Lockport District 205 lays out funding options for Central Campus renovations

Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride Jr. speaks with Gaylord Building Historic Site Manager of Public Programs Clint Cargile, who is producing a podcast “Lockport UnLocked” while attending the LTHS Community Open House on Monday, May 13, 2024 in Lockport.

Lockport — The Lockport Township High School District 205 Board of Education held a special open house and informational meeting on May 13 aimed at discussing options for Central Campus in light of the proposed funding referendum being voted down in March.

Prior to the meeting members of the public were invited to an open house at East Campus to speak with board members, school staff, members of the Central Campus advisory committee, and DLA architects to discuss plans going forward for the district buildings. The residents were also welcome to tour the most recent additions to East Campus, which were completed in 2017, as an example of DLA’s work with the district.

Dr. John Greenan, LTHS East Campus Principal, gives a tour of the most recent campus renovations ,including the Technology Assistance Center at the LTHS Community Open House on Monday, May 13, 2024 in Lockport.

“We’re looking for a path forward now to be honest,” said Paul Lencioni, a member of the Central Campus Advisory Committee. “We have a laundry list of things to do and only so much money to do it with.”

Items on the “laundry list” include replacing or repairing many of the building’s major systems, including the roof, windows, and HVAC systems.

These items, according to DLA Principal and Director of Operations Eric Sickbert, along with multiple other “life safety” items will cost between $26 million and $27 million to repair and replace. That money could be acquired by issuing life safety bonds through the State of Illinois.

Caution tape is put across the main entrance as work is done at the Lockport Township High School Central Campus on Thursday, April 18, 2024.

Other items on the list of repairs which would qualify for life safety bond funding include:

• replacing old electrical wiring, which still includes cloth wiring in places and other old components;

• replacing galvanized piping and installing a new water filtration system;

• installing fire sprinklers throughout the building;

• replacing malfunctioning fire doors, installing doors to close off open stairways;

• replacing classroom doors so they don’t swing widely into hallways—an issue which could be a hazard in an emergency situation;

• and making minor structural repairs to the building’s masonry.

Rich Kocek, right, with DLA Architiects talks with Doug and Karen Dillon at the LTHS Community Open House on Monday, May 13, 2024 in Lockport.

Aside from the life safety issues, other renovations which the district believes would be in students’ best interests to address include renovated bathrooms, improved ADA accessibility—which is not included as a life safety issue — improving the cafeteria, and potentially removing the lower-level pool and associated locker rooms to make more space for the Lockport Academy and the Career & Community Connections (CCC), a vocational transition program for persons with disabilities, ages 18-21.

If the board elects to keep the pool and not renovate the basement space at Central, then the pool would also need a new filtration system.

Central Campus in Lockport has been closed to classroom use since a ceiling collapse in a third-floor classroom on Nov. 1. The incident revealed the work needed to upgrade the building.

How to cover the costs

District 205 Director of Business Services Stefanie Croixv explained that these projects could be funded through issuing working cash bonds, with existing fund balances, or with additional outside funding. A combination of the three is also possible.

“There is a limit to how much debt we can take as a district without going to the voters for approval,” Croix explained. “That limit is about $35 million which would include the life safety bonds and the working cash bonds.”

While issuing either type of bond requires a public hearing, Croix noted that the life safety bonds are slightly easier to acquire because they only need a hearing and state approval. However, they can only be used for items on a pre-approved list that would bring the building up to code or improve safety conditions within the school.

“There is a limit to how much debt we can take as a district without going to the voters for approval,” Croix explained. “That limit is about $35 million which would include the life safety bonds and the working cash bonds.”

—  Stefanie Croix, director of business services at School District 205

Working cash bonds require a 30-day waiting period after the hearing, during which time residents could try to petition to move the bonds to a referendum item. Ten percent of the eligible voters in the district would need to sign the petition within a month to force the issue to a vote, something Croix said has never happened in her tenure at the district.

“We’ve used working cash bonds before,” Croix said. “That’s how we go the addition at East in 2017. I’ve never seen the ‘backdoor referendum’ option used.”

Croix noted that the district would be unlikely to maximize its limit for bonds, likely taking out between $26 million and $30 million to leave funds available in case another building issue arose at either school.

According to Croix’s presentation, these new bonds would add about $35 per year to the median homeowner’s tax bill for debt service. The median home in the district is worth about $300,000.

In addition to the new bonds, which amount to much less than the $85 million proposed in the March referendum, Croix said there is money available within the fund balances which could be used to supplement the renovations.

“We usually try to keep six to 12 months of expenses on hand in our fund balances,” she said. “Currently we have about eight months’ worth on hand after the Central ceiling issues, and this is at our low point of the year before new tax money has come in from the state.

“If the board wanted, they could push that a little lower and go down to closer to six months’ balance, which would free up $10 to $12 million dollars, which is what I would recommend,” Croix said.

Sections of ceilings are exposed in the hallways at Lockport Township High School Central Campus as work continues on Thursday, April 18, 2024.

Leasing property

Following Croix’s presentation, the board also heard from Forefront Power, a solar power company which works with school districts to utilize property for solar fields as an alternate revenue source to fund capital improvements.

The company leases property from school districts for 25 to 30 years and constructs solar panel fields on them, which feed into the local power grid. As a result, the district receives money for the land—approximately $3,000 per acre, per year-- and can also receive discounts on its electricity use or a fee for the power that goes to the community.

While specifics of a deal with Forefront have not been established, District 205 could potentially rent its Homer Glen property or open space at East Campus for this purpose.

Croix said the district plans to continue exploring this solar power option and opportunities for grants or other funding options.

No action was taken at the Monday, May 13 meeting and Croix said the board will likely give the district staff more direction about what to pursue at its regular meeting on Monday, May 20.

Any work on Central Campus will likely not begin until summer 2025 while the district finalizes a funding plan and will take years to complete in phases, however, the campus is expected to be in operating condition for students to return in fall.

According to Sickbert, the bids to replace the already demolished, unsafe ceilings are currently being created, and the board plans to vote on a contract soon.