School board approves ballot question: $148.95 million

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.


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."



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.

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xb wrote on August 11, 2014 at 11:08 pm

A home assessed at $100,000 would be a home worth $300,000, correct? If so, you might want to give the amount the average homeowner in the district would actually pay.

rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 6:08 am

No, he has the amounts correct. If your home is worth half that amount it would only cost you half as much. If you own a $300,000 like you suggested you would triple it. That's how high this tax is. It has you thinking it can't be right. I went through them with my son recently because he thought the same thing.

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 4:08 pm

See below, assessment is 1/3 of market value.  You are incorrect.

shurstrike wrote on August 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Yes, you are correct.  The assessment is approximately 1/3 of the market value of your home.

Lewis_Shepherd wrote on August 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

Didn't they just raise the taxes last year an obscene amount?  What is it with this state?  Use the money were already giving you!  Other states can do it with far less taxes than we are paying. 

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 4:08 pm

That's the difference between state and local taxes.

ff907 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

So we have a board president that a couple years ago lost her house to foreclosure and now doesn't "doesn't give a damn where it's at."  She doesn't give a damn because she no longer owns a home or pays property taxes.  Maybe she will be allowed to attend a budgeting class in the new school.  

Bulldogmojo wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am

If she rents now, I assure you she pays the taxes as part of her rent.

Voice of Reazon wrote on August 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

As the owner of a $300,000 home, I already pay $4,319.00 to Unit 4 each year.   For those keeping score at home, that is $11.83 per day, or $358 per month.  Forever. And it will only go up.

Perhaps Jeff D'alessio or someone at N-G coul do some legwork and tell us what other school districts have spent on new high schools in the last 10-15 years.  In order to have apples-to-apples comparisons, give us year built, square footage, number of students, major amenities (pool, auditorium) and whether new infrastructure (parking lots, access roads, major utility links) were included.

Bulldogmojo wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am

for some perspective an F-22 Raptor fighter jet cost us $150 million each to build and has been one of the biggest defense projects failures in history with massive cost overruns.

I'd rather my taxes be going to anything education related.

AreaMan wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am
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So the old pool is too expensive to maintain, let's throw it out and build a new one? Why maintain your infrastructure when you can neglect it and build new on the taxpayer's dime*?

"Our P.E. curriculum is really taking a look at healthy lifestyle." -- except they're locating the high school where it is inaccessible by walking or cycling.

What a wasteful and misguided board.

(* and I'm not even against paying taxes, I just wish they weren't being squandered on disposable facilities)

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 5:08 pm

I think spending anything on PE is a mistake, since the legislators have essentially eliminated any time in the day for PE anyway.

good citizen wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am

We need to realize that Unit 4 has the lowest tax rate of any local schools, including Bloomington, Urbana, Danville, Normal, and Peoria, and guess what...we still will after this referendum passes.  Champaign should have the best public schools, our kids are worth it.

rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 7:08 pm

We don't live in Bloomington, Urbana, Danville, Normal, or Peoria. We don't have any plan for how to maintain the buildings we have, let alone something like this. We haven't seen where they have planned for the transportation for this. Don't act like we don't want better for our kids, we don't want to bankrupt our kids with a school they can't pay for because it's going to take years to pay for this. It's one thing to buy the shiny new toy, it's another thing to keep it running.

45solte wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am

 'I don't give a dam(m) where it's at.'

So, as Board President, 'access' issues mean nothing to you. The location you don't give a darn about is an automatic barrier to access for a lot of low income students who might want to participate in extracurriculars and athletics. What does the Unit 4 Social Justice committee have to say about this? Here's a chance to speak out about how to make things more accessible to low income students (location, location, location) and I don't hear a thing from the committee or from the communities so-affected. No talk of barriers and 'accessibility' after-the-fact, then. No milking property tax payers for more money to 'fix' those issues later. I don't think paying cab fares would be a particularly economical solution.


 'This is a new way of learning...' said a student ambassador. Not really. The whole anti-'classroom' thing has been done before.

'...more focus on the 21st-century workplaces the district hopes await members of the graduating class.'

How do all these spaces improve students' reading and writing abilities? As with the last century, those who will be most successful this century will be those who are able to read and write well (grammar, reason, logic). Think-tank space not necessary (and, no, peer review and editing in open sapce is not the way to go as most students don't do a very good job of 'constructing' their own writing skills and the blind leading the blind will result in more of the same).


rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Most of those meetings about the school were on the other side of town, or where you had to have transportation to attend. I only heard of one at Central and I couldn't go to it. When you make the meetings inaccessible you send a message that what you say isn't important or you are not welcome. But I think it's pretty clear they had an agenda and they wanted to control the turnout.

In regards to their regular meetings that I hear last over three hours, the bus stops running by their building at night and it gets dark at night. So maybe they should think about people's safety instead of snide remarks about not going to meetings.

ERE wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am
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The new Central is long, long, overdue and well worthwhile.

But it makes no sense to burn another $51 million just so the Centennial parents don't feel left out?  How about the 50 years Central kids had an inferior physical plant, no football fields or swimming pool? It's an unnecssary $51 million dollar cost at this time-they can wait another couple of decades to update Centennial. Cry me a river....

That would cut the total cost of the project and the taxes by a 1/3. 

787 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 11:08 am

The more I hear about and from Laurie Bonnett, the less and less impressed that I am.  

The biggest problem with Unit 4 is the people in charge.  They're the ones who are failing to support and serve the kids.

good citizen wrote on August 12, 2014 at 11:08 am

Our community is best served when we reason together, not attack each other.  If you care about this town, then do something to help it, not just critize from the side lines.

AreaMan wrote on August 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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There has been no "reason together" with this board. When one suggests, "Why not improve the classrooms at the current location, and build amazing athletics facilities on the land on Interstate Drive" we're told that the transportation is too logistically difficult.

When we say that transporting our children to the Interstate Drive location will be difficult, we're told it's no problem, and it will work itself out (CUMTD has estimated the cost to be an additional $4 million every 10 years).

I think many of us agree that Central is due for a robust remodel or even a new building, but many of us live in Champaign because we like this community, and how it feels like a small city and not Just Another Suburb. We don't have any major municipal buildings north of I-74, and we want to keep it that way. If I wanted to be required to drive everywhere, I could just go live in Aurora.

cu1212 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 11:08 am

I'm going to find it hard to vote yes for this, when, with the money we're already paying in taxes, Champaign can't even keep the roads in proper condition (even with a .04 per gallon gas tax that was supposedly expressly for that purpose) or keep my neighborhood from flooding when we get a heavy rain.

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on August 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm

From the Unit 5 website.  Dr. Weigand had NO IDEA the cost that Unit 5 spent on the building today when a caller mentioned this.. recognize the supertendents name from Unit 5?


You should, he was the guy who took over for Culver.   Even with inflation, there is no way that the new Central building will come close to 96 million dollars.  NONE.  Now tell me that this has ANYWAY of passing.  There is NONE.


Original Building Facts

School- Normal Community West High School, Normal Illinois.
Architect- BLDD Architects, Inc.
Owner- McLean County Unit District No. 5, Robert Malito,Superintendent
Engineering Firm- Buchanan, Bellows & Associates, Ltd.
General Contractor- Diversified Buildings, Inc.
Civil Engineering Consultant- Cochran Engineering
Food Service Consultant- Design Associates
Acoustical Consultant- Yerges Acoustics
Completion Date- March 1995
School Type- High School
Grades Housed- 9-12
Site Size- 52 Acres
Building Area- 216,000 Square Feet
Student Capacity- 1,500
Building Area Per Student- 144 Square Feet
Original Construction Cost- $18,500,000

Past and Present Principals
1995-2004 - Dr. Jerry Crabtree
2004-2012 - Mr. Tom Eder
2012-Present - Mr. David Johnson



Voice of Reazon wrote on August 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Thanks, Cuthbert.  Even if you factor in 20 years of inflation at 4% annually (that doubles the 1995 cost), and add 50% more due to the larger size, that suggests a total project cost for new Central of $55 million ($18.5M x 2 x 1.5).   Or about 55% of what has been proposed. 

Just for sake of discussion, let's all agree, Good Citizen, that good facilities are good for our kids and our community.   That is not the debate.  The debate is about whether Unit 4 is a good steward of the taxpayer dollar.  I can't help but think they are not.

ilmsff7 wrote on August 12, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Help me out here.  I thought the 1% sales tax that voters approved several years ago was supposed to provide money strictly allocated for building projects - thus eliminating the need for further tax-increase ballot measures.

I supported that measure and I'm glad it passed.

But, why is Unit 4 having to go back to the voters?  We gave you the means to raise revenue a few years ago, and you need even more now?

rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 5:08 pm

They spent that money. New grade school in Savoy, remodelled several others. They also paid off old debt with it. To do all that so fast they issued new bonds at a better rate so the money coming in is going to pay off those bonds.

I myself would have first made a master plan of what "needs" there were and the priorities for them. Some of these things could have waited, like the school in Savoy was a want not a need. Dr. Howard should have been taken care of beforehand instead if this game of jacking the prices up in hopes there is money left over to do it.

sacrophyte wrote on August 12, 2014 at 7:08 pm

@rsp - Amen to that.


$7.1 million dollars in annual local property taxes now goes towards an annual Debt Service of $8.545 million. That translates to 7.25% of the total local property taxes ($94.4 million).


I still wonder how Urbana's rally cry of "Renovation without taxation" is going to compare in the long-run.


-- charles schultz

rsp wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 pm

I want to know when we will be debt free as we stand now, and how long it would take to pay this off. They never talk about that do they? Or all the extra work they need to do, about $100 million dollars worth is it? And they think it won't go up over the years as they ignore those problems? My go to source for info:

Kathy S wrote on August 12, 2014 at 5:08 pm

I'm just amazed at Dr. Wiegand's comment: "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."

Walking and biking are the kinds of things that students can carry on into their adult life.  They can not only stay healthy, but also have fun, save money, and help the environment by doing so.  Why would we build Central so far on the edge of town that those activities are almost impossible for most students?

just_wondering wrote on August 12, 2014 at 7:08 pm

For those discussing tax rates - indeed Illinois is outpacing nearly 90% of the other states in Total State Tax Burden.

Only 5 states have higher total tax burden - Wisconsin, Connecticut, California, Nebraska, New York.

Analysis is up to you! Here are some leading questions:

Which have high taxes due to being geographically-large but populace-small? 

Which have high taxes due to being a bedroom-community-state for a city that never sleeps and is the world's center of financial institutions? 

Which states have high taxes due to corruption and mismanagement? 


SaintClarence27 wrote on August 13, 2014 at 8:08 am

That total tax burden is based on taxes paid, not taxes paid as a percentage of income. It is therefore useless. High income states (See: Illinois, California, New York) obviously have a tax burden above national average as there is more income. The statistics shown go from percentages of income (consumption tax) to percentage above national average (a dollar amount). The only reason to still graph the second as a percentage is to be deliberately misleading. I can only assume that was the author's intention.

This is not to say that there is not corruption and mismanagement in Illinois - of course there is. But it would be important to see real, unvarnished numbers as far as tax burden goes - specifically, the burden on an average taxpayer.

As a side note, Chicago pays for Champaign more than Champaign pays for Chicago.

bmwest wrote on August 12, 2014 at 9:08 pm
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"$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."  That adds up to $42.1 million. Throwing on $7.8 million for the athletic fields that should be "less than 8 percent of the total costs" and the $3.2 million they paid for the land and it still only adds up to $53.1 million.  Where does the remaining $44.5 million go to arrive at the $97.6 million cost for Central? I'm guessing some of it goes to parking lots, roads, new utilities, etc but that is a large number to not have a bit more itemized.

rsp wrote on August 13, 2014 at 12:08 am

You always plan for an extra 10% for overruns. Plus I think they are hoping to use the leftover for Dr. Howard without having to ask for it.

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 13, 2014 at 8:08 am

I believe some of it is slated for transportation issues (including parking, etc.), and the rest is slated towards maintenance.

LocalResident wrote on August 12, 2014 at 11:08 pm

The point about Champaign having the lowest property tax rate is a bit misleading and misses some important context.

  • None of the other counties have the school sales tax.  Champaign has the school tax at the highest permitted rate of 1%, and Unit 4 has the future revenue from that tax already spent for the forseeable future.
  • Housing costs are higher, in some cases MUCH higher, in Champaign than the other comparison cities.  People pay based on the property value and the tax rate.  That's one reason the surrounding rural areas with much lower housing costs have higher property tax rates.  Average house value (per is about 10% less in Urbana, Peoria, and Normal and almost 50% less in Danville and 2% more in Bloomington.  Trumpeting the low tax rate is a clever way to trick people to think they're paying less when they may not be.
  • The districts also report the "equalized assessed valuation per pupil" (Illinois State Board of Education district report cards), meaning the overall value of taxable property in the district that is taxed to fund the school.  Again, Champaign has a MUCH higher value of property.  So it's a bit disingenuous for Unit 4 to pat themselves on the back for the lower tax rate.  Urbana has 15% less property value per student, Bloomington 23% less, Normal 27% less, Peoria 49% less, and Danville 69% less.

Education is certainly important, but Unit 4 seems intent on replacing virtually all of the schools in a 15-20 year span.  All the elementary schools but one are new or overhauled, the middle schools had some nice upgrades (A/C, geothermal, lights, windows), the high schools are potentially next, and then they want to overhaul the middle schools and Dr. Howard.  It takes generations to build schools, usually as a city grows, and Unit 4 insists on replacing them all at once. 

A few years ago, people in the community asked questions when Unit 4 borrowed more money.  The responses from the board in the NG almost seemed like they were "lashing out" at people for doubting that the board knew what they were doing.  The board alienates the community with this type of behavior, even those like me who care deeply about the role of education for the community and the nation.  They act like it's a big concession to build only one pool instead of two.  I attended a similar district in central Illinois with some great facilities but with zero pools, and things were fine.  (The district arranged to use the YMCA pool for the swim team.  I hear Champaign has a nice, new YMCA...)

The Unit 4 board and administration needs to understand how their behavior and attitude looks to the community.  Saying "our kids deserve the best" to lay on the guilt trip is eventually going to fail, and then they will be stuck with no way to fix the most decrepit facilities after already completing 10+ major capital projects in the recent past.  Their plan seems to be that people won't let the kids suffer for the irresponsiblity of the administrators and board.

rsp wrote on August 13, 2014 at 12:08 am

They really should have started with Dr. Howard, its walls are sinking. If they had done that I'd have more confidence in them.

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 13, 2014 at 8:08 am

This is where you and I agree.