After on-and-off talks dating back almost a decade, Champaign Central High School is closer than ever to having a new mailing address.
School board members will meet Monday night, with plans to trim the list of proposed new sites for the 78-year-old home of the Maroons from 15 to six. Two more meetings and a few weeks later, they hope to choose a winner.
Five questions you may be asking between now and then:
1. How much land are we talking about?
This time around, the school district is considering sites that are 30 acres and larger. That's considerably smaller than the 70-80 acres it went searching for in previous years, but a whole lot bigger than the 5 acres Central occupies now, according to Regional Planning Commission statistics. (For comparison's sake, West Side Park in downtown Champaign covers 12.7 acres).
Patricia Avery, president of the Champaign County NAACP, hopes the board chooses a site large enough to grow into, given that Champaign is "a growing community — demographically and in population."
But Central graduate Jennifer Shelby warns against aiming too high — be it in acreage or taxpayer cost: "We live in a state that's worse than broke," she said.
"I guess you shoot for the stars, but at some point you've got to be realistic," added Shelby (Class of '83), the former owner of Shelby Motors. "We've been talking about this new high school since I was in high school, and it's never come to fruition. At some point, it's going to have to."
2. What does Centennial have that Champaign's other public high school doesn't — besides a shared football field, pool and track?
It's a lengthy list, as you might expect of two schools that opened their doors three decades apart — Central during FDR's first term, Centennial five years after the Kennedy assassination:
— Take parking. Centennial has 550 spaces for more than 150 employees and about 1,400 students. Central has 126 spaces for 179 employees — and no off-street parking for 1,300-plus students.
"Our kids are the best parallel parkers," joked Central Associate Principal Jane Stillman.
— Centennial has air conditioning. Central does not, leading to 100-degree inside temperatures and students being let out early on six steamy days at the beginning of this school year. That's 15.5 lost hours of instructional time. No other Champaign school missed any.
Even basic electric fans aren't a good option for beating the heat at Central. Because of old wiring, most of Central's classrooms have only two power outlets, which are divvied up between a computer, SmartBoard and document camera.
— Central is the only school in the district without modern voice-over-Internet-protocol phones and can't do anything about spotty wireless access. Worse yet, the building's limitations won't allow for any additional security cameras, which the district calls a student safety issue.
— Classroom sizes present a whole new set of challenges. Among them: the inability to allow departments to have classrooms in the same part of the building. That means a math teacher whose classroom is on the first floor can't share graphing calculators with another math teacher on the third floor, said Central Principal Joe Williams.
— Central's band room accommodates 50 students — 130 fewer than are in the marching band. The band must store its large instruments in the hallways. The school's hallways also double as a backstage area for Central's aspiring actors due to space constraints in the school's theater.
"We make do with what we have," junior Quinn Murphy said, but students who are in larger productions can get cranky when they're crammed inside the makeup room during performances.
— Both high schools have 21 varsity sports, but only five of Central's can practice on campus — boys' and girls' basketball, cheerleading, competitive dance and volleyball. The Maroons' other 16 teams travel off-site to various locations — often by school bus, which the district pays for. The same goes for Central's marching band, which holds its practices at Centennial.
3. How central does the new Central need to be?
First things first: According to a demographic study of the school district last year by public engagement firm DeJong-Richter, the "median center of the student population" is at John Street and Mattis Avenue. That's a few blocks from Centennial — and about 2 miles from Central's longtime home.
Many people believe the school needs to be centrally located.
Local activist Imani Bazzell said she believes people who live on the north side of town will be angry if the board chooses a site "that feels like the suburbs."
She said she was pleasantly surprised at the district's recent town-hall meeting to hear that people who live in the south or southwest portions of the district "were not there for a fight."
"I found them to be gracious and willing to stick with the notion that the high school should be centrally located," said Bazzell, who has long been involved with equity issues in the schools.
She isn't alone in her sentiment.
"Central, which speaks for itself, is centrally located," the NAACP's Avery said. "It has a historical meaning to a lot of the students and the neighborhood that it sits in. To move it out southwest or out northwest, I just don't think it would be acceptable."
Former Champaign administrator and school board member Arlene Blank said she'd like to see the new school built north of University Avenue, both to allow access for students who are minorities and because she believes many students would have to be bused to a southern location. That would also affect how early students have to wake up to catch the bus, she said, and buses will have to fight morning traffic to get there.
But Centennial Principal Greg Johnson doesn't think any of the 15 sites are too close — or too far — to be feasible.
"I do believe that ideally, Central should remain close to the center of our community, but I do realize that this might not be possible," he said. "Most importantly, we need to make sure that we are able to build a structure that is flexible for a wide variety of student learning needs: distance learning needs, on-campus needs and career and technical educational needs."
4. Which of the 15 sites stands to be the most controversial?
Depends whom you ask and where they live — or work.
One site that could be particularly tricky is the Country Fair location. Blank has several concerns about the shopping center — from the possibility of asbestos to the proximity to Centennial: "I just don't think that's going to fly in this community."
There's also the issue of the businesses that operate in Country Fair. Angela VanMatre owns Taffies Restaurant with her husband, Jeremy. They lease the building for their business, and if the new Central were to be built at Country Fair, they'd have to find a new location. Taffies has been at Country Fair since 1978, and many of the VanMatres' most loyal customers live nearby.
"It would be sad," she said.
5. What happens to Central's current home if moving day ever arrives?
Well, one thing that doesn't appear likely is taking a wrecking ball to the big brick building at 610 W. University Ave.
"At this time, the board is looking to keep the Central facility as part of the district in some capacity," said district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart.
District officials have mentioned the possibility of Edison Middle School taking over the building. Another option: moving district offices there.
But a solution will probably come after BLDD Architects has completed its extensive study of every building used by the district.
"We are keeping an open mind," Stuart said.