CHAMPAIGN – In a stunning about-face Friday that infuriated an already angry black community, Champaign school officials advised board members to stick with the Boulder Ridge site they picked Monday for a new northwest Champaign school.
Backlash was immediate. Activist Imani Bazzell said the black community will almost certainly turn to its attorneys and a court monitor to ask for legal sanctions, including an extension of the costly consent decree that's due to expire in the 2008-09 school year.
"The community feels betrayed," Bazzell said. "Apparently the board is more comfortable betraying the black community than the other people in the district who are going to get two new state-of-the-art schools in their neighborhoods."
After a 90-minute closed session, Superintendent Arthur Culver said he had a mandate and a responsibility to look at the community's long-range growth as well as the welfare of all children in the district now and for years to come.
"There's been a lot of information shared, a lot of passion, feelings and hurt," Culver said. "I care about our kids. I'm a poor boy from a ghetto. I know how it is. I've been there. As superintendent, I think Monday's recommendation is a good decision for everyone. To change now will cost us trust, will destroy trust from parents all over the district. Our needs are so great, to make any other decision would be irresponsible. "
Wednesday, at a heated meeting of the Planning and Implementation Committee, Culver said he would be willing to take another look at the proposal to mollify a black community offended by the Boulder Ridge site. Opponents of that site said it satisfied the letter of the district's consent decree but violated the spirit of that agreement.
He said one option would be to build at two schools in the heart of the black community, Washington and Garden Hills, constructing a new larger school at Washington and adding space at Garden Hills, a proposal that pleased black community members. The unusual Friday night board meeting was scheduled immediately after the committee adjourned to consider those options.
The plans go to voters Tuesday. If they approve the district's $66 million building bond proposal, work on the agenda would include construction of the new Boulder Ridge school and a second school at Savoy, replacing Dr. Howard, major renovations at the eight older elementary schools and the purchase of land for a new high school to be built later.
Board member Nathaniel Banks, who opposed the Boulder Ridge site from the beginning, made a motion to rescind Monday's vote, a motion seconded by Minosca Alcantara. The two voted against the site on Monday.
Banks said he'd rather take a long-range look at the district's growth, but he believes the district still has to address immediate inequities.
"This is not a flip-flop," Banks said. "These are statements about where to locate one school, not statements against the referendum. I'm not representing myself. The consent decree is a vehicle through which the African American community got attention. The intent was to have a school in an area where the people affected live."
Banks' motion was defeated in a 5-to-2 vote.
About 90 people attended the meeting, and they spoke for two hours preceding the executive session, most supporting the idea of a Garden Hills addition and Washington replacement.
"All the children need to have a safe environment," said Stratton parent Michael Miller. "I don't care how this is resolved; I care that it is resolved."
Sawgrass resident Regina Ray said she's sorry to see the issue becoming polarized.
"Whatever you do, make sure it's best for all children," Ray said. "This is not a white versus black issue, but it's becoming one."
"I'm voting no," Lynn Stucki said. "This process is very haphazard.
Julia Johnson Connor, a Savoy resident who picked Washington School for her son even though it's far from her home, said she supports any proposal that "puts district energy and investment in children who live north of University Avenue."
"We're looking at economics, not what's going on with the people we're supposed to serve," Melodye Rosales said. "I have a problem with both Boulder Ridge and Savoy."
Rosales and Connor both objected to the busing that would occur to balance racial makeup at both the Boulder Ridge and Savoy schools. Connor said an estimated 4 percent of Savoy's residents are black and the school population will have to be at least 22 percent black, so all the rest of those students will have to come from Champaign neighborhoods.
"I think about what we learned from Katrina," said Sam Smith, a teacher and counselor. "We learned that a strong wind can blow away the veil. We need you to make a real investment in poor children, in the lives of black children."
Urban League president and CEO Tracy Parsons said the Boulder Ridge site will never be acceptable in the eyes of the black community.
"We're not talking about busing," Parsons said. "All kids are on buses. Busing for integration is a different issue. Until this city builds more mixed income housing, it's on the back of the schools to integrate. You have opportunities here even if you can't come up with a final site before the referendum."