Tom's Mailbag July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day.

And let us not forget the words of John Adams, written to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776:

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."

I especially like the reference to celebrating the nation's declaration of independence with "Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

The stuff about celebrating with Guns, not so much.

Let's celebrate and be safe.

Now, for this week's mailbag questions and comments about the brain drain at the University of Illinois, how Urbana has kept pace with school construction needs, more opinion on Champaign's high school plans and what the mayoral candidates in Champaign propose to do about reducing gun violence.

Did the brain drain materialize?

"Hi, Tom. I'm wondering if the predicted June 30 "brain drain" at the University of Illinois ended up happening, or if many/most of those who had thought about retiring decided not to when the State Universities Retirement System changed its interpretation of the pension provisions. Thank you!"

Yes, it appears there has been a "brain drain" at the UI in the last two months.

As of earlier this week the State Universities Retirement System received 427 retirement applications from University of Illinois employees in June, 230 from the Urbana campus, 184 in Chicago and 13 in Springfield.

The university-wide total for just May and June is 563, just short of the 564 total retirements for all of 2013, which SURS has characterized as a typical year for UI retirements.

How did Urbana remodel schools without tax increases?

"We have all heard about how Champaign Unit 4 has been talking and talking about building a new high school, and the impending tax referendum. In contrast, The News-Gazette has a couple articles reporting that Urbana is planning 'renovation without taxation.' These are obviously two very different cases, but one wonders: How exactly did Urbana build consensus? Who advised them, and/or provided expert opinion? How is it that they can save up money, where Unit 4 has repeatedly put out bond referendums (and intends to do so again in November, for the biggest one yet)?

"Again, I realize Urbana is totally not Champaign; different variables all around. But one wonders."

John Dimit, the president of the Urbana school board and a board member since 1987, offers his take which includes the observation that Urbana taxpayers have been supportive of school construction programs and that has allowed the district to keep pace with capital needs, including the use of the 1-cent countywide sales tax for school construction.

Wrote Dimit:

"We have used a combination of revenue streams 1) sales tax (long term bonding and current 'pay-as-you-go'), 2) multiple small-scale (under $7 million), short term (less than 10 years) working cash bond issues, and 3) life safety (pay-as-you-go). What makes us different is that Urbana taxpayers have supported numerous past bond issues (pre-sales tax) that have allowed us to keep up with building needs more aggressively than Unit 4.

"For instance, we had large referendums in the mid-1980s (mostly Urbana High School work) and mid-1990s (mostly Urbana Middle School, Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center and Leal School). It has been a careful blending of all the potential sources of revenue that has allowed us to keep our buildings more current. Therefore, our elementary building projects tend to be around $10 million each rather than the amounts Unit 4 is now spending. What we have remaining are roughly $7 million to spend at each of our three remaining elementary sites, and we just authorized conceptual and design work to begin next spring on Yankee Ridge. It will take us at least two more years to begin that same process at the two remaining buildings (Thomas Paine and Wiley). This does not mean we have ignored these buildings in the time since the sales tax has been adopted. To the contrary, beyond our big projects, we probably average well over $100,000 of work at all nine of our buildings each year, doing smaller scale work like electrical work, flooring surfaces, security improvements, lighting and HVAC.

"Our major property tax based debt will be fully retired in 2018 and since our projects are more modest in size, we have adopted more of a pay-as-you-go approach with our sales tax funding than Unit 4, which bonded a very large amount immediately after the sales tax was approved. Contrast this with Urbana that limited its sales tax bonding to one-third of expected revenue. The second one-third was reserved for pay-as-you-go, and the final one-third reserved for property tax relief until 2018, as promised to our voters). That was understandable because Unit 4 had major amounts of work to do to "catch up" with where other surrounding districts (including us) were with our buildings. The flip side of this coin is that the Unit 116 taxpayers have had higher tax bills for the intervening years, due almost entirely to payments for our bonded indebtedness for facilities.

"We have limited our outside advice to our district architects and engineers. We have involved the district architect (Isaksen Glerum Wachter) in all of our discussions, including at least two citizen-based facility committees convened over the past 20 years (late 1990s and late 2000s). Those citizen-based committee reports were actually well aligned with each other. I think that is because the district — and the community via the UHS referendum in the 1980s — made a commitment to keep Urbana High School and Urbana Middle School at their current locations. All facility decisions since then have actually been driven by the voter decision to keep UHS in the central part of the community.

"In line with that decision, we have made additional investments since 1990 to keep our high school educationally current. That has included such things as 1) modernization of electrical systems (to support technology), 2) gradual and voluntary acquisition of land to replace outdoor classroom and sports related functions as UHS and UMS have expanded their footprints (including the indoor pool), 3) rehabbing our arts spaces (ie auditorium) and lecture halls, and 4) constantly updating our technology assets not just in the labs but throughout the building. Through our very detailed (each citizen committee worked for over a year) planning process, we established priorities and minimum building criteria. And the board has consistently pursued those priorities. Each individual project has built upon those plans.

"Hence we are able to have a high school (built for 1,300 students) and a middle school (built for 1,100 students) on a roughly 20-acre site. Would we like a bit more room in order to return our tennis courts (at neighboring Blair Park) and our baseball field (located adjacent to Prairie school) back to the main campus? The answer is yes. But certain compromises are necessary with a center city school, yet we are gradually expanding the site via voluntary property acquisitions along Iowa and Washington streets, so we are prepared for future needs. This is also why we installed artificial turf fields for soccer, football, and track — it made a substantial difference in the intensity of use for those outdoor spaces, not just for the three sports, but also for PE classes, marching band, and other outdoor educational efforts. We concluded we could no longer support a 5-acre stadium, for instance, that was only used for 10 or so athletic events per year.

"There are also extremely positive aspects of keeping the school at its current location. It forces you to think smarter about land use and campus design, it allows more transportation options for students to get to school (although the concentration of MTD and yellow buses must be managed carefully), and it preserves the gravitas of both the UHS and UMS 'front door' presence in our town. It is even as simple as reducing the mowing of beautiful, but not real functional, acres of grass that surround a lot of schools.

"Despite all this consensus, make no mistake that added conversations, often with very important differences to resolve, are needed each time you approach a major capital investment. Our district mantra is you only get to address these issues once every 50 or so years, so you better make sure you do it right — and do it at a quality level that will service the community well for those 50 years. This takes a lot of effort by staff, school board and the community to make sure you have addressed all facets of each project. But it must be done in a logical, transparent manner so all parts of the community understand the need and the process.

"The decades of our consistent approach to our schools has also built up a level of trust in the district to handle our resources wisely. That trust is hard to build and very easy to destroy, so we move deliberately and incrementally, thus keeping that trust. When you have communities like Urbana and Champaign, where nearly 75 percent of the households do not have children in the public schools, this is a very difficult task.

"I do not envy the Unit 4 Board at this time — they are good people doing the public's business as best they can. They have the difficult task of recovering from years when past school boards have not faced the difficult challenges and finances of keeping nearly 100-year-old structures up to date — and playing catch-up on deferred maintenance is always more expensive. Plus that creates huge change and seeking consensus on change at that fundamental level is even more difficult to achieve."

On where the new Champaign high school should be built

These remarks won't please the Champaign school board:

"I don't think Central HS should be built on the Interstate Drive site. 1. Too close to the mall. 2. High traffic area already. 3. Taxes increase 4. Teenagers loved to destroy property. 5. TRAFFIC 6. TRAFFIC.

"I was at the school board meeting at Central HS a couple of weeks ago. They have not even considered how they are going to handle traffic if the entrance is off of Interstate Drive. It would be a DISASTER if you have tons of buses and cars lined up on Interstate Drive. That road helps lighten the load from Prospect being so busy. If add the school Interstate will become just as busy as Prospect what a mess. I AM VOTING NO."

"It should not be built at all. Wrong time and barely (and I mean barely) climbing out of the recent recession."

Gun violence in Champaign

"I love this weekly feature of yours, Tom. My question is: Another summer; another wave of senseless gun and gang violence in Champaign. I'm curious if any of the folks who've been linked to running for mayor has a big idea for how to curb the violence. Someone needs to come up with something."

I asked for responses from the six people who have been mentioned as possible candidates for mayor of Champaign and got four replies, in this order:

From council member Karen Foster:

"I am just as frustrated as anyone. I know that the police have been working on trying to curb this violence by doing extra patrols in the higher crime areas. Through their work they caught one who was involved in Chicago.

"I believe that we need to let the police do their jobs and find the criminals responsible. But citizens can be involved in other ways. We had a gun buyback program a couple of years ago. I believe we brought in 100 weapons. I have participated in the Walk As One walks for the last two years through the neighborhoods where the violence has been, passing out literature to the residents on keeping safe and giving phone numbers for help. I appreciate all who have also participated and to Pastor Johnson for opening Jericho Missionary Baptist for camps for our youth to give them a safe place to play and learn during the summer. That church has also been a starting point for our walks.

"I think we are all united in the fact that we do not want any violence, but we cannot control those who are bent on doing harm to others. It takes cooperation by those who may have information about persons who commit crimes to come forward and help our police department catch the criminals responsible. Until we catch them and get them off the streets will we be able to affect less violence.

"Our Summer Youth Employment Program is also a positive way that the City and Unit 4 are working together to help youth gain employment and instill positive values.

"I feel that it is a small segment of our population that is causing this violence. The majority of our citizens are law-abiding people who want to live in safe neighborhoods. I would encourage anyone who has any information about criminal activity to call the police department and share that information any time of the day or night.

"The police cannot be everywhere and need the public's eyes and ears to help. As I have often heard, you never know when your piece of information is the one piece that may be able to solve the puzzle. To sum it up, I feel that it is up to everyone to do our part to help curb the violence whether it be opening up your church to youth, walking to share information with other community members, or being on the lookout for behaviors not right and sharing with police."

From council member Deb Feinen:

"I agree that the violence needs to stop. It is imperative that we support our police as they address violent crime. I also believe there is no simple solution and I realize that policing alone will not solve this problem long term. I participated in the peace/prayer walk and believe that the city needs to continue to partner with churches, other governmental, and social service agencies to provide opportunities for our kids and community members. We need alternatives to the gangs and their related negative activity which can be created by jobs and alternative opportunities. I support programs like the CommUnity matters program and Summer Youth Employment Program that create opportunities for kids in the areas of recreation, education, work and civic engagement. We also need continued urban renewal through things like the Bristol Place Master plan which I support.

"We need to create jobs and I supported economic development funding in this year's budget and will continue to support it. We created a virtual business incubator for women and minority owned businesses and a small business assistance program. I also supported funding in this budget that will encourage revitalization of commercial property in low to moderate income neighborhoods. Additionally, I have served on and as the chair of the UC2B policy committee and I am now on the UC2B non-profit board. I have worked and continue to work to support the build out of our fiber network which through the original grant provided fiber in low income neighborhoods and community anchor institutions (including churches and not-for-profit agencies) allowing high speed internet access at a low monthly cost with little to no installation cost for the fiber. Having access to high speed internet is both an economic and educational opportunity for people in low income areas served by the grant.

"There is no easy or quick solution to the violence. We need to provide economic opportunity and alternative activities for youth and their families along with working with our police and the impacted neighborhoods."

From Joe Petry, president of the Champaign Park Board:

"It's a hard thing to cope with when violence happens in a community. It doesn't just impact the victims and the perpetrators but it affects the entire community. A couple of key things I see as ways in which we can address this:

"Respond to every shooting not just after it's reported but to have a team of community members and role models who express that violence is not OK. This starts from city officials all the way down to community members.

"Training and education: We train community members and volunteers on how to address and work with these situations. We continue to educate even when there appears to be a long period of peace.

"Identify: Identify high-risk individuals by trained police and other community workers who can mediate conflict and prevent retaliations.

"Mediation: Ongoing dialogue with people involved in conflict, retaliations, recent arrests and those who have been released from prison. The goal always being to resolve issues and prevent those conflicts from becoming violent.

"Organized community workers coordinate with existing and establish new neighborhood clubs and councils. The neighborhood associations offer support services and counseling to those affected by the violence. (See recent example of Garden Hills Neighborhood Association)

"Spread positive alternatives: See current efforts reported in The News-Gazette about community members making a difference http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-07-02/program-aims-epic-change-—-gangs-good.html

"We need more examples of this in the community. Real change happens when a community comes together to identify, resolve, and offer continued support to the critical issues it's facing."

From Mayor Don Gerard:

"As mayor, I believe we need both a short-term and long-term approach to keeping our streets safe.

"In the short term, we need to stand together as a community, no matter where a crime is committed, to show criminals that we are not going to be intimidated or indifferent to violent crime. Last week, a peace walk organized by Pastor Lekevie Johnson from the Jericho Missionary Baptist Church, as well as Rev. Eugene Barnes, NAACP President Patricia Avery and community organizer Seon Williams, was a display of how the city of Champaign has rallied together in the wake of recent shootings. We must also continue to foster and promote Chief Cobb's "Community Policing" policy and all work together. Finally, we must empower the community to assist our police officers with investigating incidents so they may arrest violent criminals, so that no shooting goes unpunished here. When I first came into office as mayor, there was a push to cut the number of police officers. That would have had a devastating effect on the safety of our streets, and I successfully fought the proposed reductions to our police force. In fact, because we were able to balance the city budget, six additional police officers have been hired in the past year.

"In the long term, we need to create an economic environment here that offers our youth opportunity so they do not feel hopeless and turn to a life of crime and gangs. We have a lot of work to do on this front, but we have made great progress and are moving in the right direction. The summer I first came into office, the unemployment rate was 9.8 percent. Today, it is 5.6 percent. In the three years since I've been mayor, the C-U metro area has created 8,500 new non-farm jobs.

"A great part of this success has been the Summer Youth Employment Program, a partnership between the City, the Champaign Unit 4 School District, and local business owners, who provides hundreds of Champaign high school students with summer jobs and hands-on training for potential careers after graduation. Continuing to grow jobs, and create real opportunity for each resident of Champaign, is the best way to combat violent crime.

"Keeping our streets safe and growing jobs are my two top priorities, and I will continue to expand on these collaborative efforts already underway."

Thanks for all the questions. We'll be back next Friday.

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rsp wrote on July 04, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Really enjoyed seeing the detailed comments from John Dimit. I would be interested to know what other school boards thought of Champaign's handling of the high school situation even if it was anonymous. It's easy to get tunnel-vision when you're caught up in things.

increvable wrote on July 05, 2014 at 2:07 pm

The Urbana school district has shown real foresight in doing what's necessary to keep the middle school and high school centrally located. I have a good friend who sold his house on Washington St. to the school district several years ago. It's still there, providing rental income in the short term and options for expansion in the long term. I wonder whether renovation of Central High School would be a more realistic option had the Unit 4 school board been thinking along similar lines over the past 20 years by buying property between Park and Church as it came onto the market and expanding north with a view to incorporating the old YMCA site.