Credit: Jill Wagner

In a survey sent out to district families, Proviso Township High School District 209 asked a simple “yes or no” question in an attempt to gain feedback on a quickly proposed plan to possibly purchase the shuttered St. Joseph High School campus in Westchester. 

However, more information is needed before residents can arrive at a proper answer, said board members.

St. Joseph High closed its doors at the end of the 2021-22 school year due to a decrease in enrollment and financial issues that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The high school had served the community for 61 years. 

According to the survey, if purchased, the building would be renovated to serve as the new home to Proviso Math and Science Academy with the current building being sold to outside investors. 

“Your input is crucial, valued, and appreciated,” read the survey, which asked “Should PTHS purchase the former St. Joseph High School building,” and solicited optional additional feedback. 

According to school board member Amanda Grant, Superintendent James L. Henderson brought up the idea during an executive session meeting in March.

“This is a pure political stunt,” Grant said. “There was no board discussion, it was an idea that was mentioned and nothing more. That is how it was treated to us. Then a few days later the survey went out, which was a complete surprise to me.” 

Posted to the district’s Facebook page on March 16 and then again on March 24, the survey, available in English and Spanish, gave the option to provide additional feedback as well.

“Dr. Henderson is incapable of managing the three buildings he has, and to think that he could purchase another one without any kind of research or planning or community feedback and move an entire school community into another building is laughable,” said Grant. “He can’t even open up a regular school building during the school year properly.” 

Henderson did not respond to all requests for comment. 

In a separate letter to the community dated March 23, Henderson stated that the district was considering the purchase of St. Joseph in a list of “amazing points happening in District 209.”

The idea of the district possibly purchasing St. Joseph in the future has “some merit,” said Grant, who added that surveying the community would not be the proper first step in addressing it. 

“I am not saying that the idea is not worth examining at some point in the future, but it has to be done the right way and it has to be done with the right administration,” said Grant said, who added she does not have faith in the current administration to pull off the suggested move.

D209 school board President Arbdella “Della” Patterson did not respond to requests for comment. 

Grant said the idea was presented to the board without a feasibility study, without any prior discussion, without information about why the district would need a new school building, and without information on what it would take to get the St. Joseph campus up to par to be able to house PMSA. 

“Henderson just throws things out. He has done this on several occasions,” said board member Claudia Medina. “With no information items with no study, he just throws out ideas, kind of like the $70 million bond. … With him I could not tell you why or how this is coming out.”

According to Medina, the district would have to invest a hefty sum to be able to turn St. Joseph into a viable option to house PMSA.

“I don’t know how we can do that,” Medina said. “My understanding is that it would take at least $80 million to bring the property up to code. It is a large property and there is a lot of work that has to be done. We don’t have a budget; we don’t have the money for this.”

Medina added that the district currently owns the PMSA building.

“That would have to be something that the board has a vision for, a plan, to save money,” Medina said, adding there are multiple steps that should have been taken before the idea was presented to the public, including a feasibility study and prior board discussion. “There are a lot of steps before this could be, even possibly, off the ground.”

With declining enrollment across the district’s campuses, Grant said there is a lack of need for additional space.

Questions have been raised regarding the possibility of allowing students to transfer into PMSA. 

In its March 24 Facebook post, the district indicated it would consider allowing Proviso sophomores through seniors, if eligible, to transfer into the academy. PMSA currently does not accept transfers, only enrolling freshman students.  

The results of the April 4 election will give an insight into the seriousness of Henderson’s inquiry, said Grant. Throughout the campaign in the three-seat race, many candidates, including Medina, who is seeking re-election, have addressed the “need” to break up the current board majority of Patterson, Theresa Kelly, Samuel Valtierrez, Rodney Alexander and Nathan Wagner, dubbed the “Henderson Five.” Kelly is also seeing re-election.

“If his people don’t win and he never brings it up again then you have your answer, it was a political stunt,” Grant said. “I don’t trust him with the students in the building he has, so to give him more would be frankly irresponsible.