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District 87 asks for legislative waiver to buy building for Pre-K expansion

 District 87 Superintendent David Mouser
Emily Bollinger
District 87 Superintendent David Mouser at a recent school board meeting.

District 87 schools in Bloomington want to expand early childhood education, but there are some hoops to jump through to get a new facility.

District 87 Superintendent Dave Mouser said the current early childhood program operates out of Sarah Raymond School on West Olive Street.

"We've got about 300 students in Pre-K. And we have a waiting list. And we have a lot of underserved families that could use that. If we could double in size, that would be fantastic," said Mouser.

Instead of building a new school, Mouser said they've begun looking at underused or vacant properties in town. One of those, on Oakland Avenue, is owned by State Farm. Mouser said the district would fund a purchase of whatever building is decided on with reserves, working cash fund bonds already issued, and other budgetary adjustments. There would be no tax increase. But Mouser said it's not as easy as you might think.

"We can't negotiate really in good faith and in real time as a school district to take over any building or space for student occupancy without a referendum, which was news to me. And that's even if you have funding locally available for projects," said Mouser.

State Rep. Sharon Chung of Bloomington and State Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria are helping with legislation to grant District 87 a waiver to buy a building without going to voters. Mouser said Decatur schools received a similar waiver a few years ago.

He said the district would still honor the intent of the referendum requirement, which is transparency and public input into the decision. Any waiver would come with a public hearing provision.

Mouser said another factor to take into account is Gov. JB Pritzker's recent statements about expanding Pre-K offerings.

"This feels like a really good time for us to look at this opportunity. Because there is more than $100 million allocated supposedly for Pre-K programming, Pre-K expansion particularly, even grant funding for renovations and buildings for Pre-K," said Mouser.

Though the State Farm building on Oakland Avenue is only one option, it is big. Mouser said it could potentially also house expanded career and technical education program growth at the other end of the student age range.

Mouser said it is too early to consider the exact funding mix for the purchase, any future re-purposing of Sarah Raymond School, or the kinds of Career and Technical Education programs that could be expanded.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.