Board believes now is time to build before schools are overrun

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign school board members present a united front as they face the challenge of selling their March 21 bond issue to voters.

At issue: a $66 million building package to construct three new elementary schools, air-condition and refurbish old elementary schools and lay the groundwork for a second referendum to move work up to the middle and high school level.

If voters approve that action, it will cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $42 a year – more as assessments increase.

Board members say the time is right to tackle the long list of building needs, in part because the needs are great and in part because the district's under pressure from the federal government to add seats north of University Avenue.

"The more I thought about buying land for a new high school, the more I remembered how hard it was to find property for Stratton at the last minute," board member Arlene Blank said Tuesday, backing off her original objections to including $1 million for a new high school site in the plan.

"We did short-term thinking then," said Blank, a former district administrator. "This district can't wait to build schools. I'm dropping my objection to the future high school site. I can live with that. It's something the district needs. The children and future children need a quality education. The achievement gap is shrinking. Now we need to eliminate the facilities gap."

"We're going to see rapid growth, and I want to attract those new students to our schools," said board member Dave Tomlinson, who originally wanted to see the referendum price tag reduced. "I wanted to cut this down, but I looked at it and decided it's not fair to cut anyone. We need to prepare for growth. I'm 100 percent behind these numbers."

Superintendent Arthur Culver said he spent about 20 hours between the meeting Jan. 9, where differences emerged, and Tuesday, reviewing committee priorities and trying to convey the spirit of its work to board members.

"About 90 percent of what each board member wanted was there," Culver said. "I'd say, 'If what you want is in there, would it be possible for you to support other board members' positions?' It's quite an accomplishment to have 90 percent of what you want."

Chief financial officer Gene Logas said while Culver was networking, he and other officials worked with BLDD Architects to look more closely at the costs of building each of the three proposed schools – in northwest Champaign, on the Dr. Howard site in central Champaign and in Savoy on land donated by a builder there.

"We presented the numbers differently," Logas said. "We added the cost of air conditioning to the work at each school. It's hard to make accurate cost estimates because some of the work will extend into the future and we don't know what will happen with the labor market. But it's in everyone's best interests to fine-tune as much as you can, and I think these numbers are fair."

It's also in the district's best interests to get the work done in the three years after the bonds are issued by Stifel Nicolaus, a process that will cost $559,564. That's because any interest profits paid on invested bond funds have to be paid back after three years, Logas said.

Culver said board members finally united behind the idea that the district needs new buildings to give children and teachers a better educational environment.

"One thing that helped everyone come together is the fact that our needs are enormous and our board members really care about kids," Culver said. "Also, we explained the role of the bond oversight committee making sure the money is well spent. And we showed the commitment we have for future work at the middle schools and high schools."

He said board members also decided the district needs to upgrade its image.

"Most people coming into the community don't know what happens inside the schools," Culver said. "All they see is the buildings. Good facilities make them feel good about public schools. They make them feel like education's a priority here."

"A lot of this work is overdue," board member Margie Skirvin said. "We've watched our schools going down. We want to do it right."

The only work to be done beyond the elementary schools is at Central High, and Principal Bill Freyman said the expansion of the school's performing arts space is long overdue.

"Our performing arts program is huge and growing," Freyman said. "It's one of our strengths. We have a lot of very active parents, and we're all thrilled that our arts area is going to be enlarged. Now, when the marching band's practicing, there's barely room to slide a trombone slide."

Architects and construction managers won't determine schedules for the construction until they know voters have approved the building bond issues.

According to the Illinois Association of School Boards, voters are more likely to approve higher taxes for buildings than they are to approve other tax proposals. Since the association started tracking school referendums in November 1989, 58 percent of proposed bond issues passed and 38 percent of other tax rate proposals passed.

One question about the project that parents, community and board members have raised is about the need to build two new schools – room for more than 600 more elementary students – when existing elementary space isn't full, most notably at Stratton School, where 345 students attend a school built for 550 children.

However, the district's hands have been tied by a 2001 consent decree that required it to add at least 260 seats north of University Avenue, originally by this school year even though Stratton, which opened in 1998, and Garden Hills have more than 300 seats vacant.

Culver and board members say they hope parents who send their children to private schools will take another look at the facilities Champaign will offer; they also expect economic growth to lead to more students.

"We're going to see rapid growth, especially in the Curtis Road interchange area, and I want to attract those new students to our schools," Tomlinson said.

Culver said Champaign's growing rapidly. In 2005, for example, 581 building permits were issued for single-family and two-family housing units, more than triple the city's average the previous five years. And that doesn't count Savoy, where Village Manager Dick Helton estimates 100 to 120 new homes will be built in the village every year for the next 10 years. Helton expects the village population to grow from 6,000 to 10,000 in that time.

"I think the schools will be filled," Culver said. "You look at that growth and our success in student achievement at the elementary level, and you know we'll fill those seats up with people staying in the district because of our schools and moving here because of our excellent facilities."

The district is forming a referendum campaign committee, and the first meeting is at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Springer Center, 301 N. Randolph St. The district is prohibited by law from spending money on a campaign promoting the referendum; a private citizens group is not.

"We want voters to have data to make informed decisions," Culver said.

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