The auditorium at Blythe Park School will be converted in 2023 to a multipurpose space divided by a moveable wall. Part of the space will serve as the school’s new library, while the rest will be a music room. The existing library on the main floor will become the school’s new art room. | FILE

While this is a light summer for construction work in Riverside Elementary School District 96, next summer will likely be different. In 2023, district is looking to turn the auditorium at Blythe Park School into a multipurpose room and plans major upgrades to the auditorium at L.J. Hauser Junior High School. 

The school district also plans to revamp the play space and field at the Hauser/Central campus, but that work could be deferred until 2024.

At Blythe Park the plan is to covert the auditorium into a multipurpose room divided into two classrooms separated by a moveable wall. The library will be moved downstairs into one of the rooms and the other will be used for music. The current first-floor library will be converted into an art room. 

Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said that idea came from a parent at a visioning session. The idea is to have more light and space for the art room. While some might think that putting a library next to a music room might not be the best combination, Ryan-Toye said it is not a bad combination for an elementary school. Students are mostly checking out books at the library and not using it so much as a study or work space, Ryan-Toye said.

The district plans to add some windows to the new downstairs multipurpose room to get some natural light in there. Currently the below-ground auditorium does not have windows.

At its June meeting, the Riverside Historical Preservation voted 5-2 to approve the addition of windows after suggesting some minor modifications. The village must approve any changes to the exterior of Blythe Park School because the building is a designated a local landmark.

The district also plans to replace the boilers at Blythe Park and repave the school’s parking lot next summer. The total cost of all the work at Blythe Park could be as much as $4 million, including around $2.5 million to turn the auditorium into a multipurpose room. Since the work is still months away from being bid out, precise cost estimates are not available.

Work to improve the Hauser Junior High auditorium, mostly electrical and lighting upgrades, could range from approximately $744,000 to just over $1 million depending on whether the district chooses good, better or best options. Part of that cost will be funded by a state grant.

“It’s a larger price than we first anticipated,” Ryan-Toye said.

Board members say that the work on the Hauser auditorium can’t be put off any longer. Some of the equipment in the auditorium, which was built in 1953, is so old that it is very hard to source replacement parts.

“The equipment is kind of on its last legs,” said Joel Marhoul, the chairman of the school board’s facilities committee.

The board is also considering whether to use natural grass or artificial turf to replace the field behind Hauser. But that project could be deferred until 2024, because any changes will have to be approved by the Cook County Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, typically a lengthy process.

Some local residents, Riverside resident Rob Dixon for one, are pushing the school board to use natural grass, saying that it is safer for kids. The school board recently heard from its architects on the comparative advantages and disadvantages of natural grass versus artificial turf.

The district’s architects say that scientific studies have not demonstrated any link between artificial turf fields and cancer or other bad health outcomes as some as argued. 

“What we’re hearing from [the architect] is polar opposite of what we’re hearing from in the community,” said school board president Dan Hunt.

The architects said an artificial turf can be used more because it can be used after a heavy rain, which would turn a natural grass field into a muddy mess. That’s problem with the existing field. 

“I’m not pushing for [artificial] turf, but most of the green space we have is unusable for a week after a rain,” Marhoul said at the June 1 school board meeting.

Board member Wesley Muirheid said being able to use the field at all times was an important factor to consider.

“My biggest concern is that we spend all this money and we still can’t use the field,” Muirheid said.   

But the school board is still delving into the issue and members are still interested in learning more about grass fields and all the alternatives.

“For me, it’s not just about dollars,” board member Shari Klyber said.