HeadStart unhappy with location of new Knox County Jail

by Norm Winick

Diann Gravino, Executive Director of West-Central Community Services, which operates the Head Start program in Knox, Warren and Henderson Counties, says that the new Knox County jail being constructed adjacent to her building, is raising some concerns. "State law says that ‘It shall be unlawful to build a jail within 200 feet of any building used exclusively for school purposes.’"

She says that she was confident the building wouldn’t be that close until footings were poured: "We were operating under the assumption that it would be within the law. When the footings were poured about two months ago, it was clear that it would be too close. we measured them to be only about 70 feet away. If the building itself was 200 feet away, we wouldn’t be so concerned. There’s a law here and we want to know what we do about that."

"I think there are good reasons not to put a jail near a school. We have concerns about security, lighting, the noises and voices the children will hear and the unsightly fence that’s being planned. We have tried to make our area aesthetically pleasing and they’re going to put up a chain link fence."

Gravino says that she’s raising the objection now because there are several issues that need to be determined and so that people in the future won’t ask "didn’t anybody know this was against the law? Why didn’t anybody question this?" While she didn’t feel comfortable saying that her attorney has threatened to sue Knox County, she did say that he has written a letter to County officials seeking a judicial resolution to the situation. "We’re honestly trying to work this out as amicably as possible. It’s a good opportunity for both groups to get together and work these things out. Paul [Mangieri, Knox County State’s Attorney and Chair of the Jail Building Committee] has met with our group and he’s been very friendly but there are issues that need to be resolved."

Among the issues in question is whether Head Start is a "school’ or a day-care facility. An opinion from Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, at Mangieri’s request, states, "we cannot determine, as a matter of law, whether the day care program which is the focus of your inquiry constitutes a ‘school.’" Ryan says that certification, courses of instruction, staff qualifications, licensing, instructional time and affiliations all need to be taken into consideration.

Gravino has no doubt that Head Start is a school. "We have other facilities that operate as day care but the one in Galesburg is a pre-school."

Besides determining the status of Head Start, the distance measurement parameters need to be resolved as well. Whether the 200 feet is measured from property line to property line, from front door to front door, from building to building, or from the rooms occupied by prisoners to rooms occupied by children, also may become important.

"I have been told that the area of the jail nearest our facilty will be administrative offices and that prisoners will be 200 feet or more away," said Gravino. "I don’t know if that’s good enough." She says that the architect even flip-flopped the building at an early stage of design so that it would comply with their interpretation of the law.

Gravino says she located her facility downtown because "it’s centrally located and has room for expansion. There were not a lot of licensable buildings available to us and we have a 20-year lease on this one. We had even been looking at adding an ‘Early Head Start’ program for the younger children but that’s on hold right now." Besides the local policy council, the federal government is also involved because they provided the funding to remodel the facility and there’s a landlord who hold the lease.

"Back in 1999 when we were looking at the site and I had been told by Mike Kroll of the Zephyr that Knox County owned the lot next to us and it could be a possible site for the new jail, I asked the Sheriff if that was possible and he said, ‘no.’"

Gravino says she’s still interested in resolving these issues amicably. A meeting has been set for October 24th with members of the Head Start Policy Council, Mangieri and Sheriff Jim Thompson.