Construction to begin on long-awaited Jefferson center in District 200
Preparations are underway for construction of a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton -- a project more than six years in the making.
As early as next week, drilling could begin at the south end of the site for a geothermal system designed to heat and cool the building that will replace the existing Jefferson across from the DuPage County government complex.
Jefferson's future has been a perennial issue for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials. At least four different school boards wrestled with the fate of the building, long considered ill-suited for students ages 3 to 5, about 60 percent of whom have physical, mental or behavioral disabilities and receive interventions in a state-mandated program.
So when officials gathered this week for a groundbreaking, the milestone moment called for more than a ceremonial toss of the dirt. Students donned plastic hard hats, and municipal leaders from the five communities the district serves posed for photo ops.
"It's exhilarating and a lot of relief," school board President Brad Paulsen said. "The whole process started six years ago."
That's when a former board approved the first of three Jefferson referendum campaigns. Voters would twice reject tax increases that would have funded a new Jefferson -- in 2013 and again in 2017 as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for repairs and renovations at all but one district school.
But last November, the district's third attempt easily passed. Nearly 72 percent of voters approved authorizing construction of a new Jefferson directly south of the existing 1950s-era building.
"We're going to get to have a new building paid for under a lease arrangement over a period of time and do it without having to increase taxes directly for the construction," Paulsen said.
With that alternative source of funding, the school board was prepared to forge ahead with construction last fall but decided at the eleventh hour to put the question on the ballot rather than fight a lawsuit filed by former board candidate Jan Shaw, who accused officials of circumventing voters.
The district did not ask for a tax increase in November, but reached a lease agreement with a bank that will front the roughly $15 million cost of the project. The district will retain ownership of the land off Manchester Road and rent the building for 20 years while paying annual principal and interest payments out of operating funds. The district will take ownership after paying off the debt.
"I think it's a model other school districts will continue to use," Paulsen said. "Not everyone is going to be in that financial position. We're fortunate our school district and our community is."
Building construction is expected to begin in late March or early April. The old Jefferson won't be torn down until school's out in May or June 2020.
The goal is to open the new building to students for the start of the school year in August 2020, Paulsen said.
"They're finally going to be in a building that represents the quality of programs that we offer," he said.