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).