Champaign schools referendum soundly defeated
CHAMPAIGN – Although Champaign schools may go back to voters in November seeking money for improvements, Superintendent Arthur Culver says officials will have to address requirements for north side space before then.
Voters Tuesday resoundingly defeated a building bond proposal to build three new schools in Champaign and make major improvements to most other elementary schools.The final votes: 4,006 in favor of the proposal and 7,079 against it.
Culver, who came back from his spring break vacation to see results come in, said the district is already behind schedule adding space north of University Avenue required by its consent decree. He said the board will have to talk about issuing working cash bonds to add space at an existing school or look at other options like freeing up space at another building and doing "some out-of-the-box thinking."
"We're really behind, and we can't wait for November for that," Culver said. "We're seeking a creative solution."
He said if district leaders decide to go back to voters in November, the proposal will probably look a lot different.
"This didn't have enough support," Culver said. "We'll regroup, talk to parents, board members, staff members, members of the community about what to do. Something needs to be done to improve our aging schools."
Board President Margie Skirvin said she was very disappointed to see the community's lack of support for the measure.
"I went to many PTA meetings because I thought it was important for people to feel like board members are listening to their concerns," Skirvin said. "To build trust, we need to keep listening."
She said she's not sure about the next step.
"Last time it took three tries to get a referendum passed," Skirvin said of proposals in the 1990s that resulted in the construction of Barkstall and Stratton schools. "The thing that was closest to my heart was fixing up those old buildings."
One of the three new schools to be built would have replaced Dr. Howard School with a two-story building on the same site. A second school would have been built on a donated site in Savoy, The third would have been built near the intersection of Staley Road and Bradley Avenue, a location announced March 13 that inflamed the black community it was supposed to benefit.
Facing that backlash, Superintendent Arthur Culver briefly backed off that location midweek but in a special meeting Friday, he said it was the only feasible site.
The work also would have included about $30 million worth of improvements, including air conditioning, to the eight older elementary schools – Bottenfield, Carrie Busey, Garden Hills, Kenwood, Robeson, South Side, Washington and Westview.
Champaign schools are legally bound by a consent decree to give an equal education to all students. That legal agreement was the driving force behind the ballot question, both because the district agreed to build more space north of University Avenue and because it needs to provide equal facilities for all students.
A key component of the agreement is the district's choice program. A family of an incoming kindergarten student must select three potential schools and a computer program that balances attendance racially at each school will assign the school that child will attend. However, preference is given to schools within 1.5 miles of the child's home.
Members of the black community say the northwest location violated the spirit of the consent decree because it would have been far from the heart of their north Champaign community and their children would have to take buses to attend it, continuing an integration practice in place since the 1950s.
Precinct tallies were telling. Only 10 of 52 precincts posted more yes votes than no votes, and only two of them were significant – Champaign 6 and 7, in the heart of Savoy. And even in that village, which stood to gain a school, it was close in one precinct.
In Champaign 6, 242 residents voted yes and 231 voted no. In Champaign 7, 316 voted yes and 172 voted no.
In northwest Champaign, where the site was so controversial, voters rejected the proposal. In City of Champaign 18, a precinct that surrounds Parkland College, 87 votes were cast in favor of the proposal and 151 were cast against. In City of Champaign 34, west and south of Parkland, 118 people voted for issuing the building bonds and 185 voted against it.
Culver thanked staff members like Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas for their hours of work talking to the public about the proposal and also members of the U4Excellence group that promoted the proposal.
Michael Miller, a Stratton parent who was one of the leaders of that group, said he hopes communications improve and the district finds answers to the issues it faces.
"I hope people listen to each other," Miller said. ""Only when we do that will we find the answers we need."