CHAMPAIGN – Kristine Chalifoux, who has two children in Champaign schools, doesn't get the math.
"To me, it doesn't work," Chalifoux said of Champaign school officials' $66 million proposal to build two new elementary schools and replace a third.
By her calculations, the district already has between 300 and 400 empty seats.
"That's basically a two-strand school we have sitting vacant," said Chalifoux, an architect whose husband, Alan, served on the district committee that recommended the new grade schools in December. "We're paying to staff them, we're paying utilities on them, we're paying money for them."
There's enough overall capacity in elementary and middle schools to hold anticipated increases in enrollment for years, according to a survey of facilities during the 2003-04 school year. The high schools are where the space crunch is, according to the survey by James McDonough of Legat Architects of Crystal Lake.
School officials and committee members are asking voters March 21 to approve $66 million in building bonds to build the new elementary schools and do extensive work at most other grade schools.
But scores of seats sit empty in a nearly new grade school on the near north side of Champaign and at a second, older school to the northwest. The biggest enrollment swing in the past five school years was a drop of 109 students – and that was less than 2 percent of the overall enrollment.
Supporters of the tax increase say new schools would be more suited to modern educational needs. And they predict more students are on the way; to delay, they say, would be more costly.
"This is as much about high-quality learning space and equality as it is about growth," said Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd, adding that most current elementary schools were built before programs like special education increased space needs.
"I think this plan's good for the community," said Mark Ritz of BLDD Architects, an architect and parent with children attending school in Champaign who's also serving on the campaign committee to promote the bond issue. "I'm surprised at how long it's taken Unit 4 to take bold steps to do work long overdue."
Ritz's firm is performing pre-referendum architectural work and has deferred compensation, an estimated $50,000, until after election day. If the ballot question is rejected, his firm's costs become part of the costs for future construction north of University Avenue required by the district's consent decree.
Superintendent Arthur Culver said new schools should also attract people to the community and might draw back parents who have put their children in private schools. He said enrollment in Unit 7 schools, which is less than a sixth the size of Champaign's enrollment, jumped by almost 100 children in 2002-03 when the district opened two new elementary schools and a new junior high.
Culver said he also gets a lot of feedback from people who misunderstand or don't like the schools of choice program.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding. If we want to move this district from good to excellent, we have to address three things: achievement, discipline and facilities. We're on the right road with achievement and with elementary discipline."
The building proposal doesn't address high school space needs but sets aside $1 million to buy land for a new high school to be built sometime in the future, after another referendum.
Plenty of room
McDonough based his high school and elementary school conclusions on demographic work prepared by Robert Dentler, a former University of Massachusetts sociologist.
After paying $100,000 for the Legat survey, which was released last March after long delays, district officials picked BLDD Architects for a new study. BLDD's survey did not include demographics, but Ritz, who works for the firm, said the architects used the Legat study.
The Legat study said, taking birth rates and Dentler's demographics into consideration, there are enough seats in Champaign elementary schools to accommodate students through 2010. McDonough addressed the district's legal agreement requiring it to add 240 seats on the city's north side.
"Based on construction of two new strands required by the consent decree, K-5 enrollment will not exceed the capacity of the district until after 2013," he said.
That work was supposed to be done by the current school year even though there are enough seats open in two schools, Stratton and Garden Hills, but a surprise $4 million budget shortfall discovered in 2004 prevented officials from doing so. The district asked the judge monitoring the district for an extension, but so far, the judge hasn't responded.
The Legat study shows enrollment at the middle schools, projected to be 2,155 by 2013, will exceed capacity – 2,082 – for the first time that year.
Enrollment already has exceeded capacity at Centennial High, and Central's enrollment is approaching the mark. McDonough said the two high schools were built to hold 2,673 students, 183 fewer than actual enrollment in 2003 and 136 fewer than the projected 2013 number, 2,809 students.
Educators and architects base ideal high school occupancy at 85 percent of capacity because students and teachers move from class to class. Elementary schools fill to capacity, and middle schools are somewhere between the two, depending on mobility in the schools.
McDonough said at Centennial, where the optimum capacity was 1,227, actual enrollment was 1,483. At Central, where capacity is 1,446, enrollment was 1,343.
"Unless new or substantial renovated parts of high school facilities are built, competition from the private high schools is likely to intensify declines in white enrollments by 2008," he said.
Champaign schools' legal agreement requires the district to offer school choice at the elementary level so students don't necessarily attend neighborhood schools. That's moved up to the middle school level because specific elementaries are paired with specific middle schools.
But almost all students attend the high school nearer their residence.
"The location of Centennial suggests it will absorb residential growth from both the south and west, whereas Central would only be proximate to growth due north," McDonough wrote.
He said if growth continues to the north in Ashland Park subdivision, the northwest in Boulder Ridge and Sawgrass subdivisions, the west in Ironwood West, Chestnut Creek and Trail's Edge subdivisions and the south in Savoy, "it may justify the construction of additional capacity."
But, McDonough said, that's beyond the scope of his projections through 2013.
Recent history shows relatively flat enrollment in Champaign schools even though the city and Savoy have added several new subdivisions. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, in 1998, about 8,916 students attended Champaign schools; last year, it was 8,950.
Ritz said demographic studies just count seats scattered across the district in different classrooms and don't take use into consideration. He said some schools must use gyms as cafeterias, and they're bursting at the seams because they have to schedule physical education and other group activities around the cafeteria schedule.
More students coming?
Culver said planning committee members sent clear directions to the administration: Think ahead.
"You can't just wait until kids appear to make room for them," he said, citing projections for subdivisions, Savoy's history of growth and the construction of the Curtis Road interchange opening up new residential space.
"You have to be proactive," Culver said. "It will be more expensive to build in five years. It's coming, and we'd better be ready."
He and other district officials said at schools like Dr. Howard, space is so impractical or at such a premium, teachers have to share classrooms and work in halls.
"We're trying to put 21st-century programs that use 21st-century technology in 1950s schools," Shepperd said.
Chief financial officer Gene Logas said officials are looking at least two 10-acre sites north of University Avenue as a location for one of the new elementary schools. They hope to announce that location at a meeting later this month.
A second school would be built on 5 acres donated by developer Randy Peifer at the intersection of Sunflower Drive and Prairie Rose Lane in Savoy. A third school would replace Dr. Howard, one of the oldest in the district. Logas said the Savoy and north Champaign schools could be completed by the 2007-08 school year, but at least one of them likely would house Dr. Howard students for a year while that school is razed and rebuilt.
It's likely students and staff members at other schools might have to move temporarily into space at existing schools or new schools while extensive work is completed at their buildings.
The decree's effects
Because of the consent decree, McDonough also looked at data to see if there's enough room in existing schools to accommodate children who would attend if the district sent children to neighborhood schools. He found there was room in schools both north and south of University Avenue to accommodate students in the neighborhood.
However, because all gifted students are bused to programs in schools north of University, they displace 220 students who live in those neighborhoods.
McDonough said his findings that the district didn't need to build more space on the north side of the city caused a stir among consent decree monitors.
"Emotions run high in Champaign because of the consent decree," McDonough said, noting that officials are caught in the middle because on one hand, they're squeezed by promises to build two strands north of University and on the other hand by Savoy residents who want a school there.
"You're talking about building room for more than 700 elementary kids," he said of current plans. "How long before you'll get that many new kids? It's not on the charts.
"I think Arthur Culver and district officials work hard to do what's right for kids. But they're handcuffed by the community, politics and lawsuits."
Chalifoux said when she adds the number of seats now vacant in the district to the minimum number of seats that would be available in the new schools, she comes up with about 1,000 empty seats.
"Even if we hit our projections and fill our current capacity by 2011, we'll still have 600 empty seats that year," she said. "That's more than a whole school of kids."
Chalifoux suggests the district wait to launch its building project.
"I think they need to go back to the drawing board and think of new ways to spend our money and come back to us another time – come back with something reasonable," she said.