CHAMPAIGN – The new president of the Champaign school board says it's time to take a long, hard look at district priorities and to mend fences with community leaders.
Voters Tuesday decisively scuttled building plans that were controversial from the beginning. Margie Skirvin, who was elected president of the board March 13, said although volunteers worked hard to convince taxpayers of the needs in the schools, the message clearly didn't get through.
"In any election, you need to state your case and persuade people this is the right thing," she said. "We didn't make our case."
By a 2-1 margin, voters opposed the $66 million plan, which called for major improvements, including air conditioning to elementary schools, the construction of two new schools – one in Savoy and one in northwest Champaign – and reconstruction of Dr. Howard elementary.
Skirvin and other leaders say they need to take a long, hard look at why voters so resoundingly opposed them. They also need to address an issue already overdue: adding space north of University Avenue, which was supposed to have been done by the beginning of the current school year.
That promise is related to the district's consent decree – its promise to offer equal educational opportunities to all children – and it's also at the heart of the biggest referendum controversy, when the board opted to put the new northwest school in Boulder Ridge.
Skirvin said factors contributing to the defeat included the fact that many parents were away on spring break, the election itself wasn't a big one and snow fell the day of the vote.
"One big thing was the negativity in the African-American community," she said. "People were concerned about the siting of the northwest school."
The board's last-minute selection of Boulder Ridge – 2 miles west of Mattis Avenue – for the new north-side school touched off a fiery reaction in the black community. Enraged leaders said that site was far from the center of their community, and some launched a "Vote No" campaign that likely helped defeat the referendum.
Voters approved the bond issue in 10 of 52 precincts, eight of which had fewer than 15 votes cast. Only two precincts in Savoy showed substantial support for the new school there, and one barely passed it, 242-231. In Savoy's Champaign 7 precinct, where the school actually would have been located, the vote was 316-172.
Julian Rappaport, a member of the Champaign County Public Health board who tracks school issues, said Savoy residents' attitudes contributed to the referendum's defeat.
"You have a community like Savoy most noteworthy recently for not wanting buses in their neighborhood," Rappaport said. "They're saying, 'We don't want to pay those taxes. We don't need them.' Then they say they want a school in the village. That's selfish, really."
Rappaport said the proposal was ill conceived.
"If what you're concerned about is equity in the community and who's dealing with burdens of busing and integration, you build schools south and west and you're guaranteeing to make distribution worse, not better, with the burden on black families," he said. "The white community needs to share in that. White folks will have to be willing to have their children go to schools in neighborhoods that aren't white."
Skirvin said the board's not likely to support that concept.
"There are people who want to force busing south to north," she said. "Force is not the answer. Parents get a say in this. We have schools of choice. Parents need to feel good about the schools."
She said the campaign to promote the referendum opened a lot of eyes and might be the start of support for work in the schools like that already proposed.
"People are saying, 'What are we going to do about Dr. Howard?' " Skirvin said. "That's the trouble with making it a poster child for work that needs to be done. We have stirred up the pot in terms of need. Wouldn't it be great if people now say, 'Why can't our schools be better?' "
She said another good thing came out of the effort to promote the building plan.
"We've been out talking to people," Skirvin said. "We've answered questions, we've been responsive and accessible – more so than the district has been for a long time. We let people know about our schools and really opened up the process."
Former board member Phil Van Ness said he thinks voters don't trust district plans.
"That's not surprising after you have a decade of bad news academically and financially," he said. "Now academically, a rising tide is lifting all ships but some, our African-American children, more than most. But that's a hard sell.
"We need to quit doing this we-they stuff in our community. I'm so disappointed with this racist stuff. It pains me that people were driving with their eyes firmly on the rearview mirror, not paying attention to what's going on."
Van Ness, who also served on the facilities committee that put together the referendum proposal, said the district should have tried to pass a $160 million referendum that also would have addressed middle and high school needs.
"Many people didn't have a dog in this fight," he said. "A parent of a child in high school would say, 'There's nothing in this for me.' I really think it would have been better to take care of all the problems we know about out there. Building and land costs aren't going to get cheaper. And I'm really afraid we're going to lose $1.5 million worth of donated land in Savoy."
Former school board member Thom Moore and other black community leaders say it's time to learn from the experience and move on.
"I think this has to be treated as an opportunity to test some ideas and see what voters are thinking, not a win or lose game," he said. "I'm encouraged that people know we need to do something about our buildings, but they thought the way it was presented was just not right.
"Let's figure out what we need to do, take more time and get more people involved. The northwest school was an unfortunate site selection for the African-American community. There's a better way to do that. Communications with voters will improve what happens next time."
"I think everyone in the community values the role of education in children's lives," said Mildred Griggs, a retired University of Illinois College of Education faculty member who worked for the referendum. "They just didn't find this plan appealing. Those people need to get involved in the next plan. People who found problems should engage themselves from the beginning."
Skirvin said there's a lot to celebrate in district schools.
"I don't want hard feelings to undo the fact that so many good things are happening," she said. "We don't want that lost. We're closing the achievement gap, and we're doing it working with each kid. That's exactly what we're here for, and that didn't always happen before. In 2002, our numbers really didn't look good.
"Children are learning, and they're proud of themselves. We want kids to work to their potential. That's the big news in Unit 4. We're going to work together because we have kids to teach."