DECATUR, Ill. (WCIA) – Students haven’t walked the halls of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School since 1979. The Decatur Public School District is now debating whether to use the property for a new project, but that could mean tearing it down.

Decatur school leaders say they need a new Dennis Lab school building to make more space for students. They have a choice to make: preserve and renovate Woodrow Wilson, tear it down to rebuild, or find a new location altogether. But, they say they’re running out of options.

It’s not the only location the board has considered for the new building, but there aren’t many. Debates have gone on for weeks. It’s hard to find several acres in urban Decatur to build a new school, but the bigger challenge is getting everyone to agree.

“As nice as that building was in its heyday, if there was something that could be done with it… but it’s not something that we can do,” Decatur Public School Board President Dan Oakes said.

To some, the empty Woodrow Wilson building is a symbol of former elegance and current potential. To others, it’s been lost to time.

“I’m going to guess unless somebody comes up and buys it, I imagine it’ll be demolished,” Oakes said.

He calls the place a “money pit.” That’s because as the board considers it for the Dennis Lab School’s new location, it sits filled with asbestos, a decaying roof and a decades-old building.

“With the cost of rehabbing, I don’t see that as a potential,” Oakes said.

Monday’s board meeting discussion came after a proposal to build the school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which was quickly criticized by the people who live there.

“That was just a bad plan all the way around. I heard pretty much no one who thought that was a good idea,” Jerome Pelz said.

Pelz lives there, and he feels the board should have been more transparent.

“The first time we knew something about it was when people were down there painting the trees, and putting numbers on trees,” Pelz said.

But Oakes said it’s a big project with a $38 million price tag. He wants to assure the community that the board is taking time to get things right. Pelz said the meeting was a “step in the right direction.”

“It was kind-of exhausting, but it was certainly educational also… At least I heard some openness today. I heard some discussion going on,” Pelz said.

Nothing has been decided yet. The board said discussions will continue, but they hope to have everything completed by Semptember 2024.