Komarek School District 94 Superintendent Todd Fitzgerald (center), flanked by co-principals Caitlin DiLallo (left) and Diane Michelini, turns over a spade of earth during the groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s renovation and expansion on June 8. (Bob Uphues/Editor)

If the situation looked bleak back in April 2019, when the first of two bond referendums to renovate and expand Komarek School in North Riverside went down to defeat in convincing fashion, the atmosphere outside the school on the evening of June 8 was literally sunny and bright.

About 75 parents, children, local officials and school leaders gathered inside the construction fencing that had gone up earlier that day and stood next to a large backhoe that had been tasked stripping asphalt from around the west building.

While ground technically had been broken already on the $22 million expansion and renovation – made possible by the March 2020 referendum passed by voters – those gathered on 13th Avenue in between the two sides of the campus were there to mark the ceremonial groundbreaking.

“We are so excited, we waited a long time for this,” said Joanna Santos, the mother of a rising second-grader and eighth-grader. While the eighth-grader won’t get the chance to experience the finished school, Santos has another child who will only ever know the new-and-improved Komarek when he turns 3 and heads into pre-K.

“The new technology will be good – and the A/C,” Santos said.

For kids and their parents, the prospect of a fully air-conditioned school is one of the most attractive aspects of what’s coming.

“The first couple of months for them, August and September, are so hot,” Santos said. “They come home and they’re so tired, so it’s going to be good for them just be able to learn. You can’t really learn when you’re dripping sweat and hot.”

Sayali Seshadri, the mother of twin second-graders, agreed that the air-conditioning and overall better air quality will be a major improvement. But, she also referenced the state of the school’s old buildings. The oldest building was a two-room schoolhouse built in 1936. Six additions built between 1946 and 1970 brought the campus to its present look.

“A new building means you don’t have to worry about small things, like something falling down one day,” Seshadri said.

Several different groups of people had a chance to don hard hats and grab a shovel to turn over spadesful of earth spread out on the pavement of 13th Avenue, which in time will be vacated by the village and become enclosed outdoor campus space.

But the trio awarded the honor of digging their shovels into the earth first were Melissa Obrock, Christian Rodriguez and Alan Myers, who had founded Citizens for District 94, which campaigned door-to-door for both referendums and who sat on the steering committee tasked with building the broad support that made the difference in 2020.

“We wanted to say thank you to everyone in our community whose hard work and belief in this project brought us to where we are now,” said Obrock, who was elected to the Komarek District 94 school board in April and will see the project completed during her term in office, during remarks before the ceremonial groundbreaking.

“For everyone who voted to pass this and make the financial part happen, thank you as well,” she added.

Obrock also announced that a time capsule would be sealed inside the cornerstone of the new addition to the school. While the school will be taking additional suggestions for a short time, the stainless-steel cylinder will contain photos of the groundbreaking, newspaper articles about the referendum and construction planning, a 2020-21 yearbook, notes from families and students and – indispensably for 2020-21 — a Komarek school face mask, among other items.

Komarek District 94 Superintendent Todd Fitzgerald, hired just after the successful referendum in 2020, singled out the steering committee for their efforts but acknowledged the wider support and participation in the planning process.

“Whether it was providing feedback and ideas to the builder and architects, communicating the needs of our school district to the North Riverside and Broadview communities, or garnering support for the passage of the building referendum in March of 2020, this project would not be possible without all of those people,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also had some good news to announce to those gathered.

“I’m happy to report that after one day of construction, we are on schedule and under budget.”