Enrollment boom raising growth issues in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school board, along with administrators from the district's central office and various buildings, gathered Thursday at Parkland College to discuss broad issues affecting the school district.

Topics on the agenda of the school board retreat included growth in the school district and what needs to be done with Champaign's schools as enrollment increases. Superintendent Judy Wiegand also briefly touched on school finances, and the board talked about studying and possibly changing how students are assigned. The retreat also tackled the idea of how to make the school district an organization that's centered on children.

Board member Kristine Chalifoux presented information on growth in the school district over recent years, and projected growth over the next several years. "Unprecedented growth" over the last three years, and the possibility of more means the board needs to make some decisions about how that will affect its schools, she said.

That growth wasn't predicted when the school district did a demographic study in 2008.

If that growth continues, the school district may have to add a new elementary school around 2020, she said.

The board may also have to discuss whether to use the elementary school on Kirby Avenue as an independent school in a few years. Carrie Busey Elementary is moving to a new building in Savoy, and other schools will use its former building during renovations over the next three years.

High enrollment also affects the district's middle schools and high schools, Chalifoux said. Her projections have the middle schools reaching their maximum capacities in 2017 or 2018, and maximum capacity at the high schools by 2016 or 2017.

"We need to start looking at our options and what we want to do as a district," Chalifoux said, calling it a "critical time frame."

Conversations about growth within the district will be dovetailed with discussions about where to build a new high school and whether to try a different grade configuration, such as a creating a prep academy for eighth- and ninth-graders.

Wiegand said she believes the school district needs to decide on its educational offerings and make decisions about facilities based on that.

The school district is also planning to hire a public-engagement firm to find out what community members support.

Wiegand said the school district has an outdated 10-year facilities plan and gathered community feedback on its "Great Schools, Together" plan. She suggested a district committee to create a comprehensive guide listing the school district's immediate needs and options.

Wiegand also gave a brief update on school finances, saying the school district will be fine for two years if the state requires it to pay pension costs. But she would like administrators to work with its two employee unions to create a plan for program cuts after those two years if the school district takes on that expense. She said she would like to see those decisions studied and made carefully, rather than in a short amount of time.

Wiegand said she also wants to create a task force of school district officials, employees, board members and community members to look into whether the school district should change its school assignment process. It would include people with varying opinions of the choice system, and perhaps work with a facilitator from the University of Illinois.

"I am not stating that we will get rid of schools of choice," Wiegand said, only possibly changing the way students are assigned. She said she's not interested in going back to neighborhood schools, and board President Sue Grey said she believes the choice system is important for spreading diversity across the school district.

Board member Dave Tomlinson said after 12 years under the choice system, he thinks it's time to evaluate it.

And finally, Topper Steinman, an educational consultant who worked in the Champaign schools for 20 years, facilitated the discussion among the school board and administrators about how the school district can focus more on students and families.

He had attendees break into groups to answer questions about how they can best work toward the school district's mission and what actions would be least helpful.

He then organized them into groups by job, having board members, central office administrators and principals talk among themselves about what they can do to address parent concerns and what actions are least helpful in addressing concerns.

At the retreat, the school board also approved a new policy on capping the amount students can charge for lunches at $20, or five days of breakfast and lunch.

That would not apply to students who receive free lunch, and students who have exceeded the amount they can charge will be given a cheese sandwich and white milk for lunch, and white milk and unsugared cereal for breakfast.

The cap is designed to keep the amount students charge down. Wiegand said meal charges have accumulated to $39,000 the school district hasn't been able to collect.

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