Champaign schools' building plan not yet final

CHAMPAIGN – Under intense deadline pressure, Champaign School Board members are reviewing building options in order to design a package for voters to consider in March.

They meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday – two days before the deadline to submit referendum proposals for the March 21 ballot – to hash out that final plan, and negotiations about what's in and what's out are likely to continue right up to the meeting at 703 S. New St.

At deadline, new playing fields for Champaign Central High School looked like they were on the way out.

"I think Dave Tomlinson's concerns about putting new playing fields in a remote location are valid," said Board President Scott Anderson of that board member's objections at Monday's meeting. "It would be nice to have that site, but I don't know if that will make the cut."

A $7.4 million proposal to put air-conditioning in elementary schools also appeared to be imperiled.

"I think air conditioning's up in the air at this point," said Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer who guided a citizens' committee that drew up the list of priorities. "I think it's viewed as not a bad idea but other needs are more important."

Tomlinson, who also expressed concerns about air conditioning at the board's Jan. 9 meeting, said he thinks board members Tuesday will endorse the plan to build a north-end school and one at Savoy and rebuild Dr. Howard.

"But I can see the total amount of the referendum being reduced by $10 to $12 million," he said. "Taking away the athletic fields reduces it to $61 million and eliminating air conditioning takes away another $7 million and you're in the mid-$50 million range. I'd like to see that."

Anderson stirred the pot this week by proposing changes that included building themed schools for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, eliminating the need for one middle school. But he said it was too late in the process and too close to the deadline to make that kind of bold change."What I had was too dramatic," Anderson said.

He said he thinks cutting air conditioning would be a penny-wise but pound-foolish idea. "There's a lot of talk about it, but our experts say if we're ever going to do it, we should do it while we're making renovations or it will be a major overhaul," Anderson said.

Arlene Blank, who served on one citizens' committee, voiced very specific objections at last Monday's meeting. She supports building two new schools and replacing Dr. Howard, preferably if the district works out a land trade with the Champaign Park District to put the new school on the Eisner Park site.

"I have no problem with that as long as it's a three-strand school," Blank said. "I will not support the building of two-strand schools or reducing Bottenfield and Westview to two strands, although I don't think it would hurt to downsize Robeson. If you're asking taxpayers for money to build new schools, why decrease capacity, especially in popular schools like Bottenfield?"

She's in favor of elementary air conditioning, and she has gathered information to show that a new school built in northwest Champaign would be as convenient for the black families who live north of University Avenue as one built on the city's northeast side.

"I asked for information about how many African-American students live in various sections of the city, with Prospect and University avenues as the dividers," Blank said. "Preliminary numbers show more living in the northwest quadrant than the northeast, although it's very close."

She said she wants to see any projects related to Central – new playing fields and a proposed fine arts addition – deleted from the proposal.

Margie Skirvin, who attended most of the citizen's committee meetings, said she was "flabbergasted" at board members' reactions on Jan. 9 to the proposed building plan.

"We were all coming from different places," Skirvin said. "We don't have tons of time to get this right. The committee plan was rushed, but it brought ideas together and gave me a good sense of what voters want. I think voters might go for this package."

"I think there's work to be done, and I plan to talk to some board members to bring them up to speed because they may not have some of the information," she said. "We need to get on the same page by Tuesday. It would be totally irresponsible not to propose a referendum."

Skirvin said she'd like people who want to express concerns or support to e-mail their comments to board members at u4boe@champaignschools.org.

Blank said she thinks board members can come together by the deadline. Anderson is not sure.

"I want to make sure we have what we really need for the long term," Anderson said. "I'd like to see us be creative and solve problems, but we're on a tight timeline. I don't know what will happen Tuesday. Everyone has different opinions and to expect they'll all agree on priorities isn't very realistic. I expect a lot more discussion."

"The one thing I think will happen Tuesday is the board will reach a decision," Logas said. "I have a fix on some things likely to make the final list. I'll be very surprised if they don't go along with three new elementaries and probably major renovations to existing schools. That gets us to $50 million right there. After that it will be interesting to see what board members do."

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