Tracy Swanson giggled excitedly, watching her daughters stand in front of a crowd of dignitaries gathered in an empty field behind the Quad-City Downs in East Moline.
When it was time, 10-year-old Hanna Swanson pushed a golden shovel into the ground with all her might, as her sister, 5-year-old Isabel, huddled shyly next to her.
Their mother couldn’t have felt more proud.
Now, the Silvis girls will be able to tell people they helped dig one of the first piles of dirt to begin construction of a $14 million middle school for the Silvis School District, Swanson said.
The project also clears the way for the district to make improvements to its decaying George O. Barr School, which houses students from kindergarten through eighth grade, officials said Wednesday during the groundbreaking at the site near old Illinois 5.
“I think it’s about time,” Tracy Swanson said. “We see the buckets of water where the rain drops in at the school. It’s time because we really need a new school.”
This day was 10 years — and lots of hard work, letter-writing, email-sending and prayers — in the making, Superintendent Ray Bergles said during the ceremony, adding that maybe all the struggle will help the school district appreciate the new school even more.
Construction plans have been in the works since 2001, when the district qualified for a state school-construction grant — but that money never came through. Then, in 2004, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich visited Silvis, promised funding for the project. But that money never appeared, either.
Now, not only is the district ready to go forward with the project, but it also found out that the state plans to come through with additional funding to help pay for major renovations at George O. Barr, Bergles said.
“We’ll have two excellent buildings,” he said.
The middle-school site — surrounded by a neighborhood of modest homes and the backside of the horse track property — was chosen several years ago, Bergles said.
Right now, George O. Barr is located on about 12 acres of land. The state says schools should have a minimum of 25 acres for the size of school that Silvis is planning to build, he said.
The chosen property has 35 acres — plenty for the current construction, with room for expansion — and is centrally located in the district, which draws students from East Moline, Silvis and Port Byron, he said.
When planning for the project began in 2000, the Silvis district had dreams to build a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade building, and the cost estimate was $16 million. But as time passed, while the district waited for its funding, construction costs rose significantly.
So, the school district scaled back its plan and decided on a middle school for grades 6 through 8 only, which brought the project down to $14 million.
Construction is expected to take a year. When the middle school’s 200 students move to it, work will begin on renovating George O. Barr with additional funds coming from the state.
About a week ago, the state approved a bill that gives 23 school districts that have waited all this time for school construction money an “inflation escalator,” which means they will get more money than expected for their projects, Bergles said.
This will be the first time since the 1960s that the Silvis district will have two separate schools. All students have been housed at George O. Barr, which is made up of about four or five separate additions, he said.
Parts of that school are decaying from below, where tunnels were built underneath to access water and sewage pipes. Those tunnels are decaying, causing water backups and other problems that keep getting worse.
The worst parts of the existing building will be demolished, but the best parts will be saved and remodeled.
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“We’re going to redo almost everything,” Bergles said. “We’re putting in geothermal at the new school and we’re going to see if it’s feasible here for the retro-fit because, again, by law, we have to be green. And secondly, geothermal is where it’s at in terms of a payback to taxpayers. That’s really important. We want to be good stewards.”
He said it will take three or four years to complete the middle school construction and George O. Barr renovation.
About 80 percent of the middle school’s construction will be done by local contractors, with project management provided by Estes Construction, Davenport. The design team includes BLDD Architects of Davenport, and KJWW Engineers and Missman-Stanley Engineers of Rock Island.
The bids also came in 7 percent below the district’s expectations, the superintendent said.
On Wednesday, the superintendent thanked neighbors of the new site for their “input and patience.” But no one complained during the groundbreaking, where three eighth-graders — all officers of the middle school student council — talked about how lucky the younger students will be to get a new school.
“Instead of being with the younger kids, they’ll have their own school,” 14-year-old Sam Saucedo said. “The one we have now needs a lot of repairs.”
Then, he took a turn with the golden shovel, too.