DECATUR – Plans are on hold for a new building that combines Johns Hill Magnet School and Durfee Magnet School programs after the Decatur School District has been rejected twice in its attempt to fund the work.
Johns Hill and Durfee are the two oldest buildings in the district, both built in the 1920s. Board members in March approved the plan to merge them in a new building on the Johns Hill grounds and hoped to issue bonds to pay for the work in June.
Before the board can proceed, it needs approval from the Macon-Piatt Regional Office of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education to use life/health/safety funds for the project.
Superintendent Paul Fregeau said Friday that the district had been rejected twice by the state board and will apply a third time. Representatives from the state board toured the buildings last week and complimented the skill of Decatur's maintenance department in keeping such old buildings in such good shape, he said.
“They said they'd seen much newer buildings that weren't in as good a shape,” Fregeau said.
A spokeswoman for the state board did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
When the district submits the application again, several results are possible, he said. The state could approve funds for both buildings, approve one building and reject the other, or reject the entire project.
Early in May, ceiling plaster in Johns Hill's auditorium came loose and fell, bringing down ceiling tiles that contained asbestos. The auditorium had to be sealed off until the asbestos could be abated. Then repairs had to be halted until the school could show that it complied with environmental regulations regarding air quality and other hazards.
Chief Operational Officer Todd Covault told the school board's Finance Committee that a report has been sent to the Illinois Department of Public Health, which has not yet made a ruling.
At this point, he added, it was likely that the auditorium will not be available for use during this school year, either. Administrators are planning to move activities to the school's cafeteria and use Eisenhower High School for larger events.
The buildings were targeted for a merger even before the damage to the auditorium ceiling. The Facility Advisory Committee for Exceptional Schools committee, a group of staff, parents and community members, recommended the plan to combine both schools on the Johns Hill grounds. The committee also recommended demolishing both of the old buildings so that they would not become eyesores.
As the district moves forward with a strategic plan formation, which Fregeau said should be completed by April 2018, it's also possible that the committee which forms that plan will put those buildings' futures at a lower priority than other needs in the district.
The first three-day training period for that committee will be at the end of August, and the actual planning process will commence in September.
“The facilities could be (part of the plan) but we don't know yet,” Fregeau said. “We don't direct that conversation. The committee does. The members will lead that charge.”