Conflict and consensus lead to $100 million bond referendum for Edwardsville schools
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Edwardsville Community Unit School District 7 held a series of “engagement sessions” last fall to get input from residents on plans being considered to meet goals and solve problems.
District officials got an earful.
The sessions revealed both conflict and consensus on the school district’s direction, particularly when combined with letters to the editor, petitions and social-media posts.
Officials quickly fine-tuned their plans, eliminating a controversial proposal to buy land west of the city and build a new middle school. They also agreed to conduct further study before making a final decision on whether to close Midway Elementary School in Moro.
Now the school board is asking voters to approve a $100 million bond issue in the April 4 election, mainly to demolish, reconstruct and renovate large portions of the existing Lincoln Middle School in Edwardsville and Hamel Elementary School in Hamel.
“This is an investment in our schools, which is a driver for growth and quality of life in our community,” Superintendent Patrick Shelton said.
Issuing bonds is the equivalent of taking out a loan. Officials say the district can repay the $100 million plus interest in 20 years with no increase in its maximum property-tax rate.
If new bonds aren’t issued, the amount of money the district spends on debt service will rise for a few years before gradually declining to a level dependent on future restructuring, Shelton said.
Other projects tied to the $100 million bond issue are installation of more secure entrances at schools that lack them; repairs at Midway, if it’s kept open; expansion of the Edwardsville High School commons; and upgrade or creation of playgrounds, gyms and media centers at some schools to equalize services.
Preliminary cost estimates for all the projects actually total $122 million, according to Shelton, but officials believe they can reduce that amount as the process moves forward.
“The first five projects right now ... There are all kinds of contingencies built in,” he said. “They are still in the design phase.”
The last Edwardsville school vote took place in 2017, when residents approved a property-tax increase for the district’s education fund to avoid additional program cuts. That raised its overall maximum rate from 4.22% to 4.77%. The rate applied in 2021 was 4.68%.
Problems at two schools
The Edwardsville district operates 13 schools that serve 7,193 students from Edwardsville and Glen Carbon, as well as the rural northern communities of Hamel, Midway, Worden, Moro, Dorsey and Prairietown.
That enrollment compares to 6,218 students in 1997, when the district’s new high school opened; 7,379 in 2008, when it built three new elementary schools and expanded other schools; and 7,630 in 2013, when it peaked.
The district completed a five-year overall strategic plan last summer before zeroing in on facilities.
“Our community identified some priority areas,” said Shelton, who joined the district in 2021. “The first one was school safety and security, and then after that was building infrastructure.”
A flood several years ago in the gymnasium of Lincoln Middle School, formerly Edwardsville High School, revealed a broken sewer pipe under a 1969 addition and led to other structural problems that would require expensive repairs and renovations, according to Shelton.
Last summer, district officials floated the idea of spending $2.3 million to buy 91 acres of land north of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, off New Poag Road, to build a middle school and possibly other facilities, but they encountered widespread opposition from the public.
Many people who attended board meetings and engagement sessions voiced support for neighborhood schools and objected to the idea of building a school close to a landfill.
Edwardsville resident Stephanie Malench started an online petition called “Don’t Expand Away from Town” that gathered 235 signatures before the New Poag Road idea was scrapped.
“(A middle school in that area) would cause way too much traffic with everybody having to be driven or bused to school,” said Malench, a freelance writer and former mayoral candidate.
“Edwardsville is wanting to become a more walkable and bikeable community, and that plan went smack dab against it.”
Today, district officials are proposing construction of a new addition to Lincoln Middle School with classroom space and two gymnasiums between the existing complex and Hadley House district headquarters, where tennis courts are now located.
According to Shelton, the plan would preserve and renovate the beloved 1925 portion of the complex, as well as the “knuckle” (eastern section) of the 1969 addition; leave the track and football field intact; remodel the auditorium; and demolish the western section of the addition, including the current gym.
The estimated cost is $82 million, which makes up the bulk of the $100 million being requested through the bond referendum.
A public open house at Lincoln is scheduled for Feb. 16.
Another $18 million would be used to demolish both open-concept “pods” at Hamel Elementary School, built in 1969, and construct a new wing with six classrooms and a gymnasium that’s no longer combined with the cafeteria and commons.
“There are two large octagonal pods that have asbestos in the floors and ceilings, and there are no windows in those pods,” Shelton said.
Hamel and Midway serve students in kindergarten through second grade who live in the district’s rural northern region. Those in third through fifth grades go to Worden Elementary School.
Midway decision pending
Another controversy erupted last fall, when district officials raised the possibility of closing Midway Elementary School, near Holiday Shores, and consolidating with Hamel Elementary School nine miles away.
Midway is experiencing drainage problems and foundation moisture that could cost more to fix than the building is worth, according to Shelton.
Supporters of consolidation say all K-2 students in the district’s rural northern region could benefit by attending one school if Hamel is expanded and renovated into a more modern facility with full access to programs and specialists.
Opponents point to the importance of community-based schools. Tim Gueldener, whose boy and girl twins attend Midway, also is concerned about transportation issues.
“I live 11 minutes from the school, and my kids ride the bus for an hour,” he said. “If we start consolidating, we’re going to make those bus rides even longer, and these are kindergarten through second-grade children who are already in school for several hours during the day.
“After that, they need to be home doing homework or being interactive. They don’t need to be on a bus, staring out the window.”
Some northern region residents also are concerned about how consolidation would affect property values, said Gueldener, whose great-grandfather, Willard Henke, donated the land for Midway in 1957 so local families would have a community school.
Some opponents have complained that the district’s decision-making on Midway seemed rushed and that it’s been difficult to get answers to questions about the school’s problems and how officials came up with an initial $5 million repair estimate.
Parent Katie Nappier started an online petition called “Save Our Small Schools — Keep Midway Elementary Operational” that has gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
“The homes of these families are spread across approximately 88 square miles of primarily rural area,” the petition states. “Keeping schools close to where kids live is vital to ensuring kids can get to school quickly and safely.”
Contractors still are working to determine the cause and extent of water problems at Midway, what repairs are needed and how much they would cost, said Shelton, who expects an update Jan. 20. The district also is conducting a transportation study in the northern region.
In the meantime, the list of projects tied to the bond referendum includes up to $2 million for repairs at Midway.
As for school security, district plans call for installation of double-door entrances at seven schools that now lack them to make access more difficult for armed intruders, according to Shelton.
These entrances require someone who wants to enter a school to open the first door and stand in a vestibule, protected from inclement weather, while a security officer determines whether he or she can proceed to the office through a second locked door.
“They’ll screen the people who want to come in,” Shelton said.
Here’s the wording of the bond referendum that will appear on the ballot for Edwardsville school district residents in the April 4 consolidated election:
“Shall the Board of Education of Edwardsville Community Unit School District Number 7, Madison County, Illinois, improve the sites of, build and equip additions to and alter, repair, and equip school buildings, including constructing security improvements and secured entryways, and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $100,000,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.