Schools waiting for vote before worrying about future acreage

CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign school district plans to announce the intended site for a new elementary school in north Champaign at Monday night's board meeting.

Meanwhile, it's shopping for property for a new high school near Mattis Avenue and Olympian Drive, not far from the High School of St. Thomas More, according to Superintendent Arthur Culver.

Voters will be asked March 21 whether to pay for two new elementary schools, the rebuilding of Dr. Howard Elementary, improvements to other schools districtwide and the purchase of 60 acres for a school to replace Central High.

If the $66 million bond issue passes, the district likely would return in four or five years asking for another $100 million to pay for the $70 million high school and improvements to Centennial High and the middle schools, Culver said last week.

The high school project was part of more than $160 million in district needs identified by a facilities study, but a citizens committee and school board members elected to defer the high school to a later phase. The tab was considered too expensive to win voter approval all at once, and tax rules require districts to complete the work in three years or face tax payments on bond-issue proceeds.

"That's a lot of work to get done in three years," Culver said.

The decision on if – and when – to pursue the high school construction will be up to a future school board and community sentiment. But "costs will continue to get larger if we wait," Culver noted.

If a new high school is built, it could set off a domino effect of building moves and possibly some "for sale" signs in the district.

Once Central is vacated, Culver said the district would consider moving Edison Middle School there, along with the administration offices now housed at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St.; the Family Information Center, now at the old Marquette School, 405 E. Clark St.; and the district's Literacy Center on north Randolph Street downtown.

Culver said officials have discussed putting a "true alternative high school" into the Edison building at 306 W. Green St., presumably replacing the Columbia Center at Bradley Avenue and Neil Street. Developers also have expressed interest in the Edison site.

"But there are no final plans yet," Culver said.

Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said the ultimate decision to sell property will rest with the school board.

The district would have to consider the best uses of the property and the effect on surrounding schools, she said. The Mellon building sits next to South Side School, and Columbia Center is near Stratton Elementary and the district's Early Childhood Center. The district might want to expand one of those facilities, for example, or add playground areas, she said.

"It's hard to say today what your needs are in the future," Shepperd said.

The consent decree also requires the district to consider the impact on black students, she said.

"There's always an option to sell a building. Sometimes in the past that's been a good decision. Sometimes it's been a bad decision. It's something the district would consider very, very carefully," she said. "Right now anything about school property is speculation."

School board President Scott Anderson said the district has a number of assets that could be sold if everything falls into place: Marquette, the McKinley athletic fields behind the Mellon building and extra acreage purchased when Barkstall Elementary School was built.

But the district will need that space until the new high school is built, said Anderson and school board member Margie Skirvin. Marquette, for example, houses therapists' offices and the computer repair center as well as the Family Information Center.

Former school board member Phil Van Ness said the Marquette building, in the apartment-rich area surrounding the University of Illinois campus, "would be worth a ton of money."

"It's not going to do the district any good because it's on the fringes of the district, where it's not adding new students," and it's not big enough to hold a modern school, he said.

Van Ness, who co-chairs the U4 Excellence committee promoting the $66 million bond issue, emphasized he was speaking for himself, not the committee or the district. As a member of the facilities committee, he favored the $160 million plan to do all the building work at once.

He said vacating the Mellon building and the McKinley practice fields could free up space for the district to put up "a nicer South Side" – or even sell the entire block if South Side no longer is needed. He said it would be prime real estate for residential development, something someone should explore to "see if it makes sense."

"It's a three-dimensional chess board," he said.

Such talk makes school board members and administrators nervous. They remember the outcry from South Side parents after Culver told the facilities committee last fall that two-strand schools like South Side and Washington are considered inefficient.

Parents responded with research showing small schools are better able to educate children – particularly at-risk children – and talked about the community spirit at South Side, where many families walk to school and gather afterward.

Culver said later his remarks were misinterpreted and the district had no plans to close or replace South Side. Other school officials have reiterated that message in recent weeks, noting the bond issue includes money to expand the building's library and gym.

"You don't spent $4 to $5 million on an elementary school with plans to close it. They're going to be there for the next two generations," said Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer.

Skirvin's children were at South Side when it closed in 1982, and she said board members are reminded constantly of the district's shortsightedness in closing Lottie Switzer in 1977.

"It was a big trauma," she said. "That definitely has impacted us."

Brenda Koenig, a South Side parent, said she isn't as worried about South Side's future because both the facilities committee and the school board seemed to take the parents' concerns to heart.

"I don't think South Side's in play at all," Anderson said. "South Side is a highly popular school with a wonderful neighborhood base. I cannot imagine this board or a future board voting to take South Side off line. You don't want to mess with things that work. That's a school that works. Why stir the pot?"

THE DAYS OF DOWNSIZING

The old Savoy School was one of three closed by the Champaign school district in the 1970s and early '80s because of slumping enrollment districtwide. (Then-Superintendent Marshall Berner recommended against selling the schools in case the district needed more space in the future). A rundown, based on News-Gazette files:

Savoy School, 310 W. Church St., Savoy: Closed in 1977. Had opened in 1949 after previous one-room schoolhouse burned down in 1946 (Savoy merged with Champaign school district in 1948). Leased by Developmental Services Center and Community Christian School before being purchased by village of Savoy and used as community building. Now leased to Champaign County Head Start.

Lottie Switzer School, 908 N. Prospect Ave., C: Closed in 1977 over protests from residents who said it was naturally integrated and a stabilizing influence on the neighborhood. Used as an alternative school and then leased to adult education center, Developmental Services Center, Champaign County Head Start and University Primary School before being sold to Judah Christian School in mid-1980s.

South Side School, 712 S. Pine St., C: Closed in 1982. Used by Champaign Park District as recreation center until it was reopened in 1989 to ease a space crunch.

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