The latest on Champaign's schools facilities plan

As deadline nears to include proposition on November ballot, superintendent holding her ground on ambitious plan

For Champaign voters, the choice next Election Day is simple: accept a hefty property tax hike or reject a proposal to fix the city's two public high schools.

But one decision you won't have to make, if Unit 4's schools superintendent has anything to say about it, is whether to pay for replacing 79-year-old Central High or renovating 51-year-old Centennial High. They're a package deal, and Judy Wiegand can't imagine a proposition on the Nov. 4 ballot that includes one high school and not the other.

"Can we somehow bring (costs) down a bit? Hopefully. I would love to spend less," Wiegand told The News-Gazette this week during an extensive interview at the district offices. "But I also don't want to shortchange Centennial. I want to make sure that when we need to redistrict, families aren't upset that they have to go to the old school versus the new school."

With the clock ticking — polls open seven months from today — there's still much to be discussed, debated and decided, starting with hiring an architect.

Here's a look at where things stand:

We're still likely months away from knowing how much money the district will ask for, but it's a safe bet the final number will be north of $100 million.

A brand-new Central would run the district about $80 million, according to "ballpark figures" from earlier studies the district has commissioned. A revamped Centennial could cost between $35 and $40 million.

"You could go under 100 and just go for Central," Wiegand said.

"But I think that it would be a very difficult choice for the board to make. I think it would be very hard to pass a referendum with just one high school being addressed."

For now, that's the extent of Wiegand's willingness to talk in specifics about facility costs.

Before deciding which buildings to replace or renovate — or what features those schools will have — the district first needs to come to terms with an architect. And fast.

On Jan. 27, the day the site selection for a new Central was unveiled, Wiegand said she hoped the board would recommend a firm by the end of February.

"I know," she said this week. "We're just making sure we have the right firm."

More than 20 of them submitted bids, which were reviewed, rated and trimmed to three finalists, she said. Interviews took place on Feb. 14, and Wiegand hopes to have a deal done sometime this month. Both of the top two candidates have "a local presence," she said.

Just as Central and Centennial are co-priority No. 1, two elementary schools share the No. 2 spot in the pecking order.

Said Wiegand: "I see it as high schools. Then South Side and Dr. Howard. And then the middle schools."

This is where some of the district's most difficult decisions will come. And there's not much time to make them — Aug. 17 is the school board's deadline to pass a resolution to ask voters a question on the Nov. 4 ballot.

It will be at least a two-part question, if not three or four.

"Do you put a new Dr. Howard on the referendum?" Wiegand asked this week. "When you talk about equitable facilities, do you address what's needed at South Side?"

Wiegand has heard the horror stories — from parents, teachers and administrators — about the outdated buildings that house the two elementary schools.

There's the "musty smell," the cramped spaces, the painful tales of having to carry wheelchair-bound senior citizens down flights of stairs just so they could watch their grandchild perform in Dr. Howard's tiny gym.

Neither school was built with an elevator, so neither meets standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

South Side was built in 1924. Dr. Howard was born in 1910 — a quarter-century before Central. It has gone through four updates — but none since the Eisenhower Administration.

"Comparing Dr. Howard to all the other elementaries, no doubt. Top of the list. Needs something done. Right away," Wiegand said.

But how much is too much? A new Dr. Howard could cost between $16 and $18 million, according to early estimates.

From the district's point of view, the where-to-build-a-new-Central controversy is over.

Its official end could come this month — "May at the latest," Wiegand said — when Unit 4 becomes the sole owner of 80 acres of farmland in northernmost Champaign.

The plot will cost the district $3.2 million — or $40,000 an acre — with half going to the Atkins Group, the other half to Champaign's Ponder family.

And no matter what happens in November, or with future referendums, there are no money-back guarantees.

Under the terms of the contract, the Atkins Group "may but is not required to buy the property back for what we paid for it" if construction doesn't start within 10 years, Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart said.

"The reason they wanted this right is so that there was not a permanent undeveloped hole in the neighborhood development," Stuart added.

There is no such provision in the district's contract with the Ponders, she said.

About $2.6 million of the land's cost will come from the district's share of the countywide 1 percent sales tax for schools.

The rest will come, Wiegand said, from the expected sale of the vacant Marquette School, which went back on the market this week after the school board rejected two early bids.

For starters, a new Central would have a state-of-the-art auditorium, more open-space classrooms and modern science labs.

In 2008, when talk of a new high school was just bubbling up, the district published a 32-pronged "baseline standard" for what all Unit 4 schools should have. It was called "Great Schools, Together," and it was done with significant input from parents and community members.

It re-emerged during the future facilities portion of this week's school board meeting. Many of the district's goals remain the same now as then — from air-conditioning for all schools to a marching band practice area and indoor pool for high schools.

Central is 0-for-3 — and still comes up short in many other must-haves on the list.

"We start with the big picture of this being a building we're going to have for the next 50 years," Wiegand said. "You take a look at future trends in education, and what should that space look like?"

Taxpayers' concerns about Central getting a lavish athletic complex have been heard — loudly and clearly.

The ideal model for Central to follow, Wiegand said, exists just across town. The superintendent came away from a recent tour of Urbana's 3-year-old athletic complex impressed with how much the school was able to cram into a relatively small space.

A site study done by local architectural firm Gorski Reifsteck during last fall's selection process determined the Maroons needed 25.10 acres for athletic fields. But that was with two of everything — "competition" and "practice" fields for football, soccer, baseball and softball, plus eight tennis courts.

After decades of having to trudge to Centennial — home of the shared Unit 4 fields, diamonds, track and pool — Wiegand wants Central teams to have their own facilities — "within reason." That includes an indoor pool.

"I certainly want to respect what (coaches and athletic administrators) think is needed," she said, "but it has to be balanced with what the community values. And I don't think the community would value having so much money directed toward athletic fields."

Transportation talk is on hold.

Officials from the school district and MTD met just prior to spring break to discuss long-term student transportation options, Wiegand said. In the district's ideal scenario, classes begin at the new Central in 2017.

But before they can talk bus routes, Wiegand was told, district boundaries will have to be established. Redistricting, which last happened in Champaign in 2009, will be required if there's a new high school.

One of the most common criticisms of the proposed new high school site is its distance from 610 University Ave., longtime home of the Maroons, and what many still consider the heart of the city.

Students from nearby neighborhoods will no longer be able to walk or bike to school, like kids do now, skeptics have said.

Wiegand hopes to conduct a survey next fall to find out what percentage of students walk or bike to Central. Her theory: It's not nearly as many as has been suggested.

"My sense is that a lot of them get rides from either a parent or a friend," she said. "I don't see that many students walking or riding the bike. It's nice to think that they do. You don't see a lot of bikes on the bike rack when you drive by the school."

Coming next decade: two schools on those 80 acres along Interstate Drive?

That's Wiegand's long-range wish — and the reason the district is purchasing 80 acres when Gorski Reifsteck determined 47.68 would be enough for Central.

Ten to 15 years out, Wiegand wants Central to have a neighbor on that plot. "Possibly a middle school, possibly elementary but more than likely a middle school," she said.

In the short term, the school board must choose a preferred plan for the middle school piece of Unit 4's future facilities project.

There are still nine options on the table — more than Wiegand hoped there would be at this point in the process. She admits to being "a bit concerned that we haven't narrowed it enough."

Complicating matters: All nine scenarios have tentacles beyond middle school. For instance, all but two options involve building a new Dr. Howard. Six have Edison Middle School moving into a renovated Central.

— Three scenarios have three middle schools and one K-8 school.

— One has two middle schools and four K-8s.

— One has three middle schools.

— Three have four middle schools.

— Status quo is the ninth option.

Members of a special facilities committee whittled the list to three last month. Soon, the actual school board will have to follow suit.

"The board doesn't have to say: We're going to pick this scenario in its entirety.' They could do a hybrid of these," Wiegand said.

Coming this fall: the new symbol of the school referendum's cause — a leased trailer, docked in front of Centennial, to host classes there's no room for inside.

Overcrowding is an issue across Unit 4, Wiegand said, and it's getting worse by the year.

Using a formula determined by the state board of education, both Centennial and Central are at 103 percent capacity. Factor in record kindergarten enrollment numbers the past three years, and those figures will rise to 120 percent by 2022-23, district officials say.

Said Wiegand: "I think our students deserve better than overcrowded classrooms and having to go out to a trailer."

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davidemcginn wrote on April 04, 2014 at 8:04 am

Really an indoor pool, when will these people teaching children come back to reality. This is not free money someone has to work for it perhaps if she really cared she would take a pay cut to help her realize her dream. Bet that won't happen. I say no to more taxes under the guise of helping the children this doesn't teach them or help them learn, this is an increase so she can show everyone the nice new indoor pool, or the state of the art  theater. So as it's done bet she asks for a raise due to the fact she has to run such a large area. Vote no to her dream.

AreaMan wrote on April 04, 2014 at 9:04 am
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The proposed location for the new Central High School really is horrendous. The school board made a choice that it is better for every student to have to come across Prospect, Neil, or Market to attend school than it would be to have some students bussed around to special facilities. The board is placing the burden of cost and headaches of driving to north Champaign on the students and parents.

I say driving, because in this scenario, walking and cycling to north Champaign are not possible. The infrastructure is not developed in that area of town. I'm not even sure how nicely that will play with CUMTD bus routes. If everyone has to drive, gridlock will ensue.

I would support a plan where Central could build up, not out. I will not be supporting this measure this fall.

AreaMan wrote on April 04, 2014 at 9:04 am
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And to add on to the transportation issue, what are the chances that Central where it currently resides is between housing and work for parents of high school students? What are the chances that the extreme northern edge of Champaign is between housing and work for parents? My guess is that this plan will be adding 4 or 5 miles to commutes for many people.

FirstAid wrote on April 04, 2014 at 10:04 am

Just wondering if either one of you attended Central, have students that have attended Central, or have students that will attend Central? If not, have you been to the current Central High School? I agree the location is no longer "centralized" and that transportation may become a issue at first, but we're also talking about a school that is too small for the current population (which is predicted to grow), provides no parking lot for students, limited parking for staff, and no parking for parents who need to attend meetings, etc. There's no land around that area to grow! There are also no athletic facilities on the grounds, and whether or not you believe in athletics, these things matter to 14-18 year olds and provide a sense of pride and encouragement to know they're a part of something "nice". Right now students refer to this school as the "ghetto" high school, because it offers nothing in regards to anything that resembles a modern age high school where students have their own facilities. The pool argument? It's not to sit around and have cocktails. It's to provide a competive place for the school's swim team (which is quite good) to finally have their own place.

AreaMan wrote on April 04, 2014 at 11:04 am
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I have a student that will likely be a Central student in the not-so-near future. I understand there are space issues at the current location, but was it even considered to take the current parking lot on the north side of the school and build there? We could have several levels of parking garage, with additional classrooms built above. Why does a need for parking automatically mean large, sprawly parking LOT?

And I do support athletics -- I think it is a great activity for the kids, and I support tax dollars going to support these programs. However, I don't agree with the relocation of the entire school for extracurricular purposes. Why not build just the athletic compound on the north Champaign site? Certainly it would be more cost-effective for the school to provide shuttle service for a subset of the student population (athletes) than to require everyone to travel to the outer extents of the city.

If we're building our education infrastructure, we should be focusing on meeting the needs of the entire community, and making sure that it is sustainable development. Look at Champaign Public Library -- it is indeed "nice," and I love the amenities and services provided there, but it is not financially sustainable at this point. It was overbuilt based on optimistic projections, and now the pursuit of "nice" has put our community and its resources at risk.

Finally, I don't understand how you think transportation "may become a issue at first" -- will it magically disappear? North Champaign (north of I-74) is a logistical nightmare. Can you imagine adding 1,000 cars during peak hours to the roads of Prospect, Neil, and Market? There are not many great ways to get around there other than car. For parents who drop off their kids, University Avenue may not be terribly out of the way, and it is effective at moving traffic. North Champaign is "on the way" for few parents, and they will all be forced across the same three roads, rather than distributing across the grid network we have south of I-74.

lga wrote on April 04, 2014 at 1:04 pm

All of those options were logistically impossible. And, really, it would cost more to try to retro-fit that building to meet today's needs.

So, yea. In a city this size, one may have to travel across town to get to school. This is nothing new and nothing that can't be done by families and students. A little inconvenient? Yes. But to continue to try to "build on" and retro fit that building? Not possible.

pattsi wrote on April 04, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Actually, not the case when one computes the cost externalities related to what will stimulate sprawl north of the freeway. Externalities that will affect the pocket book of everyone, such as increased need for park district faciities, more infrastructure since there is none out there, more MTD routes, increased traffic, more housing being built causing more farm land being taken out of production and this affects economic development for the county, etc. Further if one drives around the community right now that there is no snow and leaves on the trees, one can identify many spaces, including surrounding the present Central site, that can accommodate the HS--that is if one keeps an open mind. Sites that you argue have been eliminated have been done so without a deep economic analysis including the externalities listed above.

This decision is one of two of the biggest decisions made locally that will affect the area for 5 decades.

Almost everyone agrees that Central needs attention, but benign neglect for a decade and half as to proceeding as Unit 116 has by buying land surrounding the HS has created the hard and costly decisions today.

lga wrote on April 04, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Bottom line dollars and cents (ON PAPER), it might look less costly to keep Central where it is and build up and out. But how many years has Urbana been buying the land around the high school? 5? 10? We no longer have that kind of time. Yes, it would have been fabulous if the Unit 4 administration had begun that process years ago, but they didn't. Are we accounting for that lost time? What is cost of waiting 10 more years?

I keep hearing people STILL talking about thinking creatively and with an open mind, but I never hear of any viable, REAL option that would work for a 21st century high school. 

My job takes my in to Central and the area schools all day, every day. I challenge all the nay-sayers to spend some time at Central. Let me know if you can find a washroom with warm water to wash your hands - I still haven't found one. Oh, and be careful with that spots in the school that are marked off with caution tape -- there are some leaks there. Don't go in August or September, either, if you don't want to pass out from heat exhaustion. The computer labs may or may not be functional, but don't let that stop you from visiting. Don't count on seeing any new and engaging technology in the science labs - there is no room for that. However, be sure to visit the basement classrooms. They're not very inviting and they're dark, but it's kind of fun that way! That mold in the special education classroom? Don't worry about it -- they kind of fixed it. I hope that you don't have a physical disability, either. The building isn't *quite* accessible in all areas -- especially if you have to park your car.

Anyway, like I was saying...we don't have any more time to waste on this decision. The kids deserve a new school, and not one that is slapped together or half renovated for the sake of keeping a central location. Our kids are worth it.

AreaMan wrote on April 04, 2014 at 5:04 pm
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I like that you focus on the educational facilities when trying to sell the new high school, but the fact is that educational facilities don't take up a whole lot of space, and could be easily built into a six to ten story structure with parking garage and classrooms in the place where the current parking lot resides.

What takes up the most space are the athletic facilities. Has there been any discussion of having a shared athletic compound for all CUSD schools? Seems like this would reduce redundancy and cost. And as far as distance between the school and athletic compound, "[i]n a city this size, one may have to travel across town to get to [the athletic fields]. This is nothing new and nothing that can't be done by families and students. A little inconvenient? Yes."

I hear you that Central is in bad shape, but the long list of faulty facilities sounds a bit like a chronically mismanaged maintenance budget/plan. What changes will be made at the new school to prevent this type of dilapidation?

You ask us to "spend some time at Central." How do I go about scheduling a visit to review the condition of the current high school? It would help me a lot if I could see how bad things really are.

Mostly I'm concerned about reduced access to education facilities to those students who do not have access to a motor vehicle. Public education is one of the best assets we have developed as a country, and it should be accessible to all -- not just those with a vehicle. The choice of location is baffling, especially given the recent trends in young people continuing to eschew cars as a mode of transportation. See link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/the-dramatic-30-year-decline-of-young-drivers-in-1-chart/260126/

Kathy S wrote on April 04, 2014 at 5:04 pm

I mentor at Central, and have a student who will start there next year.  And I'm horrified at the thought of building a high school way up on the northern edge of town and leaving Central behind.  There were many other suggestions, including building two smaller schools, and building sports facilities elsewhere, but the board has consistantly dismissed all of these as "impractical".  

I moved to Champaign 10 years ago, and I have always loved how compact of a town it is.  Moving Central up north will make traffic so much worse, and it will make my family much less likely to attend events at the school and to shop in that area.  I am truly sorry to see the board ignoring our concerns about this.

gollygeewillikers wrote on April 04, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Weigand here's a question.  Don't the taxpayers deserve more than dreams, wishes, and baseball park figures talk before the taxpayers vote to have more money milked from us to be "used" by the government?  

rsp wrote on April 04, 2014 at 4:04 pm

If Central is so bad as to be on the verge of being condemned, how can they keep talking about reusing it for a middle school? That defies logic. And yes I've been in the building. They want to keep teaching all the kids the same way, even if it's not in their best interests. I feel like they want to compete with other districts and have shiny new schools with all the perks but forgot about the kids and what they need to succeed in life. They should have started with a master plan of what needed to be done and what was most important. The top of the list shouldn't have been we can always take the taxpayers for more money.

MSJ66 wrote on April 04, 2014 at 8:04 pm

North of $100 million? There's my no vote. The school board and administration seem to be a lot like the Champaign city council members. Sky high plans with everyone elses money and rely on the lets just keep raising taxes on everyone revenue stream. I've had enough of all the ever increasing and new taxes and fees and I will vote no to any referendum regarding the school district and/or the city if there is any mention of my taxes going up. Lastly, these projects won't be completed by the time my child is done in unit 4 schools and as the largest component of my tax bill being the school system I think I'll double down on my NO vote. 

jwr12 wrote on April 04, 2014 at 10:04 pm

I have to admit, my heart sank (as a parent of a unit 4 child likely to go to Central) when I saw the line reading: "Transportation talk on hold."  I then was even more disappointed to see the following, flip comment:

 

"Wiegand hopes to conduct a survey next fall to find out what percentage of students walk or bike to Central. Her theory: It's not nearly as many as has been suggested.

"My sense is that a lot of them get rides from either a parent or a friend," she said. "I don't see that many students walking or riding the bike. It's nice to think that they do. You don't see a lot of bikes on the bike rack when you drive by the school.""

 

There are so many things wrong with this picture.  It's clear that getting students to and from the northern edge of town--without bogging them down in traffic and indeed encouraging them all to have cars--is the biggest problem with the new site.  And yet detailed talk is "on hold" and we're supposed to wait for the results of a survey that may or may not confirm Unit 4's "sense" of the situation?

 

Here's the thing: whether or not students are being driven to Central, in the future we need better transport systems not reliant on so much driving.  And of course it's one thing to drive a child to a relatively central school, and quite another to drive them to the far northern edge of town -- along congested roads and freeways--before turning around to go to work (in the case of those who work in downtown Champaign, campus town, or Urbana, or Savoy for that matter).

 

I'm not voting for this school unless and until there' s a clear, believable transportation plan that doesn't involve massive public and private expense.  And I fail to see how this location can yield such a plan.

Huh wrote on April 04, 2014 at 10:04 pm

"I would love to spend less", that's a lie. I never met a government or school official that wants to spend less or get paid less. There are no picket lines or strikes with workers protesting being paid too much or giving any back.

In the end, they will blow an astronomical amount of dollars and use familiar pat phrases to justify it. After all, "It's for the children".  Of course, the north of $100 billion state pension deficit is already for the children and they can have the north of $17,000,000,000,000 Federal Deficit.

Also ironic, naming a high school "Centennial" that they are willing to throw in the dumpster at only half that age.

Huh wrote on April 04, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Maybe they could save $40 million of it by using the Champaign Public Library instead of building a library into the new school.  After all, Champaign already has a $40 million dollar library they never figured out how to pay for.

Also, ban Mahomet an Tuscola residents from attending sporting events, it will help the save even more money.