Champaign schools panel begins assessing needs

Champaign schools panel begins assessing needs

CHAMPAIGN – Superintendent Arthur Culver urged members of a new facilities study committee to regard the task ahead as "an awesome opportunity."

"You have lots of responsibility," he told the group of about 40, including parents, educators and community members. The committee met Wednesday to start reviewing all Champaign schools to determine what work needs to be done and eventually to recommend whether the district should seek a bond issue that would require voter approval next spring.

"We're working with the community's most precious resource, our children," Culver said. "This community embraces education and wants the best for its children. What the group decides to do is achievable. Look at obstacles as steppingstones, not stopping stones. Look at obstacles as detours, not dead-end streets. The needs are great, and it's time, past time."

Culver also suggested committee members need to take a look at efficiency, targeting in particular the district's two smallest schools, Washington and South Side.

"Two-strand buildings are not efficient," Culver said. "Think about feasibility and efficient use of funds." A strand is a continuum of classes from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Chief financial officer Gene Logas said committee members will review needs at a series of meetings to be concluded with an action recommendation in December. The cornerstone of the review will be a facilities study, conducted two years ago and released to the public last summer, that outlines needs at each school and options for meeting them.

"Your job is to deliver a plan," Logas said. "You're here to give legitimate advice, not serve as a (referendum) campaign committee. You're part of a process bringing all parties to the table."

He said information to be reviewed will include the district's consent decree, the facilities study, the energy efficiency and air-conditioning status of all schools, community growth patterns and costs of recommended options.

For a referendum recommendation to meet the deadline for the March election, the school board will have to act by its Jan. 17, 2006, meeting, Logas said.

Sally Scott, an attorney with Champaign's Chicago area attorneys, said the consent decree obligations lock it into one key requirement: The district has promised to add two elementary strands, or capacity for about 260 children, north of University Avenue as soon as possible.

Even though that much space is available at Garden Hills and Stratton schools, it doesn't count because the decree agreement was final in 2003 and the space must be added after that time. Stratton, which opened in 1998 and was built for 550 students, has 345 students. Garden Hills has space for one strand.

"Is the judge aware that enrollment is actually declining in Champaign schools?" said committee member Phil Van Ness, a former board member, suggesting the possibility that the district could negotiate with its court-appointed overseer to modify those space requirements.

Dawn Spivey, also a district lawyer, said the court monitors district enrollment.

She said committee members will also have to take a close look at the controlled choice program that allows parents of elementary children to pick schools they want their children to attend, a process that's completed by a computer-based lottery.

Culver described the shortcomings of landlocked Central High School, but he also said having just one high school isn't an option because that school would be too large and "kids could fall through the cracks."

The committee meets next at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Mellon Building, 703 S. New St.

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