School board approves ballot question: $148.95 million
CHAMPAIGN — In Judy Wiegand's perfect world, 10-year-olds about to enter their final year of elementary school in Champaign would be part of the first freshman class at the new Central High School in the fall of 2018.
Thoughts? Send 'em to columnist Tom Kacich here
Wiegand was on radio this morning. Listen here
They'd get to take four years of computer science courses in state-of-the-art labs, perform in front of friends and family in a cozy auditorium with room for 800, even get in some morning cardio at the school fitness center.
And if, come election day, taxpayers don't pass the $149 million facilities project Champaign's school superintendent laid out Monday?
"We'd have to come back in April of 2015," Wiegand said, "so it would be the '19-'20 school year."
After years of debate and discussion, there was no unexpected drama in the latest chapter of the "What to do about Central?" story. Monday night, as expected, the school board unanimously passed a resolution to ask voters to agree to massive property tax hikes to pay for a brand-new high school on 80 acres of farmland the district has purchased in northernmost Champaign (estimated cost: about $98 million) and a renovated Centennial (about $52 million).
That could mean a $141-a-year bump in property taxes for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000, according to district figures.
This is Wiegand's first referendum experience. Superintendent friends who've been through it have advised her to "cut through the noise," she said. There will be plenty of it between now and Nov. 4, they've warned her.
"There's no question this is going to be an uphill battle," Wiegand said during an interview at the district's administrative offices Monday afternoon. "But what gives me hope is that I know this is a community that values education."
Here's a look at what else we heard — and learned — Monday:
Central will be the larger of the city's two public high schools — at 308,000 square feet to Centennial's planned 294,000.
"The difference in square footage would be the swimming pool," Wiegand said.
There's only room in the budget for one pool, the district says, and it will be housed at Central.
Currently, the rival schools' swim teams share the aging pool at Centennial, which has required considerable maintenance in recent years, Wiegand says.
Putting the pool at Central, she says, will free up more room for much-needed classroom space at Centennial.
Both schools are similarly sized now (around 202,000 square feet) and will soon face the same overcapacity challenges due to record kindergarten enrollment the last three years, the district says.
It will be months — at a minimum — before the district provides item-by-item costs of the two high school projects.
The district won't begin the "design phase" of the buildings until taxpayers vote yes. So, Wiegand says, no detailed drawings — or more specific dollar figures — will be divulged until there's "a more specific schematic of what this (Central) building will look like."
Doing otherwise, she said, would hurt the district come time to bid out big construction jobs.
"It's taxpayers' dollars," Wiegand said. "I think it would be such an error on our part to put this out. It leaves us no room when negotiating for a good price in the bidding process."
The superintendent did share with The News-Gazette the Central project's biggest-ticket budgeted items in general categories: $9.4 million for HVAC, $9.3 million for electrical, $5.8 million for structural steel, $5.2 million for masonry/stone, $3.5 million for plumbing, $3.2 million for glass/glazing and $2.9 million for roofing.
The district has also budgeted $2.8 million for furniture at Central, mostly for student and teacher desks.
They're "learning studios" and "think tanks," "breakout spaces" and "lecture labs," not classrooms.
The lingo would change with the look of the rooms envisioned for the next Central and Centennial.
More open spaces, more modern equipment, more focus on the 21st-century workplaces the district hopes await members of the graduating class.
Even P.E. class would be unlike anything current Central students are used to in their crammed accommodations. Coming in 2018: an "open cardio lab," a three-court gym that seats 2,000 and dedicated health/safety classrooms.
"P.E. like we used to have it isn't exactly helping students become more fit," Wiegand says. "Our P.E. curriculum is really taking a look at healthy lifestyle. Throwing out the ball and having court activities are not those types of things that students are going to carry on into their adult life. But going to some sort of fitness club may be."
If you live within the school district, you may hear soon from a member of the "referendum committee."
Neither Wiegand nor any member of the school board is permitted to campaign for the ballot question. But the superintendent says "a group of citizens" has expressed interest in encouraging taxpayers to vote yes, and they could be up and running within a week.
State Board of Education rules do allow employees to conduct "informational campaigns," however. For Wiegand, that starts early this morning, with a 9 a.m. appearance on WDWS 1400-AM and endless service club visits in the coming weeks.
The district also plans to host weekly tours at both high schools, giving the public a better sense of what 90-degree September weather feels like at a 79-year-old facility with no air-conditioning. (Central, the only district building without A/C, let students out early six days last fall because of the heat. No other Unit 4 school did so once all fall).
Athletic fields at Central will account for "less than 8 percent of the total costs."
It's a figure Wiegand has familiarized herself with, anticipating questions from voters wondering why the school with some of the region's crummiest athletic accommodations will get so much.
In addition to the pool, Central's facilities would include two fields each for football and soccer — one for competition, one for practice — similar to what the Maroons' Big 12 Conference opponents have on their campuses. Plus: one baseball field, one softball field and eight tennis courts.
The lone unknown: what surface the football and soccer teams would host games on. "We're still going back and forth on turf versus grass for both," Wiegand says.
WHAT THEY SAID
Heard at Monday night's Champaign school board meeting:
Board President Laurie Bonnett on the site: "Teachers have been dreaming. Kids have been dreaming. It is time for somebody to pull the plug and take some action. I'm excited for a new high school. I don't give a damn where it's at."
Board member John Bambenek on reducing the bond issue amount from $150 million to $149 million: "At the end of the day, every single dollar that we bond out is going to come from a property taxpayer. If we don't need that money, we shouldn't take property taxes for it."
Central student ambassador Cedric Jones on the presentation: "This is a new way of learning, and that is something that needs to happen. I personally really can't wait to see the design."
Centennial student ambassador Sophie Kim on the possibilities: "There are going to be so many opportunities coming in with the innovation. I remember being at a student vision meeting, and they said that some teachers don't have their own classrooms. I think it would be great if all the teachers had their own personal space."
DLR Group senior associate Jason Lembke on the costs: "If the referendum does not pass this time, you can expect the estimated costs to increase."
Board member Kristine Chalifoux on the budgeting process: "We haven't left anything in there just for fun."
- TIM MITCHELL
That'll be $149 million, please
In 84 days, residents of the Champaign school district will be asked to foot the bills for rebuilding one of the city's public high schools and rehabbing the other. What the projects will cost you:
$141: How much more in property taxes the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay annually — that's $11.75 a month — according to Unit 4 estimates.
$148,945,462: The total expense of building a brand-new Central High at Interstate Drive ($97,625,763) and renovating and expanding Centennial High ($51,319,699).
Ask her: At 9 a.m. today, Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand will join Jim Turpin on a "A Penny for Your Thoughts" on WDWS-AM 1400.
Ask us: We'll take your school questions 24-7 at our website between now and Nov. 4. Just click on the "Since You Asked" icon and ask away.