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."