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In the wake of failed referendum, community rallies to support Jefferson Childhood Center

Despite the lack of definite plans from Community Unit School District 200 to address future capital improvements for the Jefferson Early Childhood Center after last April’s failed referendum, community members are continuing their campaign.

Former D-200 Board of Education President Andy Johnson is the current president of Friends of the Schools, a group dedicated to giving Jefferson the improvements the Friends – and the federal government – believe it needs.

“Over the 16 years I was on the Board, we took care of all of the elementary schools,” Johnson said. “All that time we were saying ‘What about Jefferson and Hubble [Middle School]?’ We fixed Hubble, but then ‘What about high schools and Jefferson?’ We did the high schools, but not Jefferson.”

The school, at which the majority of students have some degree of disability or learning delay, has asbestos, no fire sprinklers and runs on a boiler system. Fixing the minimum necessary repairs identified by the D-200 Board of Education could cost $1.67 million, far less than the more than $17 million that was requested in the referendum to build a new school.

Air conditioning and more handicap-accessible bathrooms in classrooms have been named as priorities, according to Jefferson Principal Stephanie Farrelly.

The school is operating against the provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite its special needs student body. It has been grandfathered into compliance for the last several years, but in order to maintain that status, all renovations must be made at once to bring the center up to code.

Susan Booten sent both of her children to Jefferson. She said that more resources were needed for the “wonderful school.”

“I’m a very big supporter of getting a new facility there,” she said. “The teachers are wonderful and certainly make due with what they have, but the kids that need therapies there, there just isn’t space for them.”

She said that her special needs son was helped by his time at Jefferson, but that the effect the school had is hard to convey to others.

D-200 is required to offer the services provided by Jefferson, according to Board of Education President Barbara Intihar. School districts are mandated by federal law to offer services to students that have been identified as having a special need from their third birthday to age 22.

Intihar said that the Board won’t be ready to make a decision about what to do next in updating the district’s “biggest need” until after a community engagement process is completed, during which a survey will ask residents what they want to see prioritized in future capital projects.

Still, she said, the process will help educate residents and Board members to prevent another ill-fated referendum.

Until then, Johnson said, he will help educate people about the services Jefferson provides and why they are important.

“I was talking to a friend about the process, and I think she said it really well: ‘We’re not looking to build the Taj Majal. We’re just looking for something adequate,’” Booten said.

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