Some city council, school board members disagree on Central site
CHAMPAIGN — City and school officials reiterated their differences of opinion this week as the countdown to a November referendum on a tax hike for the new Central High School continues.
Some city council members and school officials disagree — respectfully — on where that school should go and what the long-term costs will be to the community as a whole.
City council member Marci Dodds repeatedly has taken stands against policies she believes promote urban sprawl, and she did again on Tuesday night. But this time, the contentious relocation of Central to the north edge of the city served as the backdrop for her complaint, and school board president Laurie Bonnett responded on Wednesday.
Dodds' vote became a symbolic one more than anything — council members voted Tuesday on a fairly perfunctory step: allowing the owner of land on Interstate Drive at North Neil Street to designate for city records which portion of the land was to be sold. The buyer in this case is the Champaign school district, which has publicized its plans to build a new high school at the location.
Though Dodds said she understands the district's need to revamp the school, she thinks moving it to the edge of town costs taxpayers twice. That's once to build it — including the extension of streets and sewer lines, among other items — and again to expand and maintain city services like police, fire, road repair and plowing.
"The list goes on, and so does the paying," Dodds said. "Taxpayers will be paying for a school on the edge of town in perpetuity."
In 2011, Dodds also voted against Judah Christian School's move to the western edge of the city, but by the end of that debate, she was alone in her opposition. She was the lone dissenter again in Tuesday's 8-1 vote that allowed a revision of the official plan for the land on record with the city.
"It also costs taxpayers in the decreased quality of life," Dodds said. "We lose farmland; we lose transportation choices; we lose a view; we increase pollution; we increase auto costs."
Bonnett responded on Wednesday by pointing to the city's own comprehensive plan, which lays out strategies for future growth and land use. The plan puts that Interstate Drive property into one of the city's key growth areas and one of the areas which have their "infrastructure and service needs satisfied and are ready for development."
According to the plan, "as new neighborhood areas develop, elements like schools and parks should also be included to build a complete neighborhood."
And those are the guidelines that city officials and developers should follow, Bonnett said.
"If you look at the comprehensive plan and the way building is happening in our community, a school is the perfect place for Interstate Drive," she said.
And while Bonnett applauded Dodds for being consistent in her votes and comments against urban sprawl, she reiterated that the city's own documents say the Interstate Drive area is ready for growth.
"This is the plan," Bonnett said. "If they don't want people to build out there, don't make a plan inviting people to build out there."
The council action Tuesday was mostly a formality. Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said that, had the council denied the revision, it probably would have complicated and delayed the sale of the land, but he does not believe it would have prevented it.
The real decision will be in the hands of voters in November.
"It goes to referendum," Bonnett said. "That's really when people should be voicing their opinions: at the polls."
The 8-1 council vote, though, doesn't mean other members don't still have concerns about the school district's plans.
"I would like to go on record as adopting Marci Dodds' remarks about the impact on a community — maybe outside of the narrow focus of a school board — the impact on the rest of a community of a school board's decision" to build a school on the city's fringe, Tom Bruno said.
His "yes" vote, he said, was only because he felt Tuesday night's poll was not the place for dissension.
"I don't think it would be fair or appropriate in this case for me to vote 'no' on this area general plan," Bruno said. "But that doesn't mean I don't hold the same sentiments expressed by councilwoman Dodds."
Council member Karen Foster took the opposite position.
"I'll respectfully disagree because I remember when Centennial (High School) was formed, it was toward the edge of town, and there were cornfields to the south," she said. "When Robeson school was built, there were cornfields that the children had to walk through."
But now they are in developed areas, she said. Who knows what that area around Interstate Drive and Neil Street will look like decades from now? Bonnett said Foster's comments were on point.
"We need to keep an open mind that it's not into perpetuity that it will be the edge of town forever," Foster said.
Champaign resident David Cobbs told council members that he just wants to get past the debate. The students are crammed into the current school and the facility is inadequate, he said.
"We just need to get over it and get this thing done," Cobbs said. "It's for the kids."
Council member Michael La Due said that, "though the statement of values articulated by council person Dodds accords very closely with my own," he felt that the looming tax referendum in November, for which voters will have to agree to a tax increase to pay for the school, will be the right place to take a stand.
"We'll all have that opportunity," La Due said.