3 new grade schools proposed

CHAMPAIGN – A Champaign school district committee is calling for three new grade schools, including one in Savoy, in recommending a $68 million plan that voters would have to approve in March.

Facilities committee members spent three hours Wednesday listing priorities, arguing and horse-trading to come up with a compromise plan to address building needs of Champaign schools.

The plan calls for construction of three new elementary schools, including the long-debated school at Savoy.

Meanwhile, the total cost of the work the district wants to do has gone up to the $170 million range. However, architects and bond underwriters hired by the district to promote plans advised citizens' committee members to do the work in phases.

Committee members have been meeting since September to come up with a proposed building bond referendum for the March election.

"It's clear from polls we've conducted that it will be difficult to win a referendum that costs much more than $60 million," said Bob Miner of bond underwriters Stifel Nicolaus. "To have a $130 to $150 million referendum would be quite a challenge for us."

Plans presented to committee members Wednesday were based on their work last week that produced three lists of priorities ranging in cost from $87 million to about $150 million.

The final plan drafted by the committee would cost about $68 million. It calls for:

– Purchase of land for a new high school.

– Construction of athletic fields on that land.

– Improvements of fine arts facilities at Central High School.

– Construction of one new school at Savoy, one on the Dr. Howard site and a third north of University Avenue.

– About $16 million worth of renovations to all the other elementary schools.

– $3 million worth of renovations at Washington School.

– Safety and security work at the elementary schools.

– Air-conditioning existing elementary schools and installing ceiling fans in some middle and high school classrooms.

Miner said it makes sense to try to hold a referendum to do work at the elementary level first, but also to set the stage for the next step, a second phase to be approved by a second referendum that would address needs at the middle and high school level. That would include construction of a new high school on the land purchased in phase one.

District estimates of the money needed to pay for phase two: $100 million.

"It's clear from the poll any phase must benefit the entire community," Miner said. "If not, a referendum is bound to fail. It's also clear that energy efficiency and air conditioning are high on the community's agenda, lots higher a priority than new schools."

All three of the committee members' initial priority lists eliminated air conditioning because of its high cost, $21 to $28 million, and the limited time it's used.

Before the compromising started in earnest, members divided into four groups and listed their phase one priorities, that ranged in cost from about $54 million to about $116 million.

Superintendent Arthur Culver said he worries that district overspending discovered last year has eroded public trust in the way the schools handle their money."

"If we show we can do well with $60 million, then we can go back later for more when we can show we've earned trust," said Culver. He said the district's also exploring the idea of drafting cooperative agreements with the Champaign Park District to do more with land at Dr. Howard and Washington schools, using resources of both taxing bodies.

"We'll have trust issues with us whether we go for $65 million or $165 million," said Phil Van Ness, a member of the group that came up with the $116 million plan and former school board member. "We think we might as well ask for a lot and get something done."

The toughest debate focused on whether the district should build a new school on the north side of town, and if so, where, or whether it should add more space to Washington and Garden Hills schools north of University Avenue to fulfill consent decree requirements.

"I think we have to look at things long-term," said Michael Miller, a parent of two Stratton School students. "The population's growing northwest, and we'll need a school there soon, something that's going to last and be useful."

"I have a real problem with putting a wing on Garden Hills," said school board member Arlene Blank, a member of one group. "I have a strong feeling Washington needs to be renovated. I think putting a new school north, building a new Dr. Howard and renovating Washington will serve this community well."

Culver said it's not easy to sort through all the options and come up with the right plan.

"This community is different," he said. "I've been involved with bond referendums before and this is a different scene. What works in one place doesn't always work in another. With all the delayed maintenance and building, the needs are so great. I don't think it's wise to tackle everything at one time. It makes sense to break it into chunks and that gives us a chance to show taxpayers we're responsible with money, to repair our image."

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