Education

Wolf Branch Middle School is 16 years old. Soon, almost half of it will be torn down.

40 percent of Wolf Branch school to be demolished

Wolf Branch superintendent Scott Harres updates the status of the middle school damaged by mine subsidence.
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Wolf Branch superintendent Scott Harres updates the status of the middle school damaged by mine subsidence.

Inside the school building that state officials have described as “contorted” since a mine collapsed beneath it, the superintendent estimates that about 40 percent will need to be demolished and rebuilt.

The other 60 percent will need repairs ranging from new floors, walls and ceilings to cosmetic work.

Officials believe that saving the damaged Wolf Branch Middle School building would cost less than constructing a new one, based on advice from experts. They have also been looking for financial assistance since September, when the school started sinking.

Wolf Branch Middle School was constructed in 2002 for $16 million.

“We’re saving more than half of the building and only having to replace less than half of the building,” Superintendent Scott Harres said. “That’s a significant difference than leveling the whole thing — we would still have to pay for the cost of demolition for the entire thing — and then starting from scratch.”

Instead, Harres said the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plans to raze the parts of the building that have been condemned — the school’s cafeteria, kitchen, gym, locker rooms and music rooms — using state money from the fees charged for coal mine operations.

From there, it will be up to the district to cover the costs of construction.

Rebuilding

Harres said the architects working for Wolf Branch District 113 are still determining the potential price tag.

School leaders hope to receive some state money toward the project, according to Harres. He said they are also looking at restructuring the district’s debt and selling bonds to limit the amount of money that residents will have to contribute through the property taxes they pay District 113.

“Our goal, the board’s goal, is to keep that tax rate — even though we have to spend a substantial amount of money — to keep that tax rate as close to what it is right now as possible,” Harres said.

Generally, they know they will have to build a new eastern wing, where the cafeteria, kitchen, gym and other rooms are now. The plan is to keep them in the same place.

IDNR engineers determined that the mine doesn’t extend to the northwest corner of the property, so Harres said they considered putting an addition there but ultimately decided against it because of the layout of the building.

"It would really compress things into one section, and that’s why the Department of Natural Resources agreed with our engineers and architects, who thought it would be best to pretty much build on the same footprint that this building sits on," he said.

In the middle portion of the building, which includes offices and the library, Harres said they will need to replace the floors, walls and ceilings. The classrooms have the least amount of damage, according to Harres, and need only cosmetic work, such as floor and wall patching and window caulking.

Outside, the subsidence caused cracks to spread in the parking lot. Sidewalks also need some repair.

Timeline

IDNR will try to stabilize the mine through grouting at a cost of nearly $1.9 million, which will be paid for with federal money from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Crews are expected to start pumping the concrete mixture into the mine in April.

The building has already dropped 25 inches and is still moving about a half a millimeter a day, according to Harres. He said IDNR will want to continue monitoring it for movement after the grouting project is finished.

“They’ll still have their survey crew in with the hope that we start seeing readings of zero, zero, zero,” Harres said. “They’re estimating that that may take up to six months for that to occur.”

When the movement stops, he said the state’s demolition project and the district’s construction work can begin.

Making it work

Harres said the last five months have been emotional for the school community.

“And so finally having the opportunity to see that things are moving forward — and we consider this the first step in us being able to move forward so that we can make this building safe again and get back in there — I think everybody is excited about that,” he said.

More than 450 middle school students and their teachers moved into the district's elementary school in September, where they’ve adapted to make room for everyone.

Some classes are being held in converted storage rooms and offices. Harres said administrators moved into a trailer behind the elementary school so students wouldn’t have to. It costs the district $450 per month to rent.

It can feel crowded at the elementary school, especially during lunch and passing periods, according to Harres.

He has said that the building previously held as many as 950 students. There are about 850 students at the elementary school now, where they’ll stay until the future construction projects are completed.

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