Judah Christian 'very willing' to sell building
CHAMPAIGN — Judah Christian School is "very willing" to discuss a sale of its property on North Prospect Avenue to the Champaign school district and work with Unit 4 on a mutually beneficial timetable, Judah's board president says.
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Judah's board members met last week with attorney Michael Tague, who is advising the Champaign school district on its siting process for a new high school.
No price was discussed, but Tague said Judah officials were "quite interested" in a possible sale as part of their overall plan to move to their school to a new site on the western edge of Champaign.
"If that was something that worked out for everybody's timetable, that could be the proverbial win-win," Judah board President Ryan Gower said Friday.
Both Tague and Gower said Unit 4 has always been a logical buyer, even before officials agreed two weeks ago to consider the Judah property, along with Franklin Middle School and Spalding Park to the east, as an alternative site for a new Central High School. Together, the three parcels make up about 36.6 acres. The district has said it needs 47.7 acres and was already in the process of buying 80 acres of farmland north of Market Place Mall for a new Central and possibly a new middle school.
Tague said he has talked with Judah's board members on and off over the years — including as part of infill studies in 2009 and 2011 — about their plans for the property, not necessarily as a high school site but because of its proximity to Franklin.
"They've kept us apprised of their general timetable and what they wanted to do. They have said it would be available at some time," Tague said.
Last Monday, Tague brought Judah's board up to date on the efforts to find a replacement for Central and the possibilities of the Judah-Franklin-Spalding site, Gower said.
"He shared with us some of the site plans, which we had already seen in the newspaper," said Gower, associate dean at the University of Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences.
Those plans would call for Judah's demolition and a new school to be built somewhere behind it on the Franklin-Spalding property.
They also discussed Judah's eventual move and "what they might be able to do to accelerate that timetable if necessary, what we'd need to do ... to make it all work," Tague said.
Judah Christian owns a little over 50 acres on Rising Road in the Jacob's Landing subdivision, and preliminary construction is underway on athletic fields there, Gower said. Plans call for a soccer field and practice field, an IHSA-approved track with a rubberized surface, a baseball field and a softball field, to be completed by spring 2015.
The school just received a gift for the fields that will provide $3.1 million to $5 million over the next 10 years, he said.
The plan is to build the school in stages and move gradually as money is raised. The current timetable is to begin construction of the high school sometime in 2017, the junior high in 2020, and the grade school and preschool in 2023, Gower said.
But a sale of the existing school, "our biggest asset," could speed things up, Gower said.
"If talks with Unit 4 proceed, and those proposals gain traction, I think the school is very willing to re-examine our phased development and see how we can partner with Unit 4 and everybody's best interests," he said.
The district plans to ask voters in November for more than $100 million to build a new Central, renovate Centennial High school and possibly replace Dr. Howard Elementary School. The hope was that construction of a new high school at Neil Street and Interstate Drive could start in 2015. It's unclear how that timetable might change if the district decides on the Spalding site instead.
Part of that time frame depends on acquiring enough properties around Judah and Spalding to make a new high school work, Tague said. He estimated there are 62 potential properties that the district might want to acquire over time, though school officials have pledged not to use eminent domain to force owners to sell.
Tague said they also talked about the possibility of Judah using a "foster school" as it transitions from the current site to a new building, similar to the way Champaign's elementary schools are using the former Carrie Busey Elementary School on Kirby Avenue temporarily as their own schools are renovated.
"If they didn't own it anymore, because they wanted to work with the school district or park district or whoever, they indicated they would keep an open mind as to where their students would be educated," Tague said.
Gower said his board hasn't had a chance to discuss that idea or other details yet but added, "It's an intriguing idea."
Judah has about 500 students in preschool through grade 12 at the school, which used to be Lottie Switzer Elementary School. The Champaign school district sold the building in 1984 for $160,000, and it was later sold to Judah, which moved there in 1986.
Gower said the school has made a "significant financial investment" in the building, adding a gymnasium and doubling classroom space.