Updated: New Central High School site proposed

Updated: New Central High School site proposed

CHAMPAIGN — Three months after announcing that northern Champaign likely would be the site of a new Central High School, officials now are talking with the Champaign Park District about another option.

School Board President Laurie Bonnett cautioned that the talks are very preliminary and it still might not work out. But she thinks a new option presented by the park district is worth exploring, just as school officials did with the other sites it considered.

The nascent discussions center on property stretching from Spalding Park on the east, across Franklin Middle School and to Judah Christian School on the west. The site is school only a few blocks north of the existing Central High School.

But it's also a much smaller site at 36.6 acres compared to the 80-acre site the school district is in the process of purchasing in north Champaign for $3.2 million, and smaller still than the 47.7 acres the school district estimated it needed for the new high school.

It would take some assembly, too, as the whole stretch includes several property owners. Judah Christian, for one, is building a new school in west Champaign at Rising Road and Kirby Avenue.

"I don't know that it would work, but it certainly is intriguing to explore the opportunity," Bonnett said on Thursday.

During the park district board of commissioners' meeting Wednesday night, school district attorney Tom Lockman told the board, "specifically the (school) district is interested in exploring opportunities related to Spalding and Dodds parks and how those might be able to fit into the district's future facilities needs where that may be possible. Again, we're committed to examining all of the options and certainly would welcome the opportunity to engage in a collaborative conversation with the park district to that end."

Bonnett said putting the new high school there was the park district's proposal, so school officials are taking a look at it.

"One of the things that they have proposed to us is that it would be a good site for the high school," Bonnett said. "We are, just like all the other sites, doing our due diligence."

She said that, when school officials were searching last year for potential locations, they were told that Spalding Park was not available. That has since changed. Champaign Park District Board President Joe Petry said Thursday his agency is very interested in the possibility.

"We've been in discussions with the school board in particular over the past four to six weeks," Petry said. "The park district board has expressed enthusiasm in potentially locating the new Central at Spalding Park."

Here are two "very unofficial" site plans for the land from Spalding to Judah Christian. The first contemplates the site without Franklin; the second contemplates Franklin remaining where it is. There also is an archtiect's "narrative" about the location.

School Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the park board's offer "did come as a bit of a surprise." She said concerns were expressed last year about the property being bordered by railroad tracks on the north and south, and about the future of Franklin. The district recently invested $4.2 million in a geothermal heating system and new windows there.

But despite the months of planning that went into choosing the north Champaign site for the new Central, Wiegand said there's enough new information to warrant further exploration of the Spalding Park proposal. She said the district will apply the same criteria used to evaluate other properties, including transportation.

"When another entity comes to the table and wants to work with the school district, I appreciate that," Wiegand said.

Wiegand said the 105 acres at Dodds Park "has a lot of appeal as well," though it hasn't formally been offered by the park district.

Park officials have been mulling what to do with Spalding Park since they decided in 2012 to close the public pool there. It had deteriorated beyond repair, and district officials decided it was time for a new plan for the whole park — although the plan at the time was to keep it as a park.

But turning it into part of the new high school would offer a few benefits for the park district, Petry said. He thinks any deal with the school district could include provisions for public recreation features like walking paths and maybe some kind of swap for park space somewhere else.

Petry also thinks the immediate surrounding area stands to benefit.

"That neighborhood could really use some public investment," Petry said.

The school district still has a way to go before it builds a new high school. Its biggest hurdle will be voters, who in November would need to agree to a substantial property tax hike to pay for what could be an $80 million high school.

School officials say the 47-year-old Centennial High School needs to be renovated, too, at a cost of between $35 and $40 million, and Dr. Howard Elementary School may need to be replaced for around $19 million.

Wiegand said the district would have to make a decision on the Spalding Park property by the summer, before an August deadline for placing a referendum question on the November ballot.

School officials will continue working on program plans for the new Central High School and a renovated Centennial through May, then in June and July develop models for the board to consider for the bond referendum, she said.

The district will also conduct opinion polls and surveys of registered voters on various school questions, including the potential of a Spalding Park high school site, she said.

If the school district were to move forward with the Spalding Park plan, what becomes of the 80 acres the district purchased in north Champaign is unknown, said school district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart.

Wiegand said that land could be used for other purposes in the future.

"From my perspective, it doesn't hurt the district to land-bank," Wiegand said. "If we go back in time 30 years ago, I wish the board had done some land-banking so that we wouldn't be in the position we are now.

"I don't think it's a bad investment by any means for the district."

The site of Judah Christian formerly was a Champaign school district facility, Lottie Switzer Elementary School, which started as a four-room school in 1927. Lottie Switzer was closed in 1977, when the district faced declining enrollment.

The school district sold the building in 1984 to Dorothy Brumleve of Urbana for $160,000. It was later sold to Judah Christian, which had launched in 1983 and moved to the former Switzer building in 1986. The school added a wing with a gymnasium in 1999. In June 2006, as Judah Christian was exploring expansion, there was some discussion with then-Superintendent Arthur Culver about the district buying the school. But the school did not buy the property it had been looking at — the former Roberson Trucking property west of Champaign. Now, it is building a new facility in southwest Champaign, north of the intersection of Rising Road and Kirby Avenue.  

“People certainly have reminded myself and the board, ‘You let that property go, you sold it, and now you’re going to buy it back,’” Wiegand said. Petry said that in order for the site to be feasible, Judah would have to relocate, but Franklin wouldn't necessarily have to.

He added that if Unit 4 moves into that area, the park district would still look to get some public use out of it.

Petry added there's no deadline for Unit 4 to decide on if it wants to set up shop in the Spalding Park area.

Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart also confirmed that the school district is in talks with the park district about the site but didn't confirm that the talks are exclusively about Central High School.

Stuart added that the school district has purchased land along Interstate Drive that was slated earlier this year for the new Central High School.  She said if the district moves Central High School elsewhere, it's not known at this time what would become of that land.

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth contributed to this report.


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787 wrote on April 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm

This makes more sense than locating the new "Central" High School a few miles south of Thomasboro.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on April 24, 2014 at 4:04 pm
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Champaign Mom wrote on April 24, 2014 at 4:04 pm

I would be soooo happy to see a Central High School at this location. Build up (building and parking) if needed to create enough room for fields, but keep it CENTRAL. I would wholeheartedly support a referendum for a new high school at this location. 

AreaMan wrote on April 24, 2014 at 8:04 pm
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Yes! Please give consideration to this proposal! I-74 divides our community, and I would love to see an option for Central to still be located centrally, keeping our community "micro-urban."

When the school board does the transportation analysis, please take into account different modes of transportation -- cycling and walking as well as motor vehicle.

jammin wrote on April 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm

A fantastic development in the Central relocation drama. I will be keeping my fingers crossed that this can be a win-win scenario for all parties, especially the staff and students at Central.

Trailmom wrote on April 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Love it!   MUCH better than the current site, easy access for most students, and for people coming to the school for school events.  Please, Please, Please consider this!!!!  

Kathy S wrote on April 25, 2014 at 8:04 am

I'm so excited to see an alternative site being discussed!  I really hope we can make this work.

mrseeu2 wrote on April 25, 2014 at 9:04 am

I had made up by mind months ago. I  told everybody I know that I was definitely going to vote NO on this new high school proposal and everybody I know was agreeing with me.  But hold on, wait a minute here. Don't tell me I have to change my mind on this.  I simply love this new site.  It makes perfect sense that the new high school be located there.  I will make a promise, well two promises.  If this Spalding Park site is selected I will vote YES, otherwise it will be a big NO.

sacrophyte wrote on April 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Curious, for all the folks that now potentially support a referendum if the HS is cited at Spalding (opposed to north of I-74), what do you make of the architect's drawings which put the HS right up against the railroad tracks? Does it matter to you that a Spalding HS would probably demand a much larger referendum?

Also, to play Devil's advocate, why do you like the new site so much? (PS - I like it as well, I am just trying to flesh out more details from the online crowd).

Stay tuned for the April 28th Board Meeting.

-- charles schultz

SKChampaign wrote on April 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

I can't believe how excited I was this morning when I read about the possibility of this new site.  Ever since any sites were suggested, I've been talking with everyone about how this location could work.  I didn't know that the Park District wasn't in favor of it at first; I had thought a land swap could work.  I was told the school board was not interested because it would be too expensive.  I think we need to keep the site central and avoid urban sprawl.  My son went to an afterschool program at Spalding for many years and summer school at Franklin and I never noticed the train being a problem.  We already have a school there right now.  How good it would be for that neighborhood.  I know that it will be more expensive in the short run, but a good investment in the community.  The long run heating/cooling and transportation costs will be less.  With this winter, who wants to be out in a windswept place.  This site would be so much more accessible to families and much closer for most.  And we have to remember that many students do not have cars to drive, and even if many do, do we want to encourage it.  93645

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 25, 2014 at 2:04 pm

But it is 43 acres less....  What about the needed athletic fields? 

alabaster jones 71 wrote on April 25, 2014 at 10:04 pm
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They probably have seen the writing on the wall already, and realized that the referendum for the site by the mall is going to fail spectacularly.

thesimpleman wrote on April 28, 2014 at 7:04 pm

heres what i know about the champaign school districk.

franklin was a middle school and columbia was a elementry school. then they switched. Two years later they made frankiln a middle school again columbia was a  middle school aka magnet school lol .
 They buy all the land on Neil st to build a new school stratton i think. Franklin still a middle school. West side school still open where you eat lunch in the hallway.And i think the food is shipped in not made there.

They spend way too much time wasting our money and time when they do make up their mind they will change it again.

And please someone what ever happened to the best principal ever

MR James Casey?  Great man




CU_townie_2_time_UI_grad wrote on May 01, 2014 at 3:05 pm

It is unfortunate that the railroad tracks are right there, but I think this is a great site!  This makes a lot more sense than the North Neil location.  The drawings look like they reasonably accomodate the new schools needs with or without Franklin still being there.