Collapsed ceiling prompts Lockport D-205 to discuss renovation plans

Lockport Township High School District 205 Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride presides over Board of Education Meeting with Board Vice President Dr. Veronica Shaw and Board President Ann Lopez-Caneva on Nov. 2, 2023.

Lockport Township High School District 205 has some immediate and long-term solutions to make for its Central Campus following a collapse of a classroom ceiling on Thursday.

The immediate needs are where to educate the students – freshmen and some special education students – who currently attend the 114-year-old building.

The long-term renovation solutions will likely involve going to a building bond referendum next year.

The District 205 board met for a previously scheduled meeting Thursday night, hours after a collapsed classroom ceiling forced the district to send students home early from Central Campus.

The meeting’s planned discussion of renovation plans for Central took on new importance in light of the incident, which architects called a “catastrophic failure” of the ceiling.

At their Sept. 18 meeting, board members were presented with two renovation plan options by representatives of DLA Architects.

The first would address the major functionality and infrastructure issues of Central Campus, including a new HVAC system, new roofing, and modifications to bring the building up to code and make it more ADA accessible.

The second option was a complete renovation which would refurbish every classroom, convert little-used spaces like the pool and auditorium into new classroom space for the CCC and Lockport Academy students and a new multi-purpose space, cafeteria, and library respectively.

The DLA Architects team working on the renovations was called out to Central Campus Thursday afternoon along with members of the Homer Township and Lockport Township Fire Departments, the Lockport Building Inspector, and representatives from Wist, Janney, and Elstner Associates—a forensic architectural firm—to assess the damage in the impacted classroom and look for signs of similar problems elsewhere in the school.

While the full extent of the damage and risks are not known yet, Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride said the decision to send students home was made “out of an abundance of caution” after it was determined “we likely have other compromised classrooms.”

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

McBride explained that in addition to the forensic architects, environmental architects will also be looking at the space to determine if there are any hazardous materials. He also said it has already been determined that there was “no loose asbestos” in the ceiling which collapsed, though more environmental testing is still pending.

The Will County Regional Office of Education will ultimately review the data and decide when students may return to the facility.

“We need to do a floor analysis of every space in the building from stem to stern,” McBride said, noting that the process will likely take three to four days starting Friday.

Where will students learn

While those inspections are ongoing, Central Campus students will switch to e-learning via Google classroom. Teachers who work exclusively at Central Campus will teach from home, while students and teachers who move between the campuses will attend East Campus for the whole day and conduct their Central classes online from reserved spaces within the building.

There is no solid timeline in place for returning students to Central given the uncertainty of the building’s safety. If the issues are found to be isolated to a few rooms, the students could potentially return to the building late next week or the following week, with the impacted area sequestered.

If the damage is found to be more severe, the administration is considering options to relocate Central students to East Campus across town until repairs can be completed.

“It would be very difficult, but we can’t switch to online instruction indefinitely,” McBride said. “It is not good for the students long term, we’ve seen that. It will be difficult but not impossible. It will take a lot of creativity and patience, and everyone’s schedules will be impacted.”

It is not yet clear how this schedule will be managed since East and Central operate on two different bell schedules and East is already crowded. East Campus serves sophomores, juniors and seniors and the special education program. District 205′s enrollment is more than 3,800 students.

Assessing the damage and upgrades

An initial report given by DLA Architects Principal and Director of Operations Eric Sickbert at the meeting concluded that the collapse was “a catastrophic failure” of the ceiling. “One day it seems fine, and the next something goes wrong. There is usually no warning.”

“This is bad. Really bad,” board member Marty Boersma said. “Kids would have died today had this not happened over night. This is a very serious issue we need to look at, because, typically, roofs don’t just fall in.”

Third-story classroom in Lockport Township High School Central Campus after the plaster ceiling collapsed.

Sickbert said the collapse was probably due to the building’s age and construction style. The impacted room, room 310, is in part of the building constructed in the 1920s and the ceiling was comprised of the original two-inch-thick plaster.

Sickbert said the architectural teams plan to inspect other rooms with plaster ceilings by cutting into them to make sure they have not loosened and pose a risk. If they do, the ceilings will need to be removed and replaced, which could extend the timeline for getting students back into the school.

With the possibility of a large, expensive repair operation looming in the immediate future, the board then heard the proposals prepared by DLA for a middle-ground renovation plan.

The plan scrapped some of the more elaborate ideas for the full-scale facility renovation, while also dedicating extra funds to improving classroom spaces in addition to the necessary building upgrades.

While the original plans were estimated to cost $40 to $50 million for just the essentials or $90 to $115 million for the full overhaul, the requested mid-level budget was $75 to $85 million.

DLA Architects Eric Sickbert, Peter Pontarelli, and Rich Kocek present Central Campus renovation plans to the Lockport Township High School District 205 Board of Education on Nov. 2, 2023.

Referendum plans

In order to get the funding for the renovation, the board will need to put a building bond referendum before voters to take on extra debt. McBride emphasized the need to act quickly if the board wants to put the issue on the March primary ballot so the district can finalize wording and put the issue before the voters.

Even a March referendum would likely not see construction begin until June 2025, and the project would likely take a few years.

The ceiling collapse is being seen as evidence to stress the importance of the renovation to voters, though Director of Business Services Stephanie Croix noted that it is an entirely separate issue and expenditure from the $85 million the district could ask voters to approve.

“While the ceiling emphasizes that we need work done, we aren’t waiting for a referendum to fix the plaster ceilings. These are the things we use fund balances for,” Croix said.

It also was noted that the district’s insurance will likely pay for the repairs in the collapsed classroom but may not cover expenses for any further, preventative replacements.

Board member Zyan Navarra questioned whether the district should reconsider the option of abandoning Central as a school and constructing a new building on district property in Homer Township, a plan which has been rejected five times in referendums over the past 20 years.

While Board President Ann Lopez-Caneva said she did not believe the ceiling incident had changed residents’ minds about the desire to preserve the historic school building, some members of the community speaking at the meeting disagreed.

“It’s not just about nostalgia or the fact that the building is pretty,” said parent Renee Ghenciu. “Renovating the building is like keeping a 114-year-old person alive on life support. Sure, we can do it, but should we?”

“I think it’s time to be done with that school,” said parent Mike Carlson, who lives in Homer Glen. “We’re packing students into a school that’s unsafe and that’s going to keep being a money pit. I don’t want my kids sitting in that building. Why don’t we put them in Lincoln Way [North] for a few years, sell the Central building to the city, and build a new school on the district’s Homer Township property?”

Despite Carlson and other parents’ suggestions that the board sell the building, it was noted by the board members that both the city of Lockport and the Lockport Township Park District have said they are not interested in obtaining the building, likely due to the expense of its upkeep.

One way or the other, the board wants to vote to approve a referendum at its Nov. 20 meeting.