School district wants Dodds land for Central
The Champaign school district has formally requested the use of 60 acres at Dodds Park for a future Central High School site.
Which way would you vote? Tell Tom Kacich about it here
The request came in a letter sent in early July by Superintendent Judy Wiegand to Park District Executive Director Joe DeLuce, which also says that Spalding Park is not a good fit for the new high school — because of its smaller size and the need to buy homes and commercial properties to make it work, among other factors. The News-Gazette obtained a copy of the letter on Friday.
The letter doesn't propose any terms for acquiring property at Dodds, but officials said Friday one idea floated by the park district is trading about 38 acres of soccer fields at Dodds for the 80 acres the school district purchased at Interstate Drive, with the idea that a new soccer complex could be built there.
DeLuce said Friday there's been no official response to the letter from the park board. He said park commissioners will probably discuss the issue at their meeting Wednesday evening, likely in closed session.
DeLuce said conversations about Dodds never included using the entire park for a new high school.
"If we looked at anything, that's what we'd look at," DeLuce said, referring to the soccer fields. "We would not want to give up the entire Dodds Park. We've got too much invested in those other areas," such as the baseball and softball fields, the Olympic tribute, the Laborers memorial and the gardens.
DeLuce said under state law, any intergovernmental land transfer requires a supermajority of the voting members, or four of the five park commissioners.
The board's position is still that "Dodds Park is not on the table at this time," DeLuce said. The park district is still awaiting a final decision from the school board on Spalding, he said.
If not the final word, Wiegand's letter was fairly blunt.
Spalding has less than half the acreage of the Interstate Drive site, meaning it would require a parking deck and a four-story building to fit everything on-site, the letter said.
It would also require the acquisition of more than 60 residential and commercial properties, the acquisition and demolition of Judah Christian School and storm-water improvements, the letter said.
Spalding site would cost "tens of millions of dollars" more to develop than the Interstate Drive site, as estimated by the district's architects, though others have said those figures are inflated.
"In keeping with the School District's goal of being responsible financial stewards, it will be very difficult for the Board of Education to commit to spending a premium eight-figure amount to deliver the exact same educational program," the letter said, given that the district has other major construction needs.
The surrounding neighborhood and rail lines near Spalding also would limit the school's long-range expansion possibilities, the letter argued.
And while the school district had hoped to preserve some of the park if the new school were built there, in response to neighborhood concerns, "it is clear that this will not be a possibility," Wiegand wrote.
"The School District is hesitant to shoehorn its educational program into a site with the numerous fundamental problems discussed here. Given the compromises and logistical challenges necessary to make the Spalding Park site a viable option, it is difficult to endorse the Spalding Park site as the best option for our community," Wiegand wrote.
"The School District understands the desire of some in our community to locate a new Central High School nearer to the center of the city. The School District searched for a property for many years that would help accomplish this objective. Unfortunately, the level of existing development surrounding Spalding Park and its relative size would make it exceedingly difficult to develop a high school site at this location.
"Simply put, while Spalding Park may be a good location, it is not a good site for a new Central High School," the letter concluded.
Citing the community's desire for an in-town location for the high school, Wiegand said Dodds offers a number of advantages, including proximity to Parkland for teacher collaborations, dual-credit courses, and college readiness and workforce development programs. Dodds would offer plenty of space for programs, parking and future expansion, and wouldn't require any demolition costs or the displacement of homes or businesses, the letter said.
"The School District views Dodds Park as a game-changing opportunity to provide the community, staff, and students with unprecedented collaborative and academic advantages that are unavailable at any other site. In addition, this option presents a worthwhile compromise for community members by offering a site that has the available space to implement the educational program while retaining many of the benefits of an infill site," the letter said.
It's also close to the school district's most densely populated neighborhood, Garden Hills.
"Siting a new Central High School at Dodds Park would be the most exciting, yet sensible option for our community. The School District is committed to engaging in discussions with the Park District on the potential relocation of Dodds Park and acknowledging the Dodds family name through recognition on the new campus," the letter said.
Wiegand was not available for comment Friday.
School district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart said the request is in the park district's hands.
"Throughout the process, the park district and school district have been open to finding ways to collaborate. We believe that same attitude of collaboration continues," she said.
"One of the considerations, certainly, is the wishes of the Dodds family and being respectful of that history," Stuart added.
Would 38 acres or so be workable for the new high school? The district has said it needs 47 acres for the school. Stuart said she didn't want to talk about specific acreage but said with "creative solutions" Dodds has enough space to hold the high school and amenities such as fields and parking. She said there have been "preliminary conversations" about sharing some facilities with the park district at that site, including the softball and baseball fields.
"It's hard to say at this point" whether a serious move toward Dodds would delay a vote on the high school bond issue past November, Stuart said.
The school board is still planning to consider a resolution at its Aug. 11 meeting to place a question for voters on the November election ballot, she said.
"At this point, our board is still moving toward possibly November," she said.