Public survey on possible Central sites extended
CHAMPAIGN — A telephone poll on the two proposed Central High School sites will be extended through June to tease out more details about voter opinions.
Pollsters want to refine the questions based on preliminary results from the telephone poll of approximately 400 school district residents last month, according to Superintendent Judy Wiegand.
"It was mixed. It wasn't clear enough," Wiegand said. "We'd like to drill down more. We need more clarity."
Meanwhile, results of a faculty-staff survey show that employees prefer the site at Interstate Drive and Neil Street over the Spalding Park-Judah Christian site by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.
That's actually closer than Wiegand expected, though she noted that the split among Central High staff was roughly 70-30. And more detailed questions showed a wider range of opinion, with up to 46 percent favorable toward a Spalding Park plan.
Patron Insight conducted the initial public opinion poll for the school district over two weeks in late May.
"I think the questions are too broad. We need to narrow it a bit," Wiegand said.
On Patron Insight's advice, Wiegand would not release the questions used in that poll, so as not to influence future answers. She did say the questions were similar to those used in the faculty-staff poll, but the public poll also had questions about how large a tax increase voters would support, about K-8 models under consideration and "other issues we're trying to address for our master facility plan," she said.
While it's just one piece of data to be used by the school board in its decision on a new Central site — which must be made before the district can ask voters for a tax increase in November — the public poll is weighted a bit heavier than others, Wiegand said.
"It's going to come down to the voters. It's an important piece for the board to look at," she said.
The superintendent has said the district would need $80 million to build a new Central (on the Interstate Drive site), $40 million to renovate Centennial High, and between $15 million and $18 million for a new Dr. Howard Elementary, if that's added to the ballot question. The Spalding site would add another $20 million to $25 million to the cost, she said.
The faculty-staff poll was emailed to employees last month and included five questions about the two sites under consideration — 80 acres at Neil Street and Interstate Drive, and a smaller site encompassing Spalding Park, Franklin Middle School and Judah Christian.
A total of 464 employees responded, including 294 teachers (34 percent of all teachers), 11 noncertified staff (19 percent) and 38 administrators (41 percent).
Some key findings:
— Nearly half (49 percent) said having equitable school facilities and on-site "amenities" (including athletic fields) should be the "top priority," even if it requires a significant expense. Another 41 percent said it should be a priority as long as the extra expense is "minimal."
— Almost half (48 percent) said they could accept the use of eminent domain to acquire property around a new high school if necessary, though more than half of that group said they would "rather that it not be necessary."
— More than half (54 percent) favored using the Interstate Drive site for Central, and another 15 percent leaned in favor of it. About a quarter (27 percent) opposed it or leaned against it.
— But on a separate question, 46 percent said they favored or leaned toward a plan to use the Spalding Park site and acquiring commercial property and up to 65 homes around it; 50 percent opposed it or leaned that way.
Wiegand said she would like to know whether respondents were opposed to the Spalding site itself, or just the idea of taking homes in the area.
"Can we message it differently and get a different response if people had a better understanding of what would happen over time in different phases?" she said.
Wiegand said many Central High staff members have been "very vocal" about their support for the Interstate Drive site because they worry about being "landlocked" at Spalding.
"They fear ending up in a similar situation like they are now," she said, where students have to travel to practice sites.
The district will present site plans at a June 17 community meeting to give voters a clearer picture of the possibilities.
"This is a 70-year investment for the community," Wiegand said. "The board and I have asked the architect to lay that out in a visual so people can see that.
"If we go with Spalding, what can we do right now? What would it look like a few years out after purchasing homes?"
The school would likely be at the east end of the site, in what is now Spalding Park, she said.
A 350,000- to 400,000-square-foot building means "we have to build up," possibly four or five stories, she said. Architects from Gorski Reifsteck and DLR Group are exploring what that might look like, the possibility of using Franklin as part of the Central High campus or purchasing Judah and renovating that building, as well as a walkway under Harris Avenue so it could remain open.
"There are a lot of different variables that can be played with," she said.
Wiegand said the district is still investigating the condition of the Judah building, which dates back to 1927.
Athletic fields could be accommodated at that site, but it would require the school district to acquire up to 65 homes "over time" along Sherwood Terrace and Harvard Street, north and south of the site, she said.
Wiegand has said that the district won't use eminent domain — where properties are taken through condemnation and compensation is paid to homeowners. But she hedged a bit this week, saying the district hasn't decided whether it would acquire houses as they go on the market or move more quickly.
The district plans to begin contacting homeowners soon to see who might be interested in selling and get feedback on a potential high school at the site. So far, she has only heard from a handful, both pro and con.