Unit 4 looks to spring bond referendum

CHAMPAIGN – School officials are calling for a bond referendum next spring to improve school facilities and they're asking community members to help them determine priorities.

Committee members will help determine the content and fate of a referendum the Unit 4 district hopes to hold March 21, 2006. The proposal could call for bonds to pay for work that could range from major maintenance at some or all district schools to construction of new schools.

A $100,000 facilities study released earlier this year outlined several options for work to be done, at costs that ranged from about $47 million for urgent maintenance up to about $150 million, an option that would include new school construction.

"The facility review offered many different options and proposals and talked about the fact that the district could spend about $40 million on deferred maintenance," said Gene Logas, Champaign schools' chief financial officer.

But he said other factors add financial complications to that picture.

"It's been an unusually warm fall, and there have been a lot of complaints about air conditioning the school buildings," Logas said. "A third driving factor is the consent decree, which says we will add two new strands of seats north of University Avenue. That's more than 200 seats on the north side of town."

A strand is a continuum of classes from kindergarten through fifth grade. The consent decree is a legal agreement Champaign schools made to address complaints that black children didn't have educational opportunities equal to those of white children in the district.

Greg Novak, president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers, said he believes the facilities' priorities will be driven by the consent decree.

"The district agreed in 1998 to put an additional 220 seats north of University Avenue even though there's not the need for them there," Novak said. "The audit says those seats won't be needed there until 2011."

He said there's room at both Stratton and Garden Hills schools for more students, but the decree agreement says the space must be new, not at existing schools.

"We also have to look at where the district is growing very quickly, at places like Savoy," Logas said. "Because of all those factors, the board has commissioned the administration to put together a citizens' facility study committee to make a recommendation to board members about what projects at what costs might be put on a March 21 bond referendum."

A developer has offered free land in Savoy for a school, but the facilities study did not recommend building a school there.

The district is identifying committee members who will meet for the first time at 7 p.m. - Sept. 28 at the Mellon Building, 703 S. New St., C. Each school will name two committee representatives. Board members Arlene Blank and Minosca Alcantara, who was recently appointed to a vacant seat, will represent the board on the panel.

Logas said the committee will have 50 to 60 members who will "mirror the diverse nature of the community." They will include parents from every school, union representatives, community members who don't have children in the schools but pay taxes to the district and representatives of plaintiffs in the lawsuit that precipitated the consent decree.

Logas said the plan is to hold four or five meetings and wrap up discussions by mid-December because the deadline for March election ballot questions is mid-January.

"We hope we can reach a consensus," he said. "We'll give them lots of numbers about projects and estimated costs."

The committee's role will be advisory so board members can reject its findings, but Logas said board members really want to know what the community thinks, so rejection is not likely. He said the board may also conduct a telephone survey in the community to get a feel for public opinion.

Logas said on Monday, he sent out requests for qualifications from architectural firms that might be interested in participating in the work and requests for proposals from bond underwriting companies that could assist the district and help officials determine how much the referendum proposals would cost homeowners.

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