By Bob Skolnik
The central offices for Riverside Elementary School District 96 may be moving off campus once again.
At the school board's finance committee meeting on Jan. 14, District 96 Director of Finance and Operations Zack Zayed told the board that he has located a medical office building on Ogden Avenue near Harlem Avenue that fits the district's needs.
The administration says that it needs to move off the Central/Hauser campus to open up needed space for early childhood education and an additional self-contained special education classroom. Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis told the school board that the district needs at least two additional classrooms.
Currently the district only offers early childhood education to students with special needs, apparently violating state law.
"We weren't compliant in offering preschool," Sharma-Lewis told the school board at the finance committee meeting.
The state requires districts to offer early childhood education in blended classrooms, where children with special needs learn alongside those who are may be just developmentally delayed and other children.
According the district's December enrollment report, there are 12 children in the district's early childhood program, which is currently run out of a classroom at Hollywood School in Brookfield.
Sharma-Lewis said that she would like to move the early childhood program to the space at Central/Hauser, which is currently serving as the district's central office. That space could accommodate more children, is self-contained and has a bathroom, which makes it an ideal pace for early childhood education, Sharma-Lewis said.
District officials would like to use the early childhood program classroom at Hollywood School as an additional self-contained special education classroom.
The district has only one self-contained special education classroom. Another special education classroom would allow the district to offer better and more age-appropriate special education services and could allow the district to reduce the number of special education students it outplaces, said Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan.
"We end up paying a lot of money to send students to other places," Ganan said.
Ganan noted the state does not permit students who are more than three years apart in age to be in the same classrooms and said that having two self-contained special education classrooms would allow the district to group special education elementary school students by age. There are 10 students in the district's only self-contained special education classroom, which is located at Central School.
Just last summer the district offices returned to the Central/Hauser campus after five years of being located at the former Mater Christi School in North Riverside, which was outside the district's boundary lines. The Mater Christi location was criticized as hard to find and out of the way.
Board member Randy Brockway criticized the proposed Ogden Avenue location for the district offices, saying that it was out of the way. Brockway wants the district offices to be in downtown Riverside, which he said would be closer to the schools, more convenient for parents and would help boost Riverside's struggling downtown.
"It would be a win-win as I see it," Brockway said. "I think there are a lot of reasons why it ought to be downtown. There are numerous buildings. I believe our downtown would greatly benefit from having the district offices there."
But the Ogden location is cheaper than downtown Riverside locations, according to Zayed who said that preliminary discussions indicate that the district could rent the Ogden Avenue space for around $10 to $12 per square foot compared with $18 to $22 per square foot in downtown Riverside.
Zayed also noted that the Ogden Avenue building comes with off-street parking, which many downtown locations lack. He said the district is looking at renting about 5,000 square feet, which also would provide space for professional development training sessions and lectures, filling a district need.
Some board members also noted that village of Riverside's most recent comprehensive plan calls for retail, not office space, to be preferred on first-floor locations in downtown Riverside.
But Brockway said there is plenty of vacant space in downtown Riverside, specifically mentioning the Village Center development and the Arcade Building among other locations.
Art Perry offered lukewarm support for the Ogden Avenue location.
"I thought Mater Christi was a terrible place to go," Perry said. "I think this is not ideal, but it's a better place to go. At least it is in Riverside."
Board member David Kodama said the board needed more information, while board member Michael O'Brien was skeptical.
"I'm not convinced," O'Brien said.
School board President Mary Rose Mangia said she hadn't decided yet what the best course of action would be.
"I haven't established a position yet," Mangia said. "There's just a lot of people who feel that a great effort should be made to keep them closer to the schools. There's limitation of space and money, but there's also a lot of vacant space in town."