC programs at Central Campus. Options for renovating space with Working Cash Bonds are being explored, but the project could be postponed.

If the plan to sell the smaller bonds is approved by the board, construction would still likely not begin until summer 2025, since planning needs to be done and, McBride said, certain components and equipment require months of preparation time to order.

Homer Glen property

An exact timeline of the construction from that point is not yet clear, though the majority of the work would be done over the course of several summers. A better idea of the timeline will be known once the district hires a construction manager, a process which began before the November election.

As the district begins to prepare for the future of Central Campus, it is also exploring options to bring in more revenue by using its property in Homer Glen.

The 100 acres of district-owned property at 159th and Cedar Road were proposed in past referendums as a location for a new school, however, those measures were all also voted down.

Currently, the district is planning on having the property assessed and is considering options to use the space in the short-term, potentially by leasing a portion of the property as a solar field.

“Solar is an option a lot of school districts are looking at for property now,” McBride said. “Usually, it’s a 20- or 25-year lease, which brings in revenue, and districts can receive energy rebates for it. We could use the energy ourselves to bring down costs or partner with a company to sell it to generate more revenue for paying off bonds.”

While the property currently is not suitable for development because of needed water and sewer improvements, McBride said the district is not interested in selling it at this point, because if the land is ever needed for an additional school facility in the future, it would be more expensive at that time to buy more property.

An open house will be held before the special board meeting on May 13, for the public to ask committee members and school officials questions about the upcoming projects.

Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride Jr. listens to a board member speak at the Lockport Board of Education meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Lockport.