Neighbors stand up for old school
CHAMPAIGN – Alice Fletcher says that the Dr. Howard Elementary School is a priceless part of her neighborhood.
Fletcher remembers walking to Dr. Howard School when she was a child back in the 1940s.
"My dog would follow me to school every day," she said. "Then my three children went to school there, and two of my grandchildren went to school there."
Fletcher said Dr. Howard School is so important that retaining the school is essential for the neighborhood's future.
"It's important to keep a neighborhood school because we are running out of fossil fuel; children should have a chance to walk to school," she said. "Besides, it ties the neighborhood together."
Fletcher was one of 55 people who turned out for a meeting of the West Park Neighborhood Association on Sunday afternoon to discuss the future of Dr. Howard Elementary School and the children who go there.
Earlier this year, the Champaign school board proposed demolishing Dr. Howard and building a new school at the same location, but a ballot question to raise taxes to support the project was rejected by Unit 4 voters.
Charles Gammie, who has one child attending Dr. Howard School and two younger children he hopes will go to school there someday, said it is important to keep some school in his neighborhood.
"I certainly hope they don't turn the site into a park or something," he said. "I think there's a lot of sentiment out here toward preserving the school. If the school district wants to tear it down, they are going to have to make a better case to the voters than they did last time."
Kristin Hoganson said the building needs to be preserved because of its historical qualities.
"It's a beautiful building," Hoganson said. "It would be a real shame if it were to be torn down. Our neighborhood has brick streets and gas lights. Some new building would be out of character."
West Park resident Cheryl Louviere said the district needs to at least preserve the oldest portions of the school building.
"It is a wonderful, well-built structure and is certainly well worth keeping," she said. "All of us chose to live in an urban setting with older houses. Part of the community that we bought into includes the school. To put an entirely new school there wouldn't fit with the neighborhood."
Alan Chalifoux, who served on the Unit 4 facilities committee, said the district needs to spend more money on maintenance to preserve Dr. Howard School.
"It was obvious from day one there was a real prejudice on the part of the school district to knock down old and build new," Chalifoux said. "While the bond issue is dead for now, there is still concern here in our neighborhood. There's real value in having the school here from an educational standpoint and from a community standpoint."
Katie Hopkins, 22, said she supports preserving the school.
"The neighborhood is nice around here," Hopkins said. "I don't think it is necessary to bus more kids to the fringe of town.
"A lot of kids who come to school don't have a good home life. They come to school to eat breakfast and lunch, and school is the one solid thing in their life. Let's not take that security away from these children."
Ryan Chalifoux, 6, showed his support for Dr. Howard School by drawing a sign showing a bulldozer next to a school. He drew a circle around the scene with a slash through it.
"There should be no wrecking balls knocking down schools," he said.
Mark Ritz, an architect with BLDD Architects, which is working with the school district, said renovating Dr. Howard isn't out of the question.
"I don't think we ever said Dr. Howard couldn't be renovated," Ritz said. But it is situated on a very small site, and we would never select a site that small to serve 475 children. There is not enough space for a three-strand school without giving up some programs."
Ritz said the current building has nine different floor levels, so making it handicapped-acces-sible would be difficult.
"You couldn't just put in an elevator and solve the problem," he said.
Champaign school board President Margie Skirvin said the input she received from the West Park residents will be helpful as the board begins to decide what step to take next.
"The more we listen, the better chance we have to come up with a plan that is acceptable and part of the entire community," Skirvin said.
"It's pretty clear we aren't going to pass a ballot question unless we have more people on board," Ritz said.