Community meetings to focus on future of Champaign school buildings

Community meetings to focus on future of Champaign school buildings

CHAMPAIGN — The wait will soon be over: In mid-February, community members will be able to see and weigh in on ideas for what to do with the Champaign school district's high schools, middle schools and three unrenovated elementary schools.

The school district is hosting community meetings from 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 12 at the I Hotel, 1900 S. First Street, C.

If you're planning to attend, expect to hear some options that have already been discussed, as well as some new ideas.

"Many of the options that will be discussed at the Community Dialogue are options that have been discussed in the community at some point," said Champaign schools spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. "But there may be some more innovative ideas that have come from this process that the community hasn't considered before."

The Champaign school district hired educational facility planning firm DeJong Richter in September and is paying the firm $117,000.

Since then, DeJong Richter has been working with a steering committee, made up of both school district employees and community members, to create options for what to do with several of the school district's aging facilities, including its high schools, middle schools and South Side Elementary, Dr. Howard Elementary and the school on Kirby Avenue. The school, formerly Carrie Busey Elementary, is a home for the next several years to other elementaries while their buildings are being renovated.

The meetings will include a presentation of the data collected so far, and participants will get packets including one page for each option presented, said Scott Leopold, associate director at DeJong Richter.

They'll fill out questionnaires stating which option they prefer.

It's not a vote, but a way of collecting written feedback from those who attend, Leopold said.

The steering committee will take that feedback and perhaps combine different options, then make a recommendation to Superintendent Judy Wiegand.

"There's not going to be a perfect solution," Leopold said, about presenting options to community members. "Someone is going to be upset, regardless."

The work is being done to create a plan for facilities that will serve the school district's needs for 50 to 100 years, Leopold said.

"We should be thinking about facilities that are flexible and can incorporate curriculum and technology that haven't been invented yet," he said. "The one constant is change."

The options will mention specific sections of Champaign, but no specific sites the school district has discussed in the past.

"The superintendent will bring forward the recommendation, including the general location recommended by the (steering) committee, but the (school) board will select the exact piece of property," Stuart said.

The steering committee is coming up with the different options for what to do with the schools. So far, the firm has collected and released a huge amount of data on the school district's demographics and expected growth.

There are also results from the school district's two future facilities conferences and the almost 1,200 surveys local residents took online to weigh in.

The firm has also worked with a company called Fallon Research to document local parent and non-parents' opinions during a focus group. The research company also did a phone survey using questions it created after the focus groups.

You can find much of the data at

DeJong Richter has also worked with BLDD architects to look at the existing schools to create lists of what the buildings need and what it will cost to improve them. This hasn't yet been released.

Some interesting things that have come up in the data, Leopold said, are that 66 percent of those surveyed support moving Central High School to a parcel of land that also has room for things like athletic facilities.

The data also shows that community members are comfortable with what they know, especially as far as the size of elementary schools, and with having two different high schools.

Some indicated on surveys that they'd be open to having a magnet high school program in addition to two high schools.

Leopold said he's also found that residents are open to new ideas, like one his firm presented at the Future Facilities conferences, that could have two high schools on one campus, sharing athletic facilities and the like.

Some of the data DeJong Richter has released will reach beyond the school district's facilities -- for example, no non-parents and only one parent who participated in Fallon research's focus groups could name Wiegand.

Knowing that many non-parents may be "kind of out of touch with Unit 4" might help the school district create strategies to communicate better with them, Leopold said.

Some participants' concerns about the quality of education in the school district's middle and high schools can help the school district "look at what we can deliver" at those levels, Stuart said.

The phone survey also asked participants how much money they'd be willing to approve when the school district asks for a tax increase in a future election. (The goal now is to put the question on the April 2014 ballot, Stuart said.)

In the survey, 54.1 percent of participants said they'd support a 20-year bond issue for $206 million to replace Central High School, build new schools for lower grades to make room for growing enrollment and renovate other schools.

In a question following that, 4.6 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for that amount knowing it would raise property taxes about $250 per year for each $100,000 of property one owns. Answering the same question, 42.7 percent said they'd be less likely, and 48.1 percent said it would make no difference in their decision.

And in a similar question, 63.8 percent said they'd support an $80 million, 20-year bond issue to replace Central and make repairs to other schools in poor condition. About 14 percent were more likely to vote for it based on the fact that it would raise property taxes $96 per $100,000 of assessed value, and 61 percent said that made no difference in how they'd vote.

The goal of questions like those is figuring out what citizens are willing to support.

"We don't want to put (an idea) up that nobody wants," Leopold said.

Leopold also studied enrollment projections and predicts the school district will grow by about 870 students in the next 10 years, which would be a 9.3 percent increase.

He's still studying whether it will need to build more elementary schools to accommodate that increase, he said.

Leopold suggests that the school district update the enrollment projections every year using live-birth counts from the state. Stuart said the school district is still figuring out the best way to do so.

Kristine Chalifoux, a Champaign school board member who is co-chairwoman of the steering committee, said the data has opened her eyes to how differently people think, both from her own opinions and from what she expected.

"Those points of information I found really informative as a board member, because my job is to do the best job I can with the information I have," she said.

Chalifoux said her favorite piece of information so far is a map that shows where Unit 4 students live, and breaks down the school district into square miles. It then shows bar graphs on each square mile of how many elementary, middle school and high school students live there.

It shows a high concentration of elementary students on the north side of town and in Savoy, and higher numbers of high schoolers west of Staley Road.

Chalifoux said it shows where young families live, and that those who live west of Staley may be sending their elementary students to private schools.

The school district needs to find out why those families are doing so, she said.

"Is it because we're not meeting their needs?" Chalifoux said, or is it because of a poor perception of the public schools? "That is something we need to address."

Chalifoux said having so much data helps the steering committee make the best possible recommendation, and ultimately, help Wiegand make the best decision.

"It would be nice if we could get it right the first time," she said, and the best information helps guide the best decisions.

Chalifoux said she's also surprised by how much she appreciates having an unbiased, non-local firm collect the information.

"They don't have anything in this fight," and are passing on collections of residents' opinions and other factual information, she said.

Chalifoux is an architect and said she's been surprised at some of the possibilities that have come up in steering committee meetings.

"They're going in directions I never ever would have thought of," she said. "For me as an architect, this is something really fascinating. ... It will be interesting to see what the community says (about) some of these options."

Chalifoux said the process is geared toward making sure the community has input and supports the eventual plan for facilities.

"We know we have these incredible needs in our district and we want to get it right," she said. "We know that no matter what we come up with, there's going to be people who will hate it and they will be really vocal about it. (But) as we're looking at the different options, we're trying to look at what's best for educating the kids."

If you go


What: Community Dialogue, in which the Champaign schools, DeJong-Richter and the Future Facilities steering committee will unveil options for what to do with aging facilities, including Central High School. Community members, students, teachers, parents and business owners are all invited.

When: 3-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Feb. 12.

Where: I Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 S. First Street, C.

What to expect: The event will feature a presentation about the school district's future facilities work so far. Participants will receive a packet with information about the options. They'll be asked to give written feedback. That response will guide the steering committee as it makes a recommendation to Superintendent Judy Wiegand on what to do with the school district's high schools, middle schools and unrenovated elementary schools.

Other information: Interpreters will be available for Spanish, French and Korean speakers. Free shuttle transportation will be available to and from the Shadowwood neighborhood and the Douglass Community Center for each session. Literacy activity tables will be available for kids who attend.

If you can't make it: The information presented will be posted at after Feb. 12. You can submit your feedback through the website for two weeks after the Community Dialogue.

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45solte wrote on January 27, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Where is the breakdown of stats re: in favor of/or against particular dollar amounts relative to factors such us: amount of property tax currently payed and households with children in area private schools or being home-schooled?  Since students are not old enough to pay property taxes, I hope the consulting firm kept out those votes when it came to calculating the % in favor or not of particular dollar amounts.  Well, they MUST have. Any basic entry level professional in this area would consider such potential for skewing of results unacceptable. Did the NG or the consulting firm dig a bit to see why so many students responded?  Hopefully there was no incentive to respond.  600-700 student responses seems kind of high. 

The west of Staley issue brought up by a board member 'we need to find out why...'.  That info comes to you free.  It has been told the district, board, etc. many times over (so the 'puzzlement' over that is, well, puzzling).  Local private schools at the elementary level (and on up) are delivering a superior education for regular students than what is offered in the public schools.  It's not just a perception thing (nor is it a money thing as the money afforded each student a year in public school generally exceeds the amount payed for a student in private school).  Go see for yourself.  There's nothing magical or expensive about it (you can balk at the tuition, but, it's paying the teachers, staff and building costs; private school teachers make less on average).  In general, kids who make the switch from public to private are behind.  It's not the private school kids who are ending up in remedial college classes.  That's a public school system phenomenon.  Bring on the inequity issues. But, if you put most  any kid in an environment that supports learning (discipline, expectations, content) you will get results. You don't need a fancy classroom in which to do it and 'technology' is not a silver bullet. 

What's best for educating kids? Teach them something instead of operating under the pedagogical assumption that they can construct their own knowledge. No matter how long you let them marinate in an experiential milieu of numerals, kids are never going to come to a deeply authentic self-discovered moment-of-bleep re: a base-ten system. It's just not innate. Why so much seeming 'direct instruction' when it comes to social issues, but, not, when it comes to things like math? Which knowledge content area better prepares a student for success beyond their secondary education years? Is it better to 'impart' social ideology on students than mathematical knowledge and all of the so revered critical thinking skills one hones while gaining such knowledge?  

Here's one for the consulting firm to take a poll of: what do respondents think the terms 'student centered' and 'teacher centered' mean? I think most parents assume (at least at the elementary level) that their children are actually receiving direct instruction in school. It's a terrible thing standing amid a graveyard of project-based learning remnants in the basement-a couple of giant jelly-fish tentacles; the clay head of an on-again off again endangered species; the many now pillaged-for-play shoe box diorama hulls-to come to the realization that your child has missed the boat in their most formative years. Not only are they behind, but they have to unlearn some things (and the primacy effect can make this difficult). Ultimately it is your fault, as you blindly trusted and never asked for proof that what they were doing in the classroom was effective. You were reassured all along the way that things were a-ok.  And who would think otherwise, as the school board and/or school code protects against that with some mention in written policy of ensuring 'effective curriculum.'

Admirable effort though at attempting to discredit your 'critics' as a few disgruntled vocal folks. I am not as polite as others (I don't believe in talking around issues) and no doubt there are many who disagree with me. However, the numbers speak for themselves. Look at Tolono, Mahomet, the local homeschooling community as well as the the booming business of private schools and tutoring outfits (parallel education) in CU. Those who don't have kids in Unit 4 should have little say, grumble some. Well, the thing is you still want their money. Blank checks, no more. Stewardship of that money matters and property tax payers have a say in curriculum through their school boards (even though that may be little known to this particular school board in IL).  It's kind of the law, or something. Various people in the community have contacted various reporters at the NG over time to share their negative experiences with Unit 4. None were ever written about. Maybe those stories got nixed. Every time. At the monthly meetings Unit 4 has with the NG. True journalism is dead. So it's probably not just a local thing. Just a business-as- usual kind of thing within the 'profession.'   

rsp wrote on January 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm

So they got the tax passed to fix and build new schools. I thought I remembered them saying that Central was one of them that was going to get fixed with that money. But the school in the worse shape wasn't touched? Now it's we need more money...the schools are falling apart. We'll lower your property taxes if you support the sales tax, until we get it spent. Then we can raise them even higher. It's for the kids. 

45solte wrote on January 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Question 4. Which of the following do you think should be the top priority for the school district to work on during the next five years?

Consolidated responses from subjects with children in Unit 4 currently:

re:  'improving basic education'

37.0% = yes 

re: 'upgrading school buildings and facilities'

17.4% = yes

Other choices were: communication, parental involvement, use of tax dollars, school assignment process.

The only thing the consultants have 'in the fight' is delivering on what they were hired to do. They were not hired to improve the curriculum. If bells and whistles buildings will, surely these unbiased data-driven professionals have the goods on that and can back up any such claims with data. Real data. Not what people thought of this or that. Not parading kids out as props to say how much they like the wall color of their new school. Results. Something solid to invest in when you are asking property tax payers to shell out more and more when times are tight.   

'The work is being done to create a plan for facilities that will serve the school district's needs for 50 to 100 years, Leopold said. "We should be thinking about facilities that are flexible and can incorporate curriculum and technology that haven't been invented yet," he said.'  The one constant is change, indeed. So don't promote the spending of tax payer money in a manner consistent with horse betting. Just as the green stuff is being promoted seemingly without full realization of the costs involved.  How often do the wells of 'green' schools need to be replaced and at what cost? Every 12 years was the number on the new Carrie Busey, was it? 

'Diagnostic' phone survey. Diagnostic of what? Who uses that term in phone survey research?