MAHOMET — Nathan Mills stands amid a handful of student desks sitting close together in a small windowless room and explains that the space hasn’t always been used so directly for education.
“We’ve utilized some different areas that used to be storage — book storage or closets — and are now classrooms,” said Mills, principal at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. “We have utilized every square inch of this building. Last summer, we converted some storage closets into classrooms. Basically, any usable space, we are using it. We’re definitely at capacity.”
When it comes to talk in Mahomet about the Mahomet-Seymour school district’s buildings, the junior high is coming up more and more in conversation as a facility that needs to be addressed.
“There’s challenges,” Mills said. “I would say we’re at capacity or above capacity, but our staff does a really good job of being flexible and making things work.
“This building was built in 1961 as the high school ... to my knowledge, I think there have been two additions to it to kind of accommodate more of a junior high. It’s still not ideal, but we make it work. The hallways are not very big.”
With lockers on both sides of the halls, students headed from one classroom to another pass by others accessing their books and other items in the metal storage. Mills admits that it’s crowded. He said in the mid-1990s, the building hosted about 600 students. The total looks to be about 760 this fall, according to the principal, who is entering his second year in that role.
“That’s a lot more,” said Mills, who has been a teacher and administrator with the district for about 17 years. And student population still is on the rise. “We always have a lot more move-ins than we have move-outs,” he said.
He’s aware that there’s talk of whether the district should build a new junior high in coming years. He knows nothing’s finalized.
“I don’t know that there’s a timeline exactly. It would be great if it was sooner than later. But they’ll come up with a vision and a timeline and, like I said, we have great staff that’s very flexible that make things work.
“The students are very, very flexible, and they just want to come to school and want to learn. We do what we can with the space that we have.”
Not so fast
Superintendent Lindsey Hall told Mahomet Area Chamber of Commerce members at a late May meeting that the bursting-at-the-seams junior high building could be replaced in the coming five to seven years. She also told the Citizen that a move such as constructing a new building would be a long time coming, and whether the district would actually build a new facility isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion.
“Those discussions have started happening,” Hall said. “If we’re talking about building a new building, there’s a lot of groundwork — literal ground work and figuratively laying the foundation for building a new building, which would likely be out here (near Middletown Prairie Elementary School). We have lots of space on the south side of Middletown Prairie in which to build a new building.
“But there are a lot of discussions — a lot of discussion and planning that needs to take place with the village, with property owners that surround this building,” she said.
Yet the idea of a new junior high school likely isn’t a decade away, for example.
“Those discussions I would say are in their ‘toddler’ stage,” rather than just in their infancy, she added.
“There are a lot of moving parts, and we just continue to work through those,” the superintendent said. “There’s huge questions about financing, and there’s questions about going to our taxpayers, and there’s questions about roads and infrastructure — we just know that as time keeps moving ahead, we’re going to have to continue to finalize and narrow that plan down.”
Some members of the Mahomet-Seymour board of education have noted that talk about a new junior high at this point is just that — discussion.
At the board’s June meeting, member Ken Keefe noted that he has a particular interest in developing a long-term plan for facilities for the district. He added there is not yet a fresh comprehensive plan for facilities.
“I want us to make sure that we are aware that nothing has been decided yet on what buildings are changing,” Keefe noted during general comments at the meeting. “That’s still a task for the board to discuss.”
Board President Max McComb followed those comments by noting that he is excited for the board and community to come up with a plan for the next phase of any needed building changes across Mahomet-Seymour schools. Public discussions will begin in earnest in the fall, he said, on a comprehensive five-year plan that will include many aspects of operations for the district, including facilities.
“We’re looking forward to engaging in that project,” he said.
Mahomet-Seymour schools consist of Middletown Prairie Elementary School for the youngest pupils, Lincoln Trail Elementary School, the junior high and the high school. One sore subject for some in the community is the closing of the former Sangamon school and move of students from there to Middletown.
“Years of discussion took place about that prior to my arrival,” said Hall, who became superintendent in 2017. “My predecessors put in years of research and discussion before that decision was made and before a vision for building this building was built.”
Some Mahomet-Seymour district residents have criticized the sale of Sangamon — now known as Sangamon on Main and serving as a site for a growing collection of businesses — particularly for a price significantly lower than the approximate assessment of $2 million.
“It is rare, super rare, to ever sell an old school building. Ever,” Hall said. “I have worked in districts where they have been auctioned off for basically free. There’s the value of it and then there’s what potentially really happens in terms of trying to sell it.
“It was assessed at X amount, and the district did have to lower the price a number of times,” she added. “To sell a school building for $750,000 to a buyer who wants to commercially develop and enhance the space and the property is amazing. Location, location, location. It’s an awesome location.”
Hall disagrees with the thought process that the district’s sale of Sangamon was a negative move.
“I would encourage people — if they’re of the thought pattern of somehow we got ripped off (to look at other districts and similar sales) — most places sell school buildings for like $50 to get them off their hands. Or they keep them, it becomes an eyesore, or they pay for demolition. So demolishing a building like that would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“That discussion I would have to refute a little bit. This was super unique in a very positive way.”
She listed other reasons for the sale of Sangamon.
“In looking ahead and just visioning and planning for the future, it made sense to build this building (Middletown Prairie), where we do have space to grow, and I think that if we had kept Sangamon, that maybe folks might forget that we’re still responsible for upkeep, utilities. If we were to open it and use it for space, we would need personnel to be there, we would need school buses … I mean, it’s just not as simple as saying, ‘Well if we had Sangamon we’d have space.’
“I understand that the closing of an old building and selling it can be — there’s a lot of emotional attachment to it. My own children went to Sangamon. I get it. I love the building. They had a great experience there. It was part of the fabric of our community. But I think the owners now have kept the name, they’ve kept the symbolism and integrity of the front part that they’re renovating. Yes, that part of the building was newer, but this was a decision made with a lot of research and a vision and plan for the future.”
During spring school board elections, in which three newcomers were elected to the Mahomet-Seymour district board and two incumbents were ousted, student population was discussed in relation to current facilities and the change away from Sangamon school. Also, there was talk about Middletown Prairie already being full. Hall said that’s not the case.
“It’s not. We do have extra classrooms,” she said. “If you think about what that means — in terms of enrollment increasing — we’re looking at about, give or take, around 1 percent enrollment growth per year, so let’s just say that’s around 40 students per year districtwide. We would have to have a pretty high concentration of those students coming here (to Middletown Prairie) — which, sometimes they do, because people move here when their kids are young — but to add a whole new section of, let’s say, kindergarten, we would need a significant influx of kids just at that grade level.
“We do have spare classrooms that we can put more sections in if we need to do that,” Hall added. “But we would have to have an explosion of growth in order for this building to fill up for next year. That would be concerning to me. We would need like 60 kids just coming to this building. That would be really unique.
“We do have space here. The building that’s really out of space is the junior high. Lincoln Trail still has a couple spaces that we could add sections if we needed to. We will need to start looking at creative use of space at Lincoln Trail. But the junior high is really the place that is feeling the strain of a lot of kids there. We know that and know that as our enrollment continues to grow, that we’ve got to be looking and planning to the future.”
According to Hall, as the community of Mahomet grows and the Mahomet-Seymour school district also adds students, the two go hand-in-hand on many levels. She praised the commercial growth she’s seen and the guidance of village leaders.
“What works for schools really well is when there’s a nice blend of residential development and commercial development,” she said. “If you don’t have the commercial part of it — and I know that since we’re talking about growth some people are … of the opinion ‘let’s keep it small town,’ like ‘stay out businesses’ and things like that. But we’ve had, from what I can tell, just very kind of intentional, thoughtful commercial growth.
“This is not a haphazard, willy nilly any kind of business can just come and set up shop. You’ve got really nice commercial facilities that are available, you’ve got Sangamon On Main, you’ve got Churchill Crossing … you’ve got WesPark … you’ve got vibrant, beautiful commercial space,” Hall said. “I get the question of, ‘well, why aren’t these filling up?’ I think it’s because there’s a lot of thought and there’s a process into figuring out who’s going to move there, and having it be a viable, long-term commitment to business.”
She said local residents should keep in mind the benefits of commercial growth to not just the community as a whole but to the school system and taxpayers specifically.
“I understand — this has a small town, quaint feel, but when you don’t have commercial growth, then the burden falls on residential taxpayers to foot the bill,” Hall said. “The commercial growth expands the EAV, the property values go up, the value of everyone’s property value goes up, and we are able to keep the tax rate steady.
“I think that sometimes people just need to maybe consider the alternative. If our EAV isn’t growing, it’s either staying steady or declining, which is not good for schools or property taxpayers. Because we’re going to have to raise the tax rate to make up for money we’re not getting. The commercial growth has been a wonderful thing for Mahomet.
“When I lived here before, the town was dry, we had Arby’s and Monical’s and Peking House. I don’t think that anyone would dispute … the downtown now compared to what it used to be is amazing and vibrant and fun.
“I just feel like this isn’t out of control. This isn’t a bad thing. But I understand people have different opinions about it.”