By Tony Hooker
Norm Tracy stepped into a firestorm in 2015 when he agreed to “temporarily” serve as Superintendent of Villa Grove School District 302. Through the guidance of his steady hand, the Board and Administration have worked closely with the staff and families of the district to fight through the tough times and bring about a new era of growth for the school community. He recently took the time to share his thoughts about some of the new, exciting things that are taking shape.
Can you give me a short synopsis of all the projects that are either in the planning stages or beginning to take shape around Villa Grove Schools?
We had a couple of things that we could do that needed taken care of pretty quickly. One of them was replacing the kitchen floor that had been there for many years. We did that and replaced the high school lockers because with the size of today’s books and Chrome books, they simply wouldn’t fit in the old lockers. We knocked those out of the way before we began what we’re calling phase one of the remodeling construction. After the staff and community surveys, security, watching who comes into and out of the building, was number one on the list. We worked on a secure front entrance where people would have to be keyed in to enter the office. Otherwise they would come into a waiting room as opposed to before when they could come into the building and go left toward the high school or right toward the grade school without having to come into an office. That was predominant. Trying to get that accomplished. We also wanted to improve four restrooms, in particular the ones around our gymnasium that our public comes in and uses during athletic competition or programs. That was initially the project that was undertaken last summer during phase one. We kind of got thrown a curve ball by the polar vortex last winter and when the temperatures dipped, it damaged our elementary and junior high boiler heat that was built in 1964. Jack Clapp did a great job of babysitting the system until the spring when he could tie that project in to phase one. We had to get a couple new boilers put in, along with the new office area and front entrance. There was a lot of asbestos involved in that, so it involved some life safety money for its removal. Thank you to Jack for getting us through to spring when we didn’t need heat anymore. That was the heat that went to the ’64 addition that went down to the gym in the elementary and junior high, on the east side of the school. Boilers used to be big, giant kinds of things, but the new ones are about the size of a refrigerator with piping going to it. It was converted from steam heat to hot water heat. We were able to tie that to the gym, and that lent itself to considering air conditioning into the gym. That was wrapped into phase one, which we were barely able to get completed before registration and the start of school this year. That leads us to the next part of the plan. We worked to establish a five-year plan with our performance contractor, and it will be “forever green”, so after the year’s up, we’ll add another year on so that we’ll always have a five-year plan. Some years, we might not do anything, but other years, like this year, there will be projects built into the plan. What we were looking at this year is that we’re out of space in the elementary and junior high. Currently, we have our elementary library down on the first floor of the high school, which is not the best situation. We’ve just had to make do with the space that we’ve had, including sharing space among two smaller classrooms. Along with the need for more classrooms, there’s a need for a gymnasium. Not just a gymnasium for athletics, but with us being kind of unique, with all of us, the elementary, junior high and high school all combined into one, we naturally have four different lunch hours. Our students need a place to go after lunch, and if its inclement weather, unfortunately they might be stuck in some classrooms. A lot of districts have a separate lunch room or gymnasium for the elementary school. We just need a place to go. Right now, when we have programs, we depend on custodial time for setting up for those various programs. Right now, whether it’s the variety show, choral program or student awards programs, we have to cancel P.E. classes unless they can go outside. Not having a stage was one of the things the board looked at when planning the new site. The plan for phase two is to add four classrooms and a gymnasium with a stage, along with a regulation floor with bleachers along one side for use as a junior high gymnasium and for overflow for various programs. We could host tournaments too, with the additional locker room facilities available. We’re hoping these kinds of improvements would be interesting to families who are wanting to come to Villa Grove schools to see what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do to make this a safer school.
When do you anticipate the completion of phase two?
The goal is to have the four classrooms completed by next August. Then, they’ll concentrate on finishing the gym.
You’re talking August of 2020?
Yes, the classrooms will be done by next August when school begins.
What are some of the longer-term goals?
We’re looking at ways to enlarge the front drive with additional parking to make it safer to drop of and pick up our students. That got put on hold, largely because of the bridgework that going to be done here in town. They’re going to take out our south drive. We’re going to need to see how that ends up, and we’ll be working with some engineering firms on traffic management, flow of traffic and things like that. The city, along with Paul’s and IDOT, are working on making a pedestrian cross walk, up by Paul’s machine shop. With regards to the bridge project, as long as the sidewalk on the west side is there, we’ll be ok, but once they flip that stop light, we’ll have to have some way of monitoring that.
How about some projects for the future?
Right now, we’re looking at some football and softball polls to make sure they’re in good condition. The football poles were fine, but two softball poles need to be replaced. We’re working toward replacing lights and parking lot with the more efficient LED lights. We’ll have a new black top playground area for the kids, and we’re moving the playground equipment area because the new class rooms will go out the northwest exit and go toward where the playground equipment was sitting.
The new gym won’t impact the softball diamond?
No. The softball backstop fencing is in bad shape, so we’ll have to do some work on the fence and dugouts when we finish up the gymnasium also. Next spring, the softball team is working with the city to use the diamonds at Richman Park. After this phase, I think it will be some minor maintenance of some items. I think it’s a couple of years off before they take on any other projects. This will be the largest project as far as scope. We’ve been able to do it through alternate revenue bonds and general obligation bonds without increasing the tax rate. We also used a drone to determine the life of our roof, and that might be the next largest expense as we begin phasing in the replacement of certain sections of our roof. There are so many different roofs on this campus, and the drone was able to use infrared to tell us what type of moisture was in the roof and how soon it was likely to start needing some attention. It looks like its about seven years out.
How about an all-weather track and state of the art weight room? Are they on the horizon?
I think they would love to see both of those, and both were on the survey. I think eventually something like that might be achieved. We’re looking at taking out the old Quonset building, redirecting traffic and creating more parking around a new weight room facility.
Is there anything you would like to add, Mr. Tracy?
We’re trying to make curriculum improvements, too. You can’t do everything at once, but over the last couple of years, we’ve added some high school computer classes, Ag classes and math and social studies classes so that we have a smaller student to teacher ratio. In the elementary school, Hannah King has become our intervention coordinator to assist struggling students with their academic achievement skills. We now have chrome books throughout the grade levels. This is the second year of our pre-school program. It was on our plan for several years, but we couldn’t add it until the state had a budget. We finally got on the list to have a pre-school last year, and this is our second year. Autumn Jones and Mr. Beck are spearheading that project. The 2015-16 school year was my first at Villa Grove Schools coming at a time of financial uncertainty where cutbacks became necessary. I have been fortunate to work with conscientious former and current board members as we have made financial progress by living within our means and gradually reversing the cuts. Now, VG has made the state’s Financial Recognition List for the past three years. Also, the new state funding formula has now targeted more equitable funding for districts like ours.
My job is a reflection of the many great people around me making my job easier. It is enjoyable here with our quality teachers and my opportunity to work closely with Principals Bobby Beck and Sara Jones, Athletic Director Noreen Acton, Bookkeeper Shirley Badman and our knowledgeable office staff of Barb, Chris, Terri, Salisa, and Nurse Laurie. They all “wear many hats” at school to help make a caring difference.
Kudos would not be complete without recognizing the jobs done by Jack Clapp, our dependable Head of Maintenance, Steve Vandeventer, Transportation and Grounds, our bus drivers, cooks, teacher aides, and volunteers. This team approach works well for us as I believe in a synergistic approach that the “sum of the parts is greater than the whole”. We have also had great cooperation with the city on previous issues and even share for a School Resource Officer as an added safety measure for our community.
<Journal> So what do have, another 20 or 22 year left in you? <laughing>
<laughs> No, No! this has been a wonderful community to come to, and I really appreciate the assistance that I’ve received here, but I’m just really playing it year by year, dependent upon my health and family issues.