Updated: New Central location revealed

Updated: New Central location revealed

Officials have picked 80-acre location in northernmost Champaign as high school's future home

Drive past the proposed future home of Central High School, as Judy Wiegand has many weekends, and you're liable to see some bean stubble, a crow or two, maybe a FedEx truck rumbling in the distance if you time it right.

"It's kind of hard to imagine," the Champaign schools superintendent said Monday.

But for the next 10 months, that will be a big part of Wiegand's job, now that the school board has picked a plot of land to house Champaign's oldest high school.

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The site is on Neil Street extended, between Interstate and Olympian drives, in northernmost Champaign. It's 80 acres big and costing the district $40,000 an acre for a grand total of $3.2 million. About $2.6 million of that comes care of the district's share of the countywide 1 percent sales tax for schools, approved in 2010. The rest could come from the sale of "excess" district-owned buildings, such as the Marquette School and the Curriculum Center, officials said Monday.

The more eye-popping price tag will come sometime between now and Aug. 17. That's the deadline to pass a resolution to add a question for voters on the November ballot. The question for Champaign voters: Will you agree to a substantial property tax hike to pay for massive upgrades to at least three city schools:

— About $80 million for a new Central High School, according to the "ballpark figures" Wiegand says district officials have worked off.

— Between $35 million and $40 million for renovations to 47-year-old Centennial High School, which district officials say is at capacity and "not designed in a way that's conducive to how we want things to work nowadays," according to Unit 4 business services executive director Matt Foster.

— $19 million for a new elementary school — "if Dr. Howard needs to be replaced," Wiegand said. The board will look at several elementary school scenarios, which also include renovating South Side.

If all goes well, Wiegand has circled — lightly, in pencil — fall 2017 for classes to begin at the new Central.

"Perfect world," she said, "we pass the referendum in November 2014; groundbreaking would be in the spring of 2015; and it would be two years out from there, construction-wise."

Between now and then, she knows the tough questions are coming — by the bushel barrel. Among them:

What's her message for the it's-out-in-the-boonies crowd?

"People are concerned that Central will no longer be central, that here is this urban sprawl taking place when you build on the outskirts," Wiegand said.

"I guess I could reference Centennial 50 years ago, when it was in the middle of nowhere.

"If there would have been acreage large enough someplace in the central part (of the city), then the board certainly would have acted on it. There was one community member who actually sent a letter stating that we should take eminent domain of the Champaign Country Club. I thought I had issues before ..."

The current Central High occupies about 5 acres. What does Unit 4 need with 16 times that?

What would go into the new, two-story high school is yet to be determined. But no matter how state-of-the-art it is, it likely won't take up all 80 acres.

Wiegand said it's important the district do "some land banking," which would mean setting aside enough space on the property for a new middle school or elementary school should the district decide to build one in future years.

Earlier estimates put Central's needs — including parking, fields, everything — at 67 acres. That would leave 13 left over — or $520,000 worth.

The district stopped short of asking for the "Cadillac plan," as Wiegand called it, but she knows some voters will scoff when the final cost of the projects are tallied.

"As a resident of Champaign, I get it that people are concerned about taxes," she said. "I get that it seems like every time you turn around there are additional tax increases."

Two football fields? Two baseball diamonds? Two soccer fields? Is the athletic megacomplex that's been proposed during previous school board meetings really going to happen?

Maybe not. While Central's sports teams have had to travel to Centennial just to "host" a competition at Unit 4's facilities, the Maroons might not get all they request.

"Of course, we have to be reasonable," Wiegand said.

What's not up for discussion is a facility that can accommodate up to 1,700 students, Wiegand said. Central has about 1,250 students now; Centennial about 1,400. But record-setting kindergarten enrollment the past three years has district officials planning for substantially larger student bodies down the road.

What gave the chosen site the edge over the three other finalists, similarly located north of University Avenue?

The first sentence of Monday night's district news release mentioned the plot's proximity to the Ashland Park subdivision.

Translation: You can see actual houses without squinting.

"Of the final four," spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart said, "it had the most residential feel."

Said Wiegand: "The board wanted to go with this because it's the furthest south. I know that's a concern of a lot of people. On the north side of the community, people call it 'the fringe.'"

One finalist fell down the list when "a drainage issue" was discovered by engineers, Foster added.

Central is approaching 80 years old. Centennial is three years away from turning 50. Does the district really need to overhaul both this soon?

Count on hearing one number over and over from district officials in the coming months.

It's 103 — the current percentage of capacity at both high schools, Wiegand said.

Centennial has gotten so crowded, officials say, they're looking into adding a portable classroom next school year. "Like a trailer," Stuart said. "In front of the school."

The district will also propose additional gymnasium and classroom space; replacing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system; and adding new windows and doors.

"It will be about $200,000 just for new door hardware — and that's not including the new construction," Foster said. "Just bringing it up to date is expensive."

What happens to the current Central building at 610 W. University Ave.?

"I know there are people who've been very concerned that we were just going to junk Central," Wiegand said.

Demolition is not an option, the superintendent vows. Consolidation is.

One possibility, Wiegand said, includes the high school becoming the new home of the school district offices (now in the Mellon Building), the alternative education program (now at the Novak Academy) and the Family Information Center (now at Columbia Elementary).

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 27, 2014 at 9:01 pm
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So sad.


What a terrible choice. What an awful process.

ronaldo wrote on January 27, 2014 at 9:01 pm

I guess money's no issue, as long as it's someone elses money.

$40k/acre for THAT??  No thanks.  I for one will be voting NO.

LocalTownie wrote on January 28, 2014 at 8:01 am

I too will be voting NO, however not because of the location but because of the amount of amenities the district thinks it needs for this school.

lga wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

Spoken like someone who's never taught in an 80 year old high school!

It's interesting that people are coming out of the woodwork to criticize this choice when they had years - literally, years - to provide input on this decision. Everyone says "Think creatively!", "Make it central!" Why didn't you Think Creatively! and propose ideas to Make it central! back then?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 29, 2014 at 7:01 pm
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You can't anonymously chide people for not participating in a public process. It just doesn't work.


Also, I'd wager that you had a better idea -- from opening bell to closing of public input -- that any of this process was underway.


By the time this story entered regular rotation on the N-G.com, the proposed sites were already limited to fringe pastures, and discussion was closed.

KateMariah wrote on January 27, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Who was the genius that decided to put a high school just north of Market Place Mall?  These kids are going to be skipping school and going to the mall.  And the food court will be overrun by the students at lunchtime.  This was the worst choice. 

dalechampaign wrote on January 28, 2014 at 7:01 am

40K a acre????  someone is laughing all the way to the bank - and its not the tax payers who is getting sucker punched with this joke of year.  Let the overruns begin!

PrairieMama wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

$40,000.00 an acre for property next to a power substation. Some developer is laughing all the way to the bank. Then taxpayers will pay again for the new road that does not exist and other improvements

dalechampaign wrote on January 28, 2014 at 7:01 am

40K a acre????  someone is laughing all the way to the bank - and its not the tax payers who is getting sucker punched with this joke of year.  Let the overruns begin!

dalechampaign wrote on January 28, 2014 at 7:01 am

40K a acre????  someone is laughing all the way to the bank - and its not the tax payers who is getting sucker punched with this joke of year.  Let the overruns begin!

MSJ66 wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

Add another NO vote for me. I hope this does not pass. MTD will want more money it will be like the library where its just more and more money. NO NO NO

Ralph wrote on January 28, 2014 at 10:01 am

Additional MTD costs are insignificant compared to the cost of the new building and ongoing maintenance.  Probably more students will be driving.

prp wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

What should be done as an alternative, then if this site is too far north and too costly?  The high schools are full, and more space is needed.

For those of you who disagree with the project, please share some alternatives.

happyful wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

Voting No. Land banking or not, you don't need 16 times the acreage of the current Central campus. You could expand to four times the size and only buy 25% of the land. You could go nuts and double that for a future middle or elementary school and you still only need half of the overall space.  You'd save over 1.6 million in the worst case.

This is also on the wrong end of town. Most of the expansion in Champaign is to the west, past Duncan, and now past Staley. A location on Staley could have half of the students coming from the south, half from the north. The proposed location means everyone is driving north no matter where they live (except people in Ashland Park next door).

prp wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

There are two big problems with placing  a school that far west.  


1)  The Mahomet school district boundry isn't very far west of Staley, less than a mile. In fact, a small portion of the boundary lies on Staley.

2)  If both schools are on the west or s/w side of town, all of the burden of transport on one portion of the district's population, and we know what kind of trouble that kind of imbalance cost Unit 4 in the 90s.

There are already housing developments near where that school is, ones that cater toward the middle of the housing market,  and I would expect many more to go up once the bond issue passes.

CU_townie_2_time_UI_grad wrote on January 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Actually you can't site the school any further East on that end of town without annexation and expansion of city boundaries.  In fact if you travel East from the site you actually are actually out of city boundaries until you hit Fed Ex, East of which is Urbana. Take another look at the map.

nndsmom wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

May I suggest that we rename the school once it moves since it will no longer be "Central" to one of the following more accurate names?

Champaign North High School,

Champaign Commercial High School, or

my personal favorite Our Lady of Inconvenient Locations High School

lga wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

What is your alternative idea and did you present it at the community forums?

davidy57 wrote on January 29, 2014 at 10:01 am

I attended one of the community forums at Carrie Busey school and they had a list of pre picked sites for people (Maybe 100 people attended) to look at/discuss/vote on. The site chosen was not among those listed, at least not at the forum I attended. How interesting.

I believe the top site chosen during this particuar forum was First and Curtis.

Johnhotto wrote on January 28, 2014 at 12:01 pm

$80 million for a new Central.  $40 million to remodel Centennial.  $20 million for a new grade school.  I don't understand those numbers.  It's going to cost half as much to remodel Centennial, without adding any capacity, as it is to build a brand new high school?  We don't need another location with two football fields; two soccer fields and acres and acres devoted to parking. If we need more capacity and Centennial needs to be remodelled anyway, why not add the needed capacity to Centennial, do necessary upgrades at Central?  Central and Centennial have shared football fields for 40 years and it has had zero effect on the quality of the education they offer. Unit Four has already pulled one fast one on taxpayers by making us believe that if we approved the increase in the county sales tax, property taxes would go down, but that lasted only a couple of years and then board members were splitting hairs and saying they never "promised us" that property taxes wouldn't go back up after the sales tax was passed.  They sure left that impression.  I will be voting "no."

Youremyboyblue wrote on January 28, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I will be voting No.

trysomethingnew wrote on January 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I defintely will be voting no. I do want a new high school, but they could have done better.  Very disappointed.

davidy57 wrote on January 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Voting no...on this terrible location.

lga wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

What is your idea for an alternative site and did you present it at the community forums?

PrairieMama wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Voting no. Property taxes already too high...the costs for this venture will keep adding up...including paying for the road and lights that don't exist. Why so much land next to a power substation and Fed Ex trucking location? How is traffic goingt o work? Walking ? Like a private high school for Ashland Park developers. Don't see any highly paid administrators offering to take lower salaries to make this happen. 

Trailmom wrote on January 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Agree with prp. What are your other suggestions?  No area in central Champaign could possibly work. 

You do realize that there was no single site that would please everybody.

Batmantis wrote on January 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

I don't understand what is so wrong with this plan. The current Central high school is an ancient building that has served its purpose and thensome. Having a new school campus that can accomodate more kids with better facilities seems like a pretty obvious next step.

cretis16 wrote on January 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

This referendum will pass with no problems. The city is full of 6 figure incomes, and all you have to do is mention key words like." infrastructure....education...children" Bingo...here comes the property taxes flowing like water. I've lived in 4 states in my life, and I can never get accustomed to the tilt to more taxation and government like this community has..

rsp wrote on January 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I couldn't go to the forums because of the times and locations they picked for them. I feel like they are always starting by asking the wrong questions. They keep talking about the sports teams as if they are the most important aspect of a high school education. That's how they have pushed the whole agenda, right down to the huge piece of land. I think they need to look at what the kids need to get them on their feet, employable. Think about three high schools that are smaller. One focused on getting job skills, trade skills. Education skills where they can see it means something to their lives. That could stay at Central as a magnet shool. Have a smaller new school than what they are planning and split the kids with Centennial.

But in the meantime they need to start showing some respect for the taxpayers. They haven't had any long term plan through this except to misrepresent how they were going to pay for things.

jammin wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Many alternatives, I believe, have been put forth by constituents throughout the process, but my feeling is that the alternatives were never seriously considered. In fact, the process has very much felt "biased" from the beginning, with professional public opinion consultants being paid to push the fringe sites in subtle and not so subtle ways (remember that questionnaire? Egads!), in spite of a very thoughtful/insightful study done FOR FREE by University of Illinois graduate students, a study which demonstrated that the community would be better served if the central location of the current high school was preserved. 

There are many layers of problems here with the process.

First, a lack of listening with open minds, and the flexibility that comes with such listening. For example: Do we really need 70-80 acres? Can we do more with less? We have many models to look at here, one right next door in Urbana.  

Second, the lack of transparency in decision making. For example, why were certain suggested sites rejected? For example, the huge site at the north end of 4th street, north of Bradley...why was this site rejected? And although there may be a good reason, we simply do not know, and this instills a lack of trust in the decision-making process. This is a HUGE tract of land, so please don't tell us that there are no open tracts on the city-side of the interstates. 

Third, a general "no-can-do" attitude. We all know these kinds of people because we enounter them everyday. Every time you come up with an idea, they have a reason why it won't work. These kinds of people stifle progress, innovation and hopefulness. And they do this because they are scared of change, and scared that your creativity makes them look bad (and because your ideas rock the status quo, which the entrenched person benefits from). I think about all the REAL suggestions I heard over the last year or so, suggestions like the "Spalding Park/Franklin Middle School" site, or "the YCMA McKinley Center block" or "Bristol Park area" or "South Side School area", etc., etc...sure, not all the suggestions are stellar ideas, but the rules of brainstorming is that there are no bad ideas, only bad impulses to ignore or shut down ideas. 

So it isn't as simple as people criticizing the idea of a fringe site, not at all. People have consistently been coming up with alternative ideas all year, the board is just not listening, or not listening with open minds. And not communicating openly.

Why not let the community come up with a neutral group to compile all these ideas and determine feasibility? A group guided by the site priorities presented by the graduate study done last year: ease of community participation, low enviromental impact, low operating and transportation costs, etc. These guiding principals would put students, teachers, families and the community first (not ease of construction or special interest groups). And, to be honest, even the mention of Olympian Drive makes certain folks jump to "special interest" conclusions (fair assessment or not). 

A new or improved Central High School is very much needed as the facilities are truly substandard in many instances. But wasting taxpayer money on a site that DOES NOT reflect the community's priorities is even more tragic. Central High School has a rich history and a treasured place in the CENTRAL part of town (unlike when the new Centennial was built on what was the fringe back then). Another community value that the school board is not honoring.



Trailmom wrote on January 29, 2014 at 10:01 am

Its my understanding that the Spaulding Park/Franklin/Judah area was rejected because the Park district doesn't want to sell Spaulding Park.

And anything in the area of the current building would require millions of dollars just to buy the houses that are there, assuming the owers want to sell. I could see some homeowners holding out for big bucks in that scenario. Then there would be the demoltion--another pricey venture.