Champaign board may hire firm to help with building plan

Champaign board may hire firm to help with building plan

CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign school district is considering hiring a St. Louis communications firm to help gauge the community's feelings about the district and its building needs.

A representative of Unicom-ARC will make a presentation to the school board Monday on how it could help the district with public input. The school board meets at 7 p.m. at the Mellon building, 703 S. New St., C.

School board President Margie Skirvin said the company could help the district use input from the community to come up with a plan for addressing building needs that most people could support.

"This was something that helped me feel like we could be moving forward in positive manner," Skirvin said. "As it is now, we're listening to people. But if you don't have a way to put all that information together, we don't want to be in the same place a year from now."

The school district's $66 million plan to make major improvements to its elementary schools, rebuild Dr. Howard Elementary School, and build two new schools – one in Savoy and one in northwest Champaign – was defeated by voters in March.

Skirvin said school officials worked hard to get public input for the proposal that was defeated, but they didn't give themselves enough time to come back to the public to get feedback on their plan and make revisions.

School officials don't plan to put a proposal before voters again until at least next spring. Skirvin and others have said they want to take more time in coming up with a new building plan.

"We need to have a system that inspires a lot of trust," she said. "Next time I want to have something that I feel really good about to take to people, and not have something at the end that is a surprise."

Since April, the school board has been holding a second meeting each month to hear from parents and teachers about what improvements they would like to see.

Unicom-ARC could help the district "use that input productively by coming up with a system, helping put a plan together and making sure people have a chance to comment on the plan as it goes along, rather than just have a plan pop fully formed at the end," Skirvin said.

Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer, said Unicom-ARC can help take the pulse of the community. But he said whether, and how much, the company might be involved in a building bond proposal depends on what use Superintendent Arthur Culver and the school board want to make of its services. He said the cost would depend on that as well, and he doesn't have an estimate at this point.

Logas said BLDD Architects, the Champaign firm that helped the school district assess its building needs, has worked with Unicom-ARC before.

According to Unicom-ARC's Web site, it has worked with a number of school districts, including those in Decatur and Springfield, and with Danville Area Community College, and has helped districts pass building bond proposals and tax rate increases.

Sam Johnson of BLDD Architects, which worked with Unicom-ARC and the Decatur school district, said Unicom is one of the top firms in the nation for public engagement.

"I'm extremely impressed with what they are able to do," Johnson said. He said the Champaign voters "didn't feel a whole lot of ownership" in the district's proposal that was defeated in March.

"They didn't feel like they were terribly involved in the solution," Johnson said. "From a national perspective, public engagement is the most sound way to develop a school for a community. (Unicom-ARC) has the expertise that will allow the school district to involved the community in a real way to develop a plan for the future of the schools."

Johnson said Unicom-ARC worked with about a half dozen school districts that had ballot proposals in the March primary. All were successful, he said.

One client, the Mehlville school district in St. Louis, had failed three times to pass a $30 million bond proposal for repairs and renovations for its school buildings. Unicom-ARC led an effort to involve the community in looking at the district's building needs, and voters ultimately approved a $68 million proposal to make building repairs, demolish an elementary school and build a middle school.

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