CHAMPAIGN – If voters approve a tax increase on the March 21 ballot to build three new elementary schools, district officials are ready to take fast action.
"We'll hit the ground running," Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas said. "We'll let bid packages for the northwest and Savoy schools within a couple of weeks. We'll get moving on them as soon as possible, and I hope we're building by late summer so they can be enclosed by winter."
If the $66 million proposal doesn't pass, district officials would have to regroup, Logas said.
He said they'd look carefully at the current proposal and reactions to its various elements to decide whether to try again in November, a decision to be made by the school board.
They'd also take a close look at the consent decree that requires the district to build more classroom space north of University Avenue, action already overdue.
"We have made a good-faith effort to add the space, but if we lose, will the judge see it that way?" Logas said. "If he does, we've met the obligation. But if he doesn't, we might see an extension of the consent decree that's cost us millions in legal fees."
Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said attorneys who represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree have said they're not likely to let the district off the hook. That means the district might have to look at adding classroom space at Garden Hills School. Logas said that's not a good alternative.
"We'd have to use working cash bonds, and that would create a very large school," he said. "If we do nothing and growth begins, class sizes will increase and that doesn't improve student achievement."
"That would really upset me," said Phil Van Ness, a former school board and facilities committee member who's co-chairman of the U4 Excellence group promoting the bond issue. "At the end of the day, you're not doing anything for the other 9,000 students in the district."
Said Shepperd: "The most important consequence if the referendum doesn't pass is children and teachers will continue working in inappropriate space."
Logas said two of the proposed new schools – one to be located at the intersection of Sunflower Street and Prairie Rose Lane in Savoy and the second at a location to be announced soon in northwest Champaign – would be prototypes, tested models, so construction can proceed quickly and design costs will be lower, Logas said.
"They will be schools the architects have designed before so there's less design time," he said.
"That's the only way they can be done on time; they will be done by the 2007-08 school year."
That's important because of the third major portion of the plan: the reconstruction of Dr. Howard school, which will not be a prototype.
"We're going to have a new building there that fits into the neighborhood," Logas said. "Doc Howard will come tumbling down at the end of the 2006-07 school year, and work will begin after that so we can open it for the 2008-09 school year."
The building will be three stories high and fully accessible. Logas said the district will ask for community design comments so it will fit in with the older architecture surrounding it.
Playground space will be reduced slightly, and children still will use Eisner Park when they need extra space, he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Howard students and staff members will move into the new northwest school while theirs is under construction.
Logas said he believes the Savoy school will fill up quickly with students who live in the village and with new students who pick the school, which will be added to the kindergarten assignment lottery the March before it opens.
Shepperd said the district will bus Savoy students who live west of U.S. 45, so they won't have to cross traffic. But she said most of the scheduled village growth is on the east and south sides.
"It may cut down on bus traffic when there's a school there," she said. "Now you see several buses on a single street going to different schools."
While the schools are being built, BLDD Architects and a construction manager to be hired Monday night will stage the remodeling at the eight older elementary schools.
"Each is a separate project," Logas said. "I think we can do some of the architecture projects in the summers. Gyms are easy to design and build, and they're added on the outside of buildings, so work can probably go on during the school year."
He said work at the elementaries would take two or possibly three summers to complete.
"Some could be completed the summer of '07, some the summer of '08 and some could run to the summer of '09," he said adding the new construction manager would work out the details but district officials don't want to move children out of their schools. "The fewer disturbances, the better."
Logas is confident the schools will fill fast. He said plans call for downsizing Robeson School by four classrooms or about 90 students, creating a need for those new seats, and Champaign and Savoy housing start projections suggest students will be there to fill seats when Dr. Howard students move out of the new northwest school.
"But we've looked at all the options, and if we have space we might use it to relieve middle school overcrowding," Shepperd said.
Logas said there are no plans to close any district schools, even the smallest ones.
"We wouldn't do that after we spent $3 million to $5 million on them," he said.
Board member Margie Skirvin said she believes the district did an excellent job collecting community opinions about the proposed project and factoring in all the needs and concerns.
"There's a difference between solving a problem in the middle of it and planning ahead," Skirvin said. "This isn't about politics. Boy, is this overdue. And I think it's doable. The bottom line is we can't go over budget and we need quality work. I don't want these schools to end up like the Champaign library, a building that wore out in 25 years."
She said she also believes the district should make every effort to address consent decree requirements so the decree will expire on time in the 2008-09 school year.
"We're spending money for that that we could be spending on programs for kids," Skirvin said. "This isn't about grownups. It's about kids. I want them to have comfortable education facilities."
PTA Council President Brian Minsker said most school PTAs have voted to support the referendum. South Side's declined to take a vote, as did Dr. Howard's, where parents wanted more information before deciding.
"I think it's because parents are in the buildings," he said. "They know that we haven't done any major maintenance and upkeep on these buildings in 40 years. The facilities just haven't kept up with the population and the needs of the district and the students."
"Even if you look at the criticism about the district, nobody is saying that the children don't need improved facilities. There are questions about trust; there are questions about priorities."
Minsker said the current administration has made significant strides in improving academic scores, student discipline and minority hiring and has taken steps to correct the deficit problem and the consent decree requirements but still lacks the facilities to make the district attractive.
Van Ness said if voters don't take action now, it will amount to "a $10 million mistake."
The district could lose the free land donated by developer Randy Peifer for the Savoy school, worth about $1 million, he said. The consent decree could be extended another two or three years, costing the district $2 million in annual legal fees. And the cost of construction, land acquisition and borrowing would go up by at least $1 million if the district has to put off building new schools and making needed improvements to current schools, he estimated.
Pointing to escalating interest rates, Minsker said each half-percent increase costs the district $250,000 to $300,000.
"The needs are not going to go away," Minsker said. "Costs are going to get higher the longer we wait."