Proviso High School District 209’s new Math and Science Academy is scheduled to open Friday, offering 134 freshmen selected from the cream of the district’s crop of 27 feeder schools the chance to be a part of the magnet school’s inaugural class.

On Monday, Rick Bryant, the school’s director of teaching and learning and Melvin Berry, director of operations and student life, showed off the school, located at 8601 Roosevelt, to representatives from various media outlets.

The school, decorated in purple, which Bryant said was a mix Proviso East’s blue and Proviso West’s red, is a five story building which formerly served as an administration building for Loyola Medical Center. Most of the building’s spacious classrooms feature large windows offering pristine views of the surrounding area.

“Our logo is an open window and the world ” we are not bound just by what occurs in this building,” said Bryant. The two co-principals raved about the “inquiry based” education that students would receive, pointing out cases lining the walls where the students’ original creations would be displayed.

Bryant pointed out several unique elements of the school’s curriculum, including a science program that would start students with physics in their freshman year, following the recommendation of the National Science Teachers Association, and a distance learning program that would allow students to learn languages ranging from Swahili to Japanese from professors at partnering universities.

The two principals brought the tour to the auditorium, the cafeteria, offices, conference rooms, classrooms”pretty much everywhere that ongoing construction did not prevent them from entering.

Building fails inspection by Regional Office of Education

While Bryant and Berry saw this construction, mostly on the buildings bottom two floors, as a sign that opening day is near, others perceived it as an indication that the project had been mishandled and workers were now scrambling to get their work done in time.

A Monday afternoon inspection of the school by Margo Finnelley, deputy superintendent for the Cook County Regional Board of Education revealed several violations that the school would have to fix by Friday in order to open on time.

According to school board member Charles Flowers, who was present during the inspection, the school was missing a certificate from the fire department stating that its alarm system, telephone system, elevator certificate, security systems, exits, and fire extinguishers were operating in a satisfactory manner.

Regional Superintendent Bob Ingraffia confirmed that the school had not passed its inspection, but said that this “is not necessarily unusual” and that he would be returning to the school to conduct a second inspection. He said he had not yet reviewed Finnelley’s notes and could not comment on the details of the problems.

He said that the school would need to provide “some sort of certificate” to indicate that its alarms are operational, but that the certificate did not have to come from the fire department. If the alarms were not ready by Friday, he said, Proviso would need to present an alternate plan for fire and emergency response.

Forest Park Village Administrator Michael Sturino said that the village still had “several unresolved issues” with the magnet school including a sidewalk along 1st Avenue that had not yet been installed, which is required under the village’s zoning code.

Sturino noted that the village had required nearby Woodlawn Cemetery to install similar sidewalks. “This is not an unusual request,” he said. “What’s unusual is their refusal to comply with the site plan.”

Spending record disputed

School board President Chris Welch said that, upon completion, the district would still have nearly $7 million left from the $40 million bond originally set aside for the project. After the building was acquired for $16.5 million, he said, renovations cost $16.8 million.

“That’s a flat out lie,” said Flowers, who said that documentation of the project’s expenses show a remaining amount closer to $1 million. He said that former Supt. Greg Jackson had been planning to present the board with this information before he was fired by the board in a 4-3 vote on July 21.

Welch said the remaining funds would be spent on renovations at Proviso East and West, including the conversion of offices left vacant by administrators who would be moving to the magnet school into classrooms.

According to Dr. Phyllistine Murphy, interim assistant to the superintendent for technology and operations, these offices would include the superintendent’s office, her own office, the human resources office, and the curriculum and instruction office.

She said that surveys would be conducted to determine the best use of the vacated space, and said she did not expect the project to be completed until 2006, though administrators could move into their new offices as early as August 29.

Flowers said the possibility of converting offices to classrooms was discussed a year ago, but the board determined that the cost would be too much for the already cash-strapped district to handle.

When Jackson was fired, he said, the idea was suddenly resurrected.

Flowers and several other sources have told the Review that consultant Anthony Bruno, who received a finder’s fee for locating the magnet school building on Roosevelt, has been seen with Welch and Interim Superintendent Robert Libka at both Proviso East and West since Jackson was fired, presumably to consult with the district on the classroom conversion project.

Jackson had placed a discussion of severing ties with Bruno on the agenda for a regularly scheduled board meeting that was cancelled after the board majority boycotted the meeting and organized a special meeting to fire Jackson.

Welch and Murphy both said that they had not worked with Bruno on the project, which Flowers again called “an outright lie.”

Welch said he was not concerned that the cost of converting the offices would prove excessive, nor was he concerned that moving offices to the magnet school would distance administrators from the majority of the district’s students.

The conversion, he said, was necessary to deal with a lack of classroom space at the high schools, and said that “we have been advised with our current budget that we can operate our facilities with no problem.”

He said that past troubles had been caused by mismanagement, which would no longer be a problem with Jackson gone and the new administrative team in place. “We’re going to tighten our belts and get more out of the people we already have,” he said.

While still in office, Jackson had told the board that in order to maintain the magnet school, District 209 would soon have to file for a referendum. Welch did not rule out the possibility of asking for a referendum, but said he had not been advised that it was necessary at this time.

“In my opinion, there is very little chance that it won’t need a referendum,” said Forest Park Commissioner Tim Gillian. “Common sense says that sooner or later they’ll need one ” if (the magnet school) is up and functioning well, I don’t think people will mind paying,” he said.