CHAMPAIGN - School board members Monday approved a general concept - but not a specific plan - to balance Champaign middle school attendance racially and numerically.
The unanimous vote to endorse the "cluster" concept came five hours after the meeting started.
But many questions remain unanswered, including which elementary schools will be paired with which middle schools and how much local input will play into that decision.
An elementary school choice system was started in Unit 4 because civil rights monitors ordered the district to balance attendance racially. The concept approved Monday would put the district's 11 elementary schools into three groups or "clusters" linked to the three middle schools.
"For 30 years, African-American students were bused to the south end of town," board President Scott Anderson said. "The court has ordered us to make a decision about the middle schools in May. There are a lot of holes, but the judge will make it if we don't."
Superintendent Arthur Culver made it clear that the district's under the gun and doesn't have the time to wait for more information, like facilities surveys which are about to be conducted, before adopting a model in concept.
"We need to adopt the concept, not the plan," he said. "We'll flesh out the details later, what schools, transportation logistics. Adoption will show good faith by the board. We're past the (court's) deadline. We were supposed to be at this point six months ago. It's clear if we don't move forward, we'll be back in court, and we could lose control of this process."
But some parents from Savoy who don't like the elementary school choice system aired their grievances and their opposition to making changes at the middle school level too.
"There are so many issues outstanding," parent Nancy Ikenberry, whose children attend Dr. Howard School, said just before the board voted on the middle school action. "Parents are already unhappy with the elementary school system."
Savoy residents have no elementary school in their neighborhood, so they don't get proximity preference.
"My child was told he was a white student so he couldn't go to Dr. Howard," said Colleen Cassity of Savoy. "If a minority child was told the same thing, it would be national news. Linking the elementary schools with middle schools means we're not getting choice upfront all the way to high school. It's about forced choices, not choosing."
The cluster model would address district concerns, especially about enrollment at Jefferson Middle School, where average class size is about 30 and enrollment is expected to continue to grow because housing in southwest Champaign and Savoy continues to expand.
Models described at a meeting last week show four elementary schools would be clustered with each of two middle schools and three with the third. School officials and Michael Alves, a consultant helping the district apply his choice model to the elementary schools, said they can't make any guarantees about how those clusters would be formed.
However, Culver said he hopes proximity would play some role, and Anderson said 45 minutes each way is the maximum time a child should spend on a bus.
"Transportation is a huge issue," said board member Jeff Wampler said. "I need to know how much this will cost. I think we're headed down the road to allocating kids in high schools. We may have to change boundaries, and I think we should come up with boundary changes now. I also think it's very important that siblings be able to attend the same schools."
Carol Lynn Hassan, a Savoy parent, asked for guarantees that all children in an elementary school would all be able to attend their clustered middle school. Culver told her that's the plan, but board member Nicole Storch refused to be held to any guarantees, noting that the district's track record isn't very good.
"I heard Dr. Alves say if there's (middle school) overcapacity, there will be another lottery," Storch said. "He's flying by the seat of his pants. He doesn't have to look at your faces. I do. I won't give you any guarantees."
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.