Community, students react to Project 2 plans and cost

Plans for a new athletic wing–and its nearly $100-million price tag–sparked debate at a Nov. 9 meeting of the school board’s Community Finance Committee.

Project 2, as the plan is called, is the second phase of Imagine OPRF, Oak Park and River Forest High School’s long term plan to renovate its facilities.

The plans and cost estimates were released following an Oct. 27 school board meeting. Images detail some of the planned renovations in various parts of the Scoville Avenue and Lake Street corner of the building, including a 25-by-40-yard pool to replace the two pools from 1928, larger renovated gyms, a dance gym to replace the current studio and redesigned physical education classrooms.

Other planned improvements include an upgrade to the performing arts green room, a new weight room, all-gender locker rooms, new boys’ locker rooms, an accessible elevator and an expanded athletic training room.
At the Nov. 9 meeting, some community members urged the school not to rush into such pricey renovations.

Monica Sheehan, who has published 25 articles in the Wednesday Journal criticizing the entire Imagine OPRF process, read a prepared statement focusing on financial concerns. She struck down the funding options the committee had proposed as improbable and inefficient, and pushed–just as she has for prior renovation efforts–for a referendum.

“Members of the board recently stated that all funding options are on the table for Project 2. This expensive project, which would require a higher annual tax levy for at least the next two decades to pay for it, needs voter approval,” she said. “They have the right to decide how they want to spend their money.

“Project 2’s funding needs to go to referendum,” she added.

She remarked that the only PE renovations of the same scale that were comparable occurred in Division One universities, which have “big name football and basketball programs and revenues to support that expense, along with big donors and tuition dollars.”

Sheehan also took aim at the Imagine Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for the Imagine OPRF renovations, stating to the board that “the Imagine Foundation recently relaunched to raise money for Imagine’s projects. It has raised zero dollars since its founding in 2018.”

Lynn Kamenitsa, the recently inaugurated president of the Imagine OPRF Foundation, said in an interview that she understood taxpayers’ and community members’ concerns about the hefty price of the renovations. “The estimated cost was higher than any of us wanted it to be, thanks to construction cost inflation,” she said. “I’m hearing that too. That has motivated the Foundation to work even harder. Every dollar we raise through tax-deductible donations is one less dollar that needs to come from taxpayers. Even with the $99-million cost estimate, the foundation remains certain that we will be able to raise a significant portion of that cost.”

Another speaker at the meeting echoed Kamenitsa’s hopeful tone. Supporting Project 2 was Alison Lench, a 14-year Oak Park resident with a sophomore at the school and a fifth grader on the path to attend the school. She urged the committee to focus on “how we can move forward and how we can collectively make it happen and funded without delay.”

Addressing the tax concerns of the other speakers, she argued that delaying the construction of the renovations would only increase the total cost, while also prolonging the time students would have to work within the current “subpar” gym infrastructure.

“Any delay in the process means another grade, or another 900 plus students each year who won’t benefit from the facility upgrades. Any delay in the process…means the costs will no doubt escalate significantly. And if we’re all looking at the $99 million, we can wait a few years, we can see that double. In my opinion that is extremely irresponsible,” she said.

Student opinion on the project also varied.

While students interviewed by Trapeze agreed that interior gym remodeling was not only a good idea, but necessary, some had concerns about the aesthetic and historical preservation of the building’s exterior. While zooming in on and pointing at different parts of the schematic design for the potential new exterior on her phone, Junior Rosalie Lagattolla remarked, “the outside of the building just stands out so much. It’s like the area outside the student library and student resource center, which are so ugly in my opinion. They just stand out.”

The students were pleased to see specific indoor renovations got excited as they scrolled through the 3D renderings of new gym designs. Senior Olivia Lee said, “Oh yeah, having an actual dance studio is so good.”
Pointing at the pool, Lagattolla said, “the renovations are definitely needed given that the pool is like, dying.”
Senior Violet Berg agreed, on one condition: “I feel like they should do all the indoor renovations but if they could change the outdoor design, that would be great.”

Also incorporated in the Project 2 remodeling are the girls’ and boys’ locker rooms, which the FAQ on the school’s website describes as currently having poor ventilation, plumbing problems, inadequate toilet space and privacy issues.

Heidie May, who manages the girls’ locker rooms, agreed with the school’s assessment.

While accepting loaner gym shirts back from students leaving their gym classes, she said, “The whole PE area needs to be renovated. It’s very outdated. There’s no AC over by the girl’s locker rooms whatsoever, among a lot of other problems. The temperature gets up to 100 degrees in here sometimes, on hotter days.”

Gym teachers, too, have concerns about lack of privacy in the locker rooms. Jim Geovanes, a PE teacher, remarked that a century has passed since many parts of the gym wing’s construction. “When they first built the locker rooms a hundred years ago, they were looking at the way it was, not the way it was going to look in the future, and the way it looks in the future, or now, is that kids need privacy,” he said. “Kids having privacy helps the entire educational process.”

Project 2 includes a specific goal to construct “all-gender locker rooms for gender non-conforming students,” an upgrade from the somewhat makeshift gender neutral locker rooms that currently exist directly above the girls’ locker rooms. The current gender neutral locker rooms contain female signage on the interior, since the space is used as a girls’ locker room after school.

Project 2 also includes plans to renovate and expand the performing arts green room, which the Facilities Plan FAQ describes as currently “not functional for student needs.”

Some students disagree with this assessment, however. Wyllow Oladipo said that she personally felt the school already sufficiently invests in the theater program, and that major renovations would be frivolous. “Personally, I don’t think renovations are necessary; the green room is already large enough. It provides us with the things we need, like bathrooms, mirrors, lockers…OPRF puts their money towards theater a lot better than other run of the mill schools do, so to say that these renovations are necessary for the students is a bit of a stretch.”

PE teacher James Geovanes felt that ultimately, investment in the school also functioned as a broader investment in the community, as well. “I think whenever you talk about funding schools, or funding the community as a whole, it helps the property value of everybody else. I think that the school has got the means and the funds and the leg work and the grass roots projects to find the 100 million somehow to get this thing done, because all it’s going to do in the future is help the community,” he said.

The committee is still in deliberations about how to finance Project 2, with their ideal decision date being in May 2023, and the controversy seems far from cooling off.