The Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district intends to tear down the PBL Eastlawn School building. That much is clear.
But what remains unclear is why it’s the only option on the table.
While some community members are making an 11th-hour push to save the 94-year-old brick structure, which has been determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, district officials seem set on seeing it demolished later this fall. Superintendent Cliff McClure and the school board have said they are simply following through with the wishes of the voting public, who authorized the district three years ago to issue building bonds to tear down Eastlawn at a cost of more than $1 million.
But that’s about all they’ve said.
Among other things, district officials have yet to explain why marketing the building for sale was never pursued as an alternative to spending taxpayers’ dollars to make Eastlawn into an empty lot. Surely, avoiding such a costly project while also bringing in a little revenue by selling the property would seem a responsible move if a buyer with a solid plan for repurposing the building could be found.
But no one will know what the possibilities are if no one tries.
Other communities have successfully saved historic school buildings and made them into repurposed — and beneficial — assets to their towns. Gibson City has a wonderful apartment building in its old grade school serving disabled and elderly residents. Loda’s old grade school, while it sat vacant for years, is back to being used again, too, as a research lab. There are many other examples across Illinois, too.
PBL may be trying to avoid putting the Eastlawn building into private hands because of the examples in our area of old schools sitting vacant and going into disrepair. Rankin’s old school on Illinois 49 is an eyesore. The former West Lawn School in Paxton continues to sit vacant. And there are many other examples.
But if PBL did its due diligence and decided to solicit proposals from prospective buyers for Eastlawn’s reuse, it might find a solid plan does indeed exist.
Besides neglecting to look into alternatives to demolition, the school board and superintendent have neglected to tell the public why — despite repeated requests for an answer from community members in recent months. It might be noted that every school board member took an oath to “foster … extensive participation of the community.”
While PBL did encourage community involvement in its plans for facility improvements that led to the November 2016 referendum, the district never presented selling Eastlawn as an option for consideration during its series of “community engagement” sessions held to get residents’ opinions on what projects to pursue. The only option presented was tearing down Eastlawn vs. renovating it. Consequently, PBL will never know — unless it asks — if the community would rather see Eastlawn sold and repurposed.
In defending the district’s decision to demolish Eastlawn, McClure released a statement this summer saying that “at no time” since the referendum “has anyone addressed or approached the board about repurposing Eastlawn Elementary.” That statement, however, is no longer true. A few months back, two Paxton residents presented a proposal to repurpose the building, but they still have received no feedback.
PBL officials are accountable to the public, and they need to answer the public’s questions and consider all options on Eastlawn’s future.
If not, a historic building designed by a notable early-20th century architect will see the wrecking ball next month, and the community will never know what could have been possible.