For Dr. Howard, the wait continues
When Champaign County voters approved the 1 percent sales tax for schools in 2009, parents at Dr. Howard Elementary School knew their building wasn’t first on the repair list.
But they were mostly supportive, hopeful that their school — built in 1910 and in dire need of updating — would be addressed in the near future.
Get more Unit 4 news Tuesday at 9 a.m. on WDWS as Jim Turpin visits with Superintendent Judy Wiegand.
Five years later, some parents are chagrined that the school may not be included in the latest tax proposal to be put before voters in November.
“It feels like they’re just kicking the can down the road again. The message that we at the school are hearing is that we don’t matter,” said Kirsten Dennison, whose two children have attended Dr. Howard.
School board members say that couldn’t be further from the truth, and they’re trying to find some way to pay for the work at Dr. Howard.
“I would tell Dr. Howard parents: Don’t give up. It’s not hopeless. It’s just not as easy as we’d like it to be,” said board member Lynn Stuckey.
The tentative Nov. 4 referendum question, to be finalized Monday, would ask voters to approve $150 million to build a new Central High School, add to and renovate Centennial High School, and improve other school sites.
With the high school costs estimated at $98 million for Central and $52 million for Centennial, that leaves no room for the estimated $30 million it would cost to replace Dr. Howard with a new K-8 elementary school, the current plan favored by the district.
It’s possible the bids may come in lower than expected, or the construction costs could be cut, to allow for the Dr. Howard project, school officials said. But the high school figures prepared by the district’s architects are fairly solid, said Matt Foster, executive director of business services.
School board President Laurie Bonnett said the plan was to include Dr. Howard, but when the numbers came back the total would have been $180 million or more.
“There’s just no way we could go forward” with that amount, she said.
One thing already off the list: a pool at each high school, priced at $10 million each. Superintendent Judy Wiegand said at the board’s last meeting that the district would plan for only one pool.
“That’s no-brainer for me,” Bonnett said. “It’s just not feasible.”
At the board’s request, Foster drew up a 10-year facilities plan, based on expected revenue from the 1 percent sales tax and a comprehensive list of building needs, to determine “what can we do and how soon can we do it?” Bonnett said. The list includes $97.5 million worth of projects, including a new Dr. Howard, a new Edison Middle School, and renovations to South Side Elementary and Jefferson and Franklin middle schools.
“The 1 percent (tax) has done so much, but there’s so much more to do,” Bonnett said. “Dr. Howard is at the top of that list.”
But that might not be until 2025, when a large chunk of the bonds used to fund previous school construction projects are paid off, Foster said.
The district gets about $7 million a year from the sales tax, and $6 million is used to pay off the existing bonds, Foster said. The other $1.1 million goes toward maintenance and repairs that crop up each year — a new roof, plumbing work, mechanical problems, etc.
What would it take to get the project done before 2025?
“A vote from the community” to approve a tax increase, Foster said.
“It really comes down to how much the community is willing to spend at this point,” Foster said. “To take care of more buildings, are they willing to support more? There’s no magic funding out there.”
When the sales tax money started flowing in 2010, the top priorities were paying off old bonds to lower property taxes; adding elementary seats in north Champaign, to satisfy the federal consent decree; and building a new school in the fast-growing southern part of the district.
School officials were divided about whether to renovate Dr. Howard at its current landlocked site or build a new school at a different location. Either option was a “huge ticket item” that would have used up the rest of the sales tax money, so the board opted instead to spread the money around to more schools, said school board member Kristine Chalifoux.
The district borrowed about $83 million to rebuild and expand B.T. Washington Elementary School, build the new Carrie Busey School in Savoy, and fund extensive renovations at Garden Hills, Bottenfield, Westview, Kenwood and Robeson elementary schools.
Dennison said that approach made sense, as those projects were much less costly and improved conditions for the majority of Champaign school children. And the decision about what to do with Dr. Howard “was a tricky one,” she said.
But, she said, “We at Dr. Howard have waited a long time for the improvements that the other schools have gotten, and our school continues to decline. Our kids deserve better than this,” said Dennison, who’s been active with the PTA for nine years.
The school isn’t accessible. The gym is too small for all-school events. It floods during heavy rains. The walls are sinking. The list goes on and on.
“Our principal and staff do a fantastic job given what they have to work with,” Dennison said.
She questions why so much money is being put into Centennial at the expense of Dr. Howard.
“We’re all at the eye-rolling stage,” she said.
Bonnett’s message: “Hang on, we’re coming. We haven’t forgotten about it.”
School board members are examining other possibilities, whether it’s federal grants to offset some of the high school’s costs or savings from a future consolidation of administrative units at the current Central.
“We would prefer not to wait nine more years. We’re going to have to sit down and look at how we’re going to be able to do this,” Stuckey said.
Chalifoux, who lives across the street from Dr. Howard, is still hoping the school can be included in the bond issue up for approval in November. She said the board was still reviewing cost figures for the two high schools, to see if they could be pared back. The costs will be refined once a more specific design plan is developed, Chalifoux said.
District officials would not release any breakdown of the costs last week but plan to discuss it at Monday night’s meeting.
“We’re going to stretch those dollars as far as we possibly can,” Chalifoux said, noting that some of the elementary school projects came in under budget.
Building a new K-8 Dr. Howard would also alleviate expected overcrowding at the district’s middle schools, Chalifoux said.
“We are absolutely aware of the need and are trying to do what we can to either get it into this referendum or address it as soon as finances would allow,” she said.