ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Villages turn school buildings into vital community assets
by Jim Burgett
Jim Burgett was a teacher, principal, and superintendent for 36 years in three Illinois school districts, including River Ridge CUSD 210. Currently CEO of The Burgett Group, he is a speaker, consultant, and facilitator. He has authored six books on education leadership, including The Art of School Boarding: What Every School Board Member Needs to Know.
Avacant school site and empty buildings are district liabilities. They still require upkeep, maintenance, security, and insurance coverage (in fact, empty buildings may raise insurance costs). Unless the district foresees reopening the schools in the near future or is willing to financially support a vacant-school liability, closed schools should be leased, re-used, or sold outright.”
— California Department of Education, Closing A School Best Practices Guide
This statement is a great summation of what many school boards think when they contemplate closing an existing school building. Closing a school may come about when a new building replaces an old one, or as the result of a reorganization in which not all current buildings are necessary. Or perhaps it has become too costly to maintain or improve the old building. No matter the reason, there is always the pestering question, “What will we do with the closed facility?”
How many times have old school buildings been left empty? They become sign-less, passion-less buildings with no cars in the parking lot. Soon weeds pop up where children once played. This is especially the case when the insides may contain asbestos or other liabilities that keep a building from being marketable for other purposes.
More and more — because of economic issues, needed reorganizations, or simply abandonment of facilities too old to meet the vigorous health and life safety codes of Illinois ― we see vacant school buildings. Schools struggle to make ends meet in the current Illinois financial climate. Common sense dictates that this scenario may get worse before it gets better. So what happens? How does a community make lemonade from what truly may become a huge community lemon?
River Ridge Community Unit School District 210 has “been there, done that,” and as a result can share a few suggestions that might be helpful to other school districts. Under leadership of a progressive superintendent and board of education, and with cooperation of two village governments, this collection of citizens did all the right things.
This story began in the mid-1980s when Illinois passed new laws about school consolidation. The state dangled financial incentives in front of districts if they merged, annexed, consolidated, or reorganized. It was the start of what the state hoped would result in a plethora of schools merging. The aim was that the total number of school units would fall dramatically from a high of about 1100. While the new laws were somewhat successful, 30 years later 863 districts remain. Apparently, the new laws were not as influential as legislators expected ― and still aren’t.
However, two neighboring rural districts, located in beautiful Jo Daviess County, the most northwest county of the state, considered the challenge. The laws were slightly different back then, and the process as well, but the incentives did entice consideration. Both districts encompassed small villages, Hanover and Elizabeth, each less than 1,000 in population. Both were unit districts, and the two were great athletic rivals. The villages are about eight hilly, picturesque miles apart. A Committee of Ten, mostly from Hanover, decided to put the question of consolidating the two school districts on the ballot, and the excitement began. In 1984, it took a simple majority vote to pass a school consolidation (today it takes a majority vote in each district). Financially speaking, Hanover was struggling and needed change to survive. After all the fact-finding, meetings, public sessions, and plenty of heated debate, the election took place in November 1984. Even though the vote was not affirmative in both districts, the majority vote ruled, and created a new district.
I remember it well because I was the superintendent at Elizabeth at the time and subsequently became superintendent of the new district. On July 1, 1985, the former Elizabeth CUSD 208 and Hanover CUSD 212 became a new, “yet-to-be-named” CUSD 210.
As with all consolidations, a new board was elected and then the real work kicked into gear. Everything changed: from contracts to logos, mascots to curriculum, bus routes to insurance policies. When a new district is born, it starts from scratch. The new name came from a combination of the famous Terrapin Ridge in Elizabeth and the Apple River running through Hanover — thus River Ridge. All that remained the same was the number and location of the two school buildings. There were no buildings to close and no money to build a new building, nor was one under consideration. The “footprints” of the existing facilities became the only objects, human or not, that did not reflect consolidation.
Skip ahead 17 years. Over this time, the district continued to do exceptionally well. A top-notch superintendent was at the helm, leading a mostly new board of education. The assessed valuation of the district had changed significantly and provided resources for improved facilities. Student achievement improved, curriculum expanded, athletic and co-curricular offerings increased and improved, and things were good. The consolidation was a success on all counts except for one thing: facilities. Aging and tired buildings did not offer an open door to technology or reflect ever-changing academic opportunities. Talk began about building one centralized learning center, located outside the two villages, close to the highway that connects them. One school would house all Pre-K through 12th-grade students and offer expanded athletic facilities. A site on a hill overlooking amazing scenery became available at a reduced price. A referendum was carefully explored, and fact-finding and public input were handled with a high level of expertise. The taxpayers of the district approved the new building on the first vote. Thus, a new school would open and two old ones would close.
In May 2003, when River Ridge students left to go home for the summer, the school buildings ended their long history as educational homes for generations of children. The district and communities wrestled with what to do with the old buildings and grounds.
One interested man in Hanover started a campaign for the village to buy the school building from River Ridge and establish a home for a new village park district.
Both villages are middle-income. One is more of a blue-collar community with a factory providing employment; the other is a farming community. Supporting a park district would be a huge undertaking with the low assessed valuation in Hanover and the needed tax rate that a park district would require. Knowing that, it was even more of a challenge than one might assume. However, Hanover is a feisty place with determined citizens and a forward-looking mayor. The decision to approve purchase of the old school from River Ridge District for $1, and at the same time create Hanover Township Park District, was put before the voters. It passed on the first try, less than a year after the school building was available.
River Ridge District did not see the same interest from Elizabeth village, so it put the old school up for sale the traditional way. Like many old school buildings, it did not find a buyer. Eventually the village purchased the building for $1. The village reached out to the area community college and offered most of the former high school as a location for a branch campus. That left the grade school building, including a gym, available for use.
Elizabeth did not form a park district but instead formed an organization called the “Greater Elizabeth Arts and Recreation” (GEAR). After a few years of getting things going, the organization has become quite active. It has a board and elected officers who meet monthly. GEAR offers and coordinates many activities such as volleyball, baseball, basketball, and weightlifting. GEAR also organizes and sponsors runs, entertainment options, and recreation classes, and continues to expand choices for area citizens. GEAR is not tax supported and all members are volunteers. It operates through fund-raisers and admission fees. Manny’s Pizza, which has several area locations, is a great partner in fundraising opportunities. GEAR also shares information and opportunities throughout the year by staffing booths at various community activities. The organizers are constantly coming up with new ideas and new ways to fund programs. It is truly a community organization, and it extends into both Elizabeth and Hanover. GEAR is looking at how to incorporate bike trails into a long list of community support projects. Elizabeth is currently sponsoring a fund-raising campaign to raise money to improve the old school property even further.
The Village of Elizabeth assumed maintenance and grounds keeping of the old school there, and Hanover Village Park District did likewise in Hanover. Both facilities are well kept and inviting. They are truly assets to both communities and are used as incentives for people to relocate to this neck of the woods.
Since the time of transition from school buildings to community use, village residents have stepped up to the plate. Instead of two ancient, brick-laden eyesores, the facilities are neat, clean, welcoming, and full of useful opportunities. Both buildings offer basketball, volleyball, dance, weight lifting, judo, fitness classes, and other activities to citizens on a regular, scheduled basis. They provide great places for family, business, and community gatherings, plus reunions and other functions.
Hanover also rented portions of its building to the area Special Education Cooperative and to other ventures. The park district offices and some smaller governmental agencies also occupy space. The fitness area is available for very affordable family or individual memberships. The building has a sophisticated key card entry system. GEAR and other groups use the facilities regularly, with full cooperation. The two villages have bonded together through mutual offerings and agreements.
The older portion of the complex, the former Elizabeth Grade School, was sold as a retail venture. Now Elizabeth’s Grand Antique Company, it features 28,000 square feet converted to a unique and fun antique mall, open daily with over 150 vendors. The outside of the building was renovated and the project has brought a huge influx of business to the area. Vendors come from several states to staff their sections. The addition of the retail venture has brought in tax revenue and other business to the area. A visit to the internet site ElizabethAntiqueCo.com demonstrates what imagination and hard work can create from an old grade school. My family enjoys this creative and fun array of three floors of amazing retail creativity.
Although the community college stopped renting space after several years, the building was quickly filled with offices for the local food pantry, village hall, police department, and village maintenance. The Northwest Special Education Cooperative offers services in many classrooms and when it is not using the gymnasium, GEAR schedules it to the maximum.
All of this happened because of the availability of the two school facilities.
Life-long resident and Hanover Mayor Don Schaible reports, with great enthusiasm, that the citizens in the park district, for only a few dollars a month, have 24-hour access to gyms and weight rooms and can take advantage of special events and classes. He is proud of how the community has stepped forward to make “the old school” a valuable property, and proud of how it is maintained and serves citizens.
River Ridge Superintendent Brad Albrecht, also a life-long resident of Elizabeth, is another who is very proud of what the communities have done with the facilities. He should also be equally proud of how successful the school district has become, in part because of his leadership. In fact, good school leadership, from the board and from administration, has played a very important role in the successful transition from vacated school building to important and meaningful community assets.
Community leaders Schaible, Albrecht and Elizabeth Village President Mike Dittmar welcome any questions and invite visitors to come and see how closed school buildings can become community assets. And, if you have never visited Jo Daviess County, you will be amazed at how beautiful it is, and how friendly the people are.
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