Site selection isn't the only question that needs an answer ASAP

Site selection isn't the only question that needs an answer ASAP

A little more than a month is left until D-Day — as in Decision Day — for the Champaign school district.

Aug. 18 is the deadline for the board to place a question on the November election ballot asking voters for $100 million or more to fund a new Central High School, renovations at Centennial High School and possibly a new elementary school.

Board members remain undecided, for now, between the site they announced in January at Interstate Drive and Neil Street, and an alternative put forward this spring at Spalding Park.

No campaign committee can be formed until that choice is made, officials say.

The decision also will presumably affect exactly how much the board will ask for in November, as architects estimated that building at Spalding could cost $40 million more than at Interstate Drive.

Can it be pulled together in time? Board President Laurie Bonnett said the board doesn't have to specify a school site on the ballot question itself.

"I would, however, want to have that nailed down prior to the November election," she said Tuesday.

Other urgent questions remain. Here are four of them.

What's the harm in waiting until next spring?

For one thing, there are logistical consequences, said Superintendent Judy Wiegand.

If the board postpones the bond issue until next April's municipal elections, and voters say no, the district would have to wait until the 2016 primary or general election to try again, further delaying construction, Wiegand noted.

A history of referendums in the Champaign school district shows few building projects, if any, have passed on the first try, she said.

Construction costs generally go up 3 percent a year,

"The question is how much longer we can wait," Bonnett argued. "We've been talking about this for how many years? Now that you have a board that is ready to do something, we're getting pushback.

"At some point you have to pull the plug. That's what we were elected to do. I think this board is not done talking and certainly not done listening, but we certainly are ready to move forward."

The board is awaiting one more piece of information before making a decision between Spalding and Interstate Drive: a study of the long-term costs of the site, not just monetarily but for the community as a whole. That report, by developer Mike Royse and UI urban planning Professor Brian Deal, is due by the end of July.

"That could turn the decision one way or the other for different board members," Bonnett said.

After that, she said, "I don't see a reason to wait."

One variable that would change her mind? Dodds Park.

"That is worth waiting for, in my opinion," she said.

Does it make more sense strategically to wait for a municipal election?

Brian Gaines, professor of political science at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said that would be the district's best bet.

Marginal voters who tend to vote only in general elections, or even mid-term elections, are less likely to know anything about a school district issue, and may just vote no, he said.

"Generally, people will vote no on a tax increase with no background information," he said.

Besides a contentious governor's race, this November's ballot will also be longer than usual, with several advisory questions that Illinois residents aren't used to seeing, such as a proposed "millionaire's tax," Gaines said. That could confuse voters, making the results unpredictable.

Off-cycle municipal elections tend to draw fewer but more serious voters who are informed, he said.

"To get it passed, I'd have it in the spring, and I'd be extra nervous about 2014," he said.

Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten offers a different view.

"The conventional wisdom I've heard is to put it on the ballot when you get maximum turnout, because the greater the voter turnout, the more likely people are going to be accepting of tax increases. The bigger the electorate, the more liberal it is," Hulten said.

Next April, the ballot will not include township offices, so it's not "particularly long," Hulten said.

But it could have other tax questions as well as a high-profile mayor's race, he said.

And five school board seats will be up for election next spring. Bonnett and board member Kristine Chalifoux are loathe to inject a tax increase/school-siting controversy into that race.

"I don't want an issue like this to become ... a campaign issue with the mayors, either. This is educating kids. This isn't to get me elected," Chalifoux said.

Will Dr. Howard make the cut?

It's still on the table, Wiegand says, but it comes down to money.

A new Central and a renovated Centennial are the priority. If possible, the district would like to include Dr. Howard, but the price tag for these projects is growing.

A recent public survey asked voters about support for a $90 million, $120 million and $150 million bond issue. With the estimates for Central and Centennial already ranging from $120 million with the Interstate site and more for Spalding Park, Wiegand conceded it would be tough to afford a new elementary school if Spalding is selected. (Though no firm price has been established for a new Dr. Howard, the last new school, Carrie Busey in Savoy, cost $18 million.)

"I don't know if there's going to be enough support in the community for both high schools and Dr. Howard," said Bonnett, who led the second campaign for the 1-cent sales tax for schools in 2009, which passed. "We'll have to figure out what it is we think we can win."

The 80 acres: Sell, swap or land-bank?

Wiegand said the district hasn't decided what to do with the 80 acres it purchased at Neil Street and Interstate Drive if it opts to build the new Central elsewhere.

The possibilities include selling the property, keeping it for a future school because Champaign will likely grow in that direction, or trading it with the park district, she said.

Asked if any swap has been discussed for Spalding, Park District Executive Director Joe DeLuce said, "not at the board level." He declined to elaborate, but did say the two sides have discussed sharing facilities should a new school be build at Spalding.

Bonnett said the district owns half of the Interstate site, the former Ponder farm, but isn't scheduled to close on the Atkins property until November.

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45solte wrote on July 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

They don't want it (tax referendum) to become a campaign issue (for board and mayor). Why not? What better issue than how you are spending tax payer money. Accountability. Responsibility. Working within a BUDGET. The kids will still get educated (loosely speaking, as the content of their education is in need of some rennovating) even if all of the athletic fields in the city disappeared. A board that wants to get things done... by sticking it to the tax payer. Just press the easy button. Don't down-scale the cost or anything. What planning is the board doing beyond how to strategize getting money out of people (with timing, etc.) when they find the ATM out of money, but, students still need to be educated? The board seems willing to do one thing. Ram this through, as is, price tag-wise.

rsp wrote on July 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

So let me get this straight, The walls are sinking at Dr. Howard but that's not important. Central's in a crisis and if we make it all shiny and pretty we have to make Centennial nice so they don't feel bad. Shhh, don't bring up the fact they have to carry people in wheelchairs around and go down to go up. Dr. Howard can wait. It's like watching the Keystone Cops. Five board seats are up next spring?