Editorials

Worries that sinking middle school will become a money pit

Mine subsidence work continues at Wolf Branch Middle School

Work continues at Wolf Branch Middle School after mine subsidence damage was discovered in September 2017. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is drilling to determine the depth and extent of the abandoned mine there.
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Work continues at Wolf Branch Middle School after mine subsidence damage was discovered in September 2017. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is drilling to determine the depth and extent of the abandoned mine there.

That sinking feeling at Wolf Branch Middle School is far from over.

District leaders have been working to deal with the reality of merging two buildings into one. At the same time they are working with the state to determine the scope of the subsidence problem, how to halt further damage from a collapsing old coal mine and how to fix existing damage to the middle school.

The school board on Monday decided to hire an architect to guide their efforts. Repairing a 15-year-old school is preferable, but they raised the potential to raze at least a portion of the $16.5-million middle school.

Did you hear that sound? That was the property taxpayers in the district moaning from their own sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

School leaders would be wise to figure out and share the financial details as soon as they can. So far $253,098 in federal funds have been spent on the problem.

Superintendent Scott Harres said a lot more will be known once an architect is hired and once the state figures out how much concrete slurry, or grout, needs to be pumped underground to stabilize the site. That process cost Dierbergs and Shiloh $8 million, but Harres said he doesn’t think the middle school needs that much work and he’s hoping state or federal money will cover the cost.

He also said there is no going back to the folks who decided 15 years ago that the site was fine for building a school. Harres said he consulted a lawyer who said too much time passed to sue.

There are many moving pieces to the finances. Classrooms may be fine and need minimal repair. Other portions of the middle school may need significant repair and yet others may need so much repair that it’s cheaper to raze and replace them.

Depending on the extent of the damage, the state has emergency funds available. The maximum that subsidence insurance will cover is $750,000. The district is looking at refinancing its current debt.

Harres said he gets the worry. The goal is that the impact on property taxpayers stays close to or is the same as the current tax rate.

A lot of costly unknowns costing folks some sleep. Stay tuned.

Belleville has a long history with mine subsidence that is now affecting Wolf Branch Middle School. The insurance program to fix damaged homes got its start in southern Illinois near St. Louis, MO.

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