Culver tries to clear up confusion over remarks

CHAMPAIGN – Schools Superintendent Arthur Culver on Wednesday told parents his remarks last month about two "inefficient" Champaign schools don't mean they'll be closed.

South Side School parents attended a meeting of the newly formed facilities committee Wednesday to respond to Culver's Sept. 28 comments.

Culver said his remarks weren't directed specifically at the district's two smallest schools, South Side and Washington, and they weren't a veiled suggestion that the facilities committee should consider closing them.

"There was no mention of closing a school," Culver told about 40 parents attending the meeting of the new committee to hear more about plans for their schools.

"If the committee's looking at our older facilities, members could recommend making modifications, adding on to South Side or BTW (Booker T. Washington)," Culver said.

South Side parent Alan Chalifoux, an engineer who represents South Side on the committee, said parents want to preserve its neighborhood-school atmosphere.

"There's a special culture in Champaign schools," Chalifoux said. "I think a part of that culture would be destroyed by taking away our inner city schools. Children can walk to our school. Parents and kids hang out there. I want to make sure this committee doesn't center around getting more bricks and mortar in the district."

The committee's job is to look at Champaign schools' facilities needs, take consent decree requirements into consideration and come up with a plan in time to put a referendum for possible new schools on the ballot next March.

At its first meeting, Culver said, "One thing to remember is that two-strand schools are not efficient. Think about feasibility and efficient use of funds."

A strand is a continuum of classes from kindergarten through grade five, so a two-strand school would have two classes of each grade or total enrollment of about 200 students. A four-strand school like Barkstall School, on the other hand, houses more than 400 students.

Culver says he stands by his statement - that schools the size of - Washington and South Side schools are inefficient.

"What happens is you have twice the staff, the fuel and other costs," Culver said Wednesday. "It's cheaper to run a building with 500 students in it. But we're not saying we're going to close them. We are obliged by the consent decree to add two more strands on the north side of the city, and I'm saying to the committee I wouldn't recommend building another two-strand school there."

South Side parent Becky Kasten said parents want their school to remain small, open and a community asset.

"I know people who pay thousands of dollars to send their children to private schools because of the small class sizes there," Kasten said. " We get that with our tax dollars at South Side. We don't want to give that up. "

Rob Kanter, who has two children at the school, said he wants committee members to look at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency information exploring the impact of school siting.

"It says when you build big new schools far from students, fewer to no students walk or bike to school," Kanter said. "There's more traffic congestion and pollution. It's hard on children."

Parent Brenda Koenig said studies show large schools hurt minority and economically disadvantaged students. "If we're talking about the consent decree, you'd think small schools would be the way to bridge the achievement gap," Koenig said.

Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said such discussions become emotional because many people have attachments to their schools.

"Any time you want to improve facilities, someone doesn't like it," Shepperd said. "They don't like it if you don't build in Savoy. If you don't build up north, you run into the consent decree. A 100-year-old building has a history and sentimental attachments."

"But look at the facts," she said. "You can have a principal for 200 kids or one for 600 kids. You can have buses or food service for 200 kids or 600 kids. We're talking about inefficiencies in operations, not in the quality of instruction. But ultimately schools belong to the people in the community, and if they want to pay, that's up to them."

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