Group involved with equity issues tours Judah building

CHAMPAIGN – A Champaign school board member who toured the Judah Christian School building Wednesday said it has potential for use by the district, but he would not be interested in buying it unless black parents and community members support it.

Nathaniel Banks said the school board and the district need their input in deciding how to proceed.

"If the plaintiff class is not interested in it, as an individual board member, it would be really hard to be interested in it," he said.

A second group from the school district toured the Judah Christian building at 908 N. Prospect Ave. Wednesday morning.

The group included two school board members, Banks and Reginald Alston; community activist Imani Bazzell; Tracy Parsons, chief executive officer of the Urban League of Champaign County; and a lawyer representing the black families whose lawsuit led to the consent decree under which the district is operating.

School district administrators, an engineer and an architect toured the building last week.

The district was contacted recently by Judah Christian officials, who are looking at the Roberson Transportation building in Mahomet as a possible new site for the school. The size of the freshman class at Judah Christian has doubled each of the last two years, and the school is outgrowing its current building.

"This is very preliminary," Banks said. "We're really just taking in information. I think we're going to be in study mode for a while. We really need to talk about it as a board, the notion of where are we right now with the results of the referendum. We really haven't had that discussion."

The district's consent decree requires it to add seats north of University Avenue, and putting students in the Judah Christian building would fulfill that requirement.

A school district committee dealing with equity issues, whose members include Banks, Bazzell, Parsons and the lawyer, met Wednesday afternoon. The committee recommended district officials and representatives for its black students discuss all possible options for adding seats north of University Avenue, including buying the Judah Christian School building.

Venita Hervey, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said she was surprised by the age of the original part of the building, and she had some concerns about the presence of asbestos and location of heating units.

Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer who has now toured the building twice, said the district would need to do a study to determine if the building is in compliance with life-safety codes if it were interested in it.

"We don't want to end up with a building and have an architect walk through it a few years later and say it's out of compliance," Logas said. "It would be very prudent to have a detailed report on the building because of its age."

Hervey and Bazzell said the district needs to discuss not only adding physical space north of University Avenue, but also what type of programming would go in a new school and whether the Judah Christian building would be best suited for that.

"Everybody is trying to keep an open mind," Hervey said. "When we start to talk about programmatic issues, we really have to get everybody at the table and say, 'How does this fit?'"

Bazzell said she would not like to see the building used as an elementary school to satisfy the district's need to put more seats in the north, "but that's separate and apart from whether it's in the district's interest to acquire the building anyway."

Bazzell said she'd like to see an elementary school closer to downtown residential neighborhoods, to promote community reinvestment and redevelopment, rather than in the more commercial area where Judah Christian is.

She also said much of the building is set up for middle and high school students, with lockers and chemistry labs.

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