Nontraditional school could be housed in Woodstock's Old Courthouse

Kyle Kelly, with Renaissance Restoration, works on painting the outside of the dome at the Old Courthouse in Woodstock last month. Restoration on the 157-year-old courthouse is expected to be completed by the end of September.
Kyle Kelly, with Renaissance Restoration, works on painting the outside of the dome at the Old Courthouse in Woodstock last month. Restoration on the 157-year-old courthouse is expected to be completed by the end of September.

WOODSTOCK – A team of educators from the area wants to put a service learning-based private school in Woodstock’s historic Old Courthouse.

The proposal to modify the building to fit the nontraditional school – which would be free to its students – came in this week, in time to become a footnote at Tuesday night's discussion at the Woodstock City Council meeting about the other two proposals on the table.

But the council – which will decide the fate of the courthouse and the attached Sheriff’s House – hasn’t thoroughly reviewed the new proposal. It will first go before the RFP Review Advisory Committee.

Under the plan, “Cobblestone Community Prep” would open in the 2017-18 school year to middle school students and high school students “who desire to have a positive impact on [their] community, whether it be local, state, national or global.”

“Basically, all of the work that students do benefits the community,” said founder Stephanie Helfand, a Woodstock resident and the current assistant director of educational technology at Gurnee-based Warren Township High School.

Helfand said the school would be one of just a handful across the country to offer a free private education. Cobblestone, like the others, would operate through fundraising and donations from philanthropists.

“I just think that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “We have seen schools do this throughout the country.”

The proposal’s renovation timeline calls for the school to raise $9 million from 2014 to 2017.

Helfand added that the group’s plan to this point is “extremely limited,” because they had just three weeks to prepare it.

“We just wanted to have something in front of the City Council,” she said.
Councilman Mike Turner said Wednesday that his preliminary reaction is that a school doesn’t fit his vision for the historic space.

“It would not be my first choice,” Turner said. “I’m willing to listen, but I’m going to have to be convinced of it.”

The future of the conjoined buildings has only become murkier since a May deadline for private proposals, which netted interest from two very different investors. The first, a corporation in Texas, wants to acquire both buildings and renovate them for a residential-heavy mixed use. The second, a local man teaming with the owner of La Petite Creperie & Bistro next door, is interested solely in a purchase of the Sheriff's House.

The proposals have raised questions about whether council members would sell the two separately. Or if, under the right proposals, they would vote to separate them physically. Hard and fast answers were scarce Tuesday night.

“I think we’ve just got to be patient,” Councilman Mark Saladin said Wednesday. “I don’t know what that means – one year? Two years? Certainly, we want to have something exciting there.”

Saladin declined to comment on the Cobblestone proposal until the advisory committee offers an initial analysis.

Turner on Tuesday suggested another option – that the city keep the building. He said he could envision City Hall in the Old Courthouse.

“And in turn, does our current building as City Hall work better as something residential?” Turner said Wednesday. “I’m simply thinking out loud and thinking outside of the box.”

City Planner Nancy Baker said that the Old Courthouse “has been used for government purposes and could be again.” But she gave no definitive answer as to whether the current City Hall – which was built in 1906 – would fare better on the market.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I would want to hear what development experts had to say about it.”

Turner echoed that desire, but invited further discussion on the topic.

“We went out searching for a private solution,” he said. “As far as a full proposal goes, we got one. One private entity coming in with a private use. So that’s pretty limited.”

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