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