AMBOY - Through all the upheaval in 2020, the Amboy Junior High School construction project has been moving forward this year with few problems. The $15.8 million project, which also includes a new high school gym and other upgrades, has remained on budget and Superintendent Joshua Nichols is hopeful the construction will be done on schedule next summer.
“The main thing now is we want to get the roof on before winter so they can keep working on the inside of the building. Right now, it looks like the timeline is good for that to happen,” Nichols said.
The goal for completion of the entire project is June or July of 2021 so everything will be open for the start of school next August. Barring any serious weather delays affecting that timeline, there would be a month or two to move in over the summer and the schools would be ready for students in August.
“They are working on the interior walls now, the masons are here and the structural steel is going in, so things are progressing,” Nichols said.
Over on the other side of the property, the new high school gym structure is also taking shape.
“It’s all coming along and it’s exciting to see,” Nichols said. “The gym is metal on the outside, but we had to do that to stay in budget.”
One of the most frequently asked questions Nichols receives is whether the new gym is big enough. Although it may not look larger from the outside, the gym will be wider and have an additional 2,000 square feet of space. The amount of bleacher seating will be the same, but the new gym will have space to set up chairs on the floor, which will add seating for about 200 additional people.
“We have a budget and we had to stick to that budget with our plans and design, so we were limited in what we could do with the gym,” Nichols said, adding that the Lee County sales tax money was used for projects needed at Central School and not for the new construction.
To stay within budget, compromises were also made in the junior high building. Although the junior high will have its own entrance, classrooms, offices, kitchen and cafeteria, the original plan for a new library was scrapped. Instead, the current high school library will be shared by both buildings.
“There was not enough money to build a junior high library at this time,” Nichols explained. “If money becomes available in the future, I would love to do that.”
The district also saved money by scaling back items such as the more expensive floor tile, which would have required less maintenance and cost less over time, along with other materials and items that may have looked better or saved money in the long run but were more expensive initially.
“We had to make cuts,” Nichols said.
Despite the budget restrictions, the new building will provide Amboy students with a modern and safe facility in which to learn. The decision to construct a new junior high did not come easily or quickly. It was preceded by years of discussions, community surveys and a failed attempt at a referendum, all while the old building continued to deteriorate.
2017 - In September of 2017, former Superintendent Jeff Thake said that during his 12 years in the district the board had discussed what to do about the junior high and the time had come to make a decision. The school district had sent a survey to the community earlier that year and the majority of those responding were in favor of closing the junior high and building an extension to the high school, along with a new high school gym, and would support a bond to do so.
2018 - On Jan. 25, 2018, the board of education decided to place a referendum on the March primary ballot asking for approval of a $15.8 million General Obligation bond for construction of a replacement junior high school building adjacent to Amboy High School.
Board president Nicole Jones explained the decision, “In October, we held our first Town Hall meeting and convened a group of parents and community members to further vet our options. In December, that group came to the board with their recommendation . . . to pursue a general obligation bond seeking funds to build a new junior high at the high school and make improvements to the current high school thus freeing school funds to continue health and life safety projects at Central Elementary.
“This decision has not just been about considering a new school, but also about the future of the current junior high building,” she continued. “The Board is committed to developing a solid exit plan that will NOT leave an abandoned building in the community. During construction, the junior high will still function and be maintained as a usable school building for grades 5-8 at least through the 2018-19 school year.”
The March referendum was defeated by 53 votes, 769-No to 716-Yes. Although disappointed, the board was willing to press forward. Board member Katie Pratt said she felt it was important to keep talking about a referendum and thanked the parents and community members who worked for several months to inform the public about the building project.
“We made our case and I think we have to continue because it makes me nauseous to think of putting any money into a building that will keep being old,” she said. “This is an issue that’s not going away. We can’t kick the can - that’s not going to solve it.”
Thake resigned as superintendent that summer and Joshua Nichols was hired to fill the position. The board continued discussions over the next few months and decided to put the referendum on the November 2018 ballot. The second try was approved by voters.
2019 - A groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 16, 2019 to mark the official start of construction on the new junior high. The first round of bids, which were for ground work, came in about $50,000 under budget, and things were going according to plan. That changed quickly when the second bid package came in $2 million over budget and the project had to be paused. Most of the items received no bids and others only received one bid, which would have brought the project $2 million over budget.
A rebid was issued and after the bid opening in September, Nichols reported that the project would be able to move forward. The new bids were still higher than hoped for but by substituting the floor and ceiling tile and other items, the project’s reserve covered the increase.
“The building will be the same size as originally planned - the classrooms, gym and offices will all stay the same size - but some interior things will change,” Nichols said at the time. “It’s not necessarily what we want to do, but we have to keep the cost down so we can move forward and it will be a much better junior high than we have now.”
2020 - Although schools were closed in March due to the pandemic, construction was allowed to continue. In April, Nichols reported that the construction project was continuing on schedule with crews pouring foundations for the wall panels and making a lot of progress. Over the spring and summer, foundation work continued and utilities were installed. The only delay was waiting several months for Nicor but by August, they had also completed their work.
Nichols noted that once the new school is open, another budgeted part of the project is to demolish the old junior high building, which the board still plans to do.
In the coming months, progress will depend on the weather.
“If there is a delay because of weather, it could add to the cost. If necessary, we could pause the project to stay in budget and we would still have the spring and summer to get done,” Nichols said. “Overall, it’s going as well as we could hope.”
Anyone having questions about the project should contact Superintendent Joshua Nichols at (815) 857-2164.
“I have people ask me questions and I encourage anyone with a question to contact me,” he said. “If I don’t know the answer, I will find out and get back to them.”