Will West Center have a home?

       The West Intergenerational Center could become an unintentional victim of School District 11's reutilization effort.
       The situation is this: The district, which has been envisioning a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade (K-8) format at the current West Middle School, believes that in such a case it will need the 8,000 square feet where the community center now operates at the northwest corner of the building. Under the legal agreement that put the facility there in 1992, the district cannot evict the center without giving the city a “comparable” replacement site in the same general area.
       The district has offered Buena Vista Elementary. It's nearby, just three blocks away, so it meets the basic location criteria, according to E.D. Rucker, who has headed up the West Center for 10 years. The question is how “comparable” it is, in terms of usability.
       BV is in “very good condition,” having been upgraded in two bond issues over the last 12 years, and would provide more space than West, according to District 11 Executive Director of Facilities, Operations and Transportation Frank Bernhard.
       On the downside, the school was built 98 years ago in a then-trendy cottage style that nowadays causes security headaches because of the many doors, windows, walls and roofs in its four buildings. Also, the entrance to the main building is not handicapped-accessible.
       Bernhard emphasized that the district's goal in the matter is to “support the community”; but no retrofitting for city needs is contemplated in the D-11 reutilization plan. The district expectation, according to its financial data, is to realize a $400,000 savings from closing the building.
       If the district does not customize Buena Vista for city uses, the question is who will. “The retrofit cost is probably our biggest concern,” said City Parks Director Paul Butcher. And, with increasing city budget concerns, “we don't have any capital improvement money.”
       The district wouldn't need the space until the school year starting in 2010. However, the staff plan calls for a feasibility study to begin this June, so some city/district understanding seemingly would have to be reached by then. Final board approval of the move is scheduled in December 2009 and the actual space takeover in June 2010.
       Talks are just starting between the two sides, Butcher and Bernhard confirmed, with no specifics being discussed until after the Board of Education votes on the reutilization plan (scheduled Feb. 25).
       Butcher has previously said he wants to keep all the city's community centers open, even in a very tight budget year, but increasing shortfalls are forcing City Council to dig ever deeper for cuts. E.D. Rucker, supervisor of the West Center, said it now appears one of his longtime program leaders will have to be laid off when council refinalizes the '09 budget next week.
       D-11 is also hurting financially. This was demonstrated at the Feb. 11 board meeting, when the only interest expressed by board members in the West Center move was how good a deal the district could get out of it. “We're not going to give 'em Buena Vista, you didn't bite on that?” Null inquired sharply, moments after asking district staff, “In three words, can you tell me what the Intergenerational Center does?”
       Bernhard explained to the board the restrictions of the city/district agreement, adding the history that both sides had paid to build the addition.
       Actually, the city coverered nearly all the construction costs - about $570,000, with District 11 kicking in $50,000 and taking ownership of the space, Rucker later elaborated. (He has been with City Parks since 1981 and, as the Hillside Community Center director when the West Center opened, had some involvement in that effort.) Rucker added that the way the center is set up, the city pays no rent, but funds the addition's maintenance and its percentage of building utilities and custodial costs.
       So, what is a city community center doing in a school? The arrangement goes back to the late 1980s, when various civic entities were looking for a Westside location to run programs for the elderly, the poor and the young. After fundraising and looking at various possibilities, the idea came up to put an addition onto West, with its own entrance at 25 N. 20th St. An economy of space was envisioned - the center can use any of the school facilities when school is closed.
       To this day, the main programs continue - to help at-risk teens, to provide meals and activities for seniors, to provide temporary aid to the indigent, to offer organization and space for classes, groups and agencies.
       But the real beauty of the center, according to Rucker, is the middle word in its name: “Intergenerational.” Through a synchronicity between the school and center, the original advocates had hoped, imaginative ways could be found for combining varying age groups in creative endeavors. This did happen for a while, especially with the guidance of then-West Principal Patricia Russell, but she has been gone for years, and so have the other community leaders and educators who were excited about the intergenerational goals, Rucker lamented. Current Principal Clay Gomez has encouraged his teachers to take advantage of the center's availability and resources, but without direction from district leaders, teachers are less likely to squeeze extra programs into already-tight curricular requirements.
       The school board, Rucker commented, “has no idea about the gem they have in this center.”

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