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Officials: There’s no space for Cortland Elementary students in other buildings

DeKALB – Some Cortland Elementary School parents want DeKalb School District 428 to close the school, but district officials said there’s no room for the roughly 530 students in the district’s other buildings.

Since a foul odor that was released by crews working at Waste Management’s DeKalb County Landfill entered the school and sickened people Jan. 14, some parents have questioned why Cortland students can’t be taught elsewhere while the landfill incident is investigated.
Chesebro Elementary, a building District 428 closed in the summer of 2011, has surfaced as one option some parents believe the district should explore.

School board members have said they want to take 30 days to come up with an action plan on the issue and have not said they have any plan to close the school.

However, there are few good options for accommodating displaced students if Cortland were closed, district officials said. Cost and space constraints mean Chesebro isn’t an option, they said.

Although it has moved away from using it as one, the district in the fall evaluated Chesebro’s viability as a pre-kindergarten/ early childhood education center.

Official estimates put the cost of renovating the building for that purpose at $1.5 million, which would include securing entrances, updating flooring and a bevy of other renovations.

The district currently uses Chesebro for storage. Building an additional storage facility has a $500,000 price tag.

District Facilities Operations Manager Tammy Carson cautioned the costs would be different if the facility was renovated for elementary school students. She didn’t know what the costs would be, although she did not believe they would be higher than $2 million.

Even if it was renovated, Chesebro could not house half the students enrolled at Cortland. Chesebro, which was built in the 1960s, is half the size of Cortland and has a 240-student capacity. Cortland, built in 2009 for $15 million, can hold 600.

Scattering the children from Cortland throughout the different schools in the district also isn’t plausible, Assistant Superintendent Doug Moeller said. The district currently has a handful of third-grade seats across the district and very little space in other grades.

“Across the district, [space] is very tight,”  Moeller said. “We physically do not have the space to move those children.”

An online petition started by Cortland parents asks the district to close Cortland Elementary until more testing can be conducted, more monitors are placed inside and outside the school and prevention, response and notification plans are put in place. The petition has more than 120 signatures, although several electronic signers say they do not live in Cortland.

What exactly was released from the landfill Jan. 14 that caused students and staff to become sick hasn’t been publicly announced, but more information could be on the way. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs said the field report from the inspector who visited the Waste Management site and Cortland Elementary School last week should be ready for release early next week.

Additionally, the IEPA on Friday asked the Illinois Attorney General’s office to seek a court order that would require Waste Management to cover the costs of Jan. 14’s air pollution incident and take steps to avoid future incidents immediately.

Although some parents have hesitated to send their children back, some, including parent Leah Rowe, have sent their children to Cortland every morning without fear. Rowe believes change should come from Waste Management, not from a change in where her son attends school.

“I understand their concern, but I think the anger is misdirected,” Rowe said. “We are a working community and we have worked to make this town grow. This is our school. This is our community. We need to unify or it won’t keep growing.”

In the meantime, local and state agencies are working with the company to prevent future emergencies. Meetings that will result in the district’s action plan in 30 days have already started.

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