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Board candidates discuss declining student population in St. Charles

Dozens were on hand at Pottawatomie Community Center for a Thursday forum hosted by League of Women Voters of the Elgin Area to hear D303 school board candidates express their views ahead of next month’s election.

The audience heard from incumbent candidates Jim Gaffney and Ed McNally and challengers Heidi Fairgreve, Lara Kristofer, Eric Missil, Caroline Waibel and Denton Morris.

Though agreeing the school district should look to have a stable future, candidates expressed differing views as to why they’re best fit to serve the board.

With the declining student population in District 303, the candidates agreed that a careful review would be necessary if one of the two high schools were in talks to be closed.

“As a school board member, we cannot dictate the demographics as we go forward,” Gaffney said. “In closing one of the middle schools [recently], we are trying to address the issue of downgrading in a student population.”

“But then again, as far as having two high schools, I don’t think that I would be totally in favor of trying to combine 3,000 to 4,000 students into one building,” he said. “I think basically, the bottom line is that we have a good system set up on both sides of the river, we have an excellent staff and … teachers on both sides of the river, and I think as far as quality education is concerned, to have the two independent schools the way they work now is probably the best scenario.”

Kristofer agreed.

“Right now, it seems to be working out, and I wouldn’t be looking to change that unless we had some evidence really showing that it was necessary,” she said.

Missil suggested the district look into outlining its master plan before considering the prospect of returning to a single high school.

“In terms of going back to the one high school, I think we got to look at some of the bigger picture and try to use that to go back and answer that question,” he said.

The candidates were asked what to do with now-closed Haines Middle School.

“The building that Haines is in was built in the 1950s,” McNally said. “I happen to work at a school that was built in about the same era, and we’re having a lot of construction problems. They weren’t built in an energy-efficient fashion. The classroom area of that building… mostly could be demolished, but there is some interest potentially by the park board for use of some of the gym space, things like that. Even some of the classroom could potentially be used.”

McNally said he would not be in favor of selling the land. The district would need to find a way to keep the building occupied, he said.

“When you sell land, it’s a valuable asset,” McNally said. “You get a one-time bump, and you lose that asset forever.”

Waibel suggested that the board look to community partners and area taxing districts for input to see if there’s a use for the building.

“It is a building that has stood for a while in the community,” she said. “It is possible that we would have to repurpose parts of the building or obviously, do some rehab to it. We have so many community partners in this area that would help with the funding on it, where we wouldn’t have to take the burden of that on, in order to continue with our fiscal responsibility.”

Fairgreve shared similar sentiments saying the board should look into its three-to-five-year educational strategy for the district in conjunction with the facility maintenance plan.

“I’ve already received feedback periodically that there are other areas within the district that have a need for additional facilities,” she said. “I think we need to do an audit to understand if the Haines Middle School property could meet any those (facility needs)… Ultimately, if we’ve exhausted all our opportunities, then I think we need to look at, ‘is it feasible and does it make sense to market the property for sale?’”

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