Education

Bill would allow Wolf Branch to borrow money to repair sinking school

IDNR works to stabilize ground underneath Wolf Branch Middle School

Work continues to pump concrete into empty mine shafts under Wolf Branch Middle School in Swansea. The concrete is used to stabilize the ground under the school, which was vacated in 2017 after subsidence damage was discovered.
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Work continues to pump concrete into empty mine shafts under Wolf Branch Middle School in Swansea. The concrete is used to stabilize the ground under the school, which was vacated in 2017 after subsidence damage was discovered.

Wolf Branch School District 113’s sinking school is a topic of conversation in Springfield while work to stabilize it is underway in Swansea.

State legislators are considering a bill about Wolf Branch Middle School, which was damaged when a collapsing mine caused subsidence, or gradual sinking.

Superintendent Scott Harres said the bill would increase the amount of money that the state says District 113 can borrow. The district could only use that money for repairs that need to be made to the middle school, according to Harres.

He described the proposed legislation as a “financial safety net” that district officials are hoping they don’t have to use.

“Nothing would make me happier in the end than if we didn’t need to exceed our debt limit,” Harres said.

But he said the change is needed in case funding help that Wolf Branch is requesting from the state doesn’t come through or in case an unexpected cost comes up along the way, for example.

Students and their teachers evacuated the middle school building in September and have since had their classes and after-school activities in the nearby elementary school.

District officials want to repair and reopen the middle school and, in the process, keep the tax rate that residents pay to Wolf Branch “as close to the current rate as possible,” according to Harres. He said previously that school leaders hope to receive state money toward the rebuilding project and that they are looking at restructuring the district’s debt and selling bonds.

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

“Right now, just as much time is being dedicated to meeting with the district’s financial advisers as is being dedicated to the construction planning,” Harres wrote in an April 27 letter to parents. “The (School) Board has directed me to impact district taxpayers as little as possible. While we are still uncertain of what assistance will be provided by the state, I want to assure each of you that we are doing everything possible in following the Board’s directive.”

The bill to raise the limit on District 113’s debt is sponsored by state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, in the House and by state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, in the Senate.

The legislation passed in the Illinois House on April 24. The full Illinois Senate hasn’t voted on the measure yet.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is overseeing a project to stabilize the abandoned mine under Wolf Branch Middle School.

Engineers picked by IDNR are pumping a concrete mixture into the mine, a process known as grouting. The project is funded by nearly $1.9 million in federal money.

The grouting project is expected to take until early June to complete. Then, IDNR will monitor the ground for any movement for at least six more months, according to Harres.

When the movement stops, IDNR plans to raze the parts of Wolf Branch Middle School that have been condemned, which Harres estimates is about 40 percent of the building. That project will be funded by state money from the fees charged for coal mine operations.

After that is complete, the district can begin construction.

The building was originally constructed in 2002 for $16 million. Based on advice from experts, school officials say they believe that saving the damaged building would cost less than constructing a new one.

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