Interstate Central site could be costly
The price tag for a new Central High School north of Champaign is estimated at $98 million, but a new draft report estimates the long-term cost to the community could be far more — nearly $140 million in lost property tax revenue and added maintenance, transportation, environmental and health costs.
The school district's chosen site on Neil Street between Interstate and Olympian drives would be five times more expensive over the next 30 years than the alternative location considered this spring at Spalding Park, with its $21 million in long-term costs, the study says.
Why? The Interstate Drive site is farther from most students and harder to walk to, which means more students driving or taking the bus to school, the study says. And that means higher transportation costs for families and the school district, more auto emissions, and possible long-term health consequences for students. It also would take 80 acres of prime farmland — half already owned by a private developer — off the tax rolls, compared to less than 10 acres at Spalding.
Here is a copy of the draft report. It is a 74-page pdf file.
The cost-benefit analysis was prepared by University of Illinois urban planning Professor Brian Deal at the request of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and several other governmental bodies as the school district was evaluating the two sites.
It's still a draft, and school officials have questions about some of the assumptions and cost figures. For instance, it doesn't provide any numbers about the construction and development costs for the two sites, said school board attorney Tom Lockman. The district's architects said Spalding would cost up to $25 million more up front.
And the biggest number is nearly $60 million in health costs because fewer students would be able to walk to school, contributing to obesity and long-term chronic disease. Those "theoretical" calculations may not mesh with reality, Lockman said, citing the district's survey showing only 10 percent of students walk to school now.
"I don't think it's complete," said Superintendent Judy Wiegand.
Representatives of the city, school district, MTD, Champaign park district and Champaign County Regional Planning Commission hope to meet in the next couple of weeks to discuss the report, said Karl Gnadt, the MTD's managing director.
Schools and sprawl
The report takes issue with the large amount of land required for schools in recent years. It said standards for school sites developed in the post-war boom times of the 1950s have remained relatively unchanged, pushing schools to the urban fringe where land is more readily available, thus contributing to urban sprawl. In less robust economic times, "it can cause the abandonment of schools already well integrated into existing neighborhoods and contribute to the degradation of the urban core."
Among other impacts, the report said, the Interstate site will likely fuel sprawl by attracting new development based on student and staff demand, possibly raising farmland prices sooner than expected and raising development costs in that area.
Property tax loss
The study used conservative growth and inflation rates to calculate how much development could have been generated on land the school district purchased at Interstate and Neil. It assumed most of the 80 acres would go toward residential development (331 houses) and five acres to light commercial development.
Based on the nearby Ashland Park subdivision, with the average house valued at about $140,000, and a 10-year buildout, it estimates that the property could have generated almost $6 million in property taxes for the first 10 years, and a total of $48.5 million over 30 years.
Of that, the school district would lose about $25 million in future taxes, the city would lose $8 million, Champaign County $5 million, Champaign Park District $4.5 million, Parkland College $3 million, and the MTD $1.9 million.
Development planned for that site could be built elsewhere in the city, but it might still be a net tax loss overall, especially if it ends up outside school district boundaries, the report said. It also could wind up on under-utilized land, which would offset some of the loss, the report said.
For the Spalding site, the first phase would be mostly on public lands, with property acquisitions made over time. The property tax loss is estimated at $955,000 over 30 years, including $500,000 from the school district.
The study also projects that housing values could rise at the Interstate site with the addition of a school and drop at Spalding because of the loss of the public park.
The net property tax loss over 30 years: $46.6 million for Interstate, $4.2 million at Spalding.
Operations and maintenance
The study assumed the same square footage (365,175) and identical construction methods for the two schools, a two-story structure for the Interstate site and a four-story building at Spalding (given the smaller site).
Over time, it says, maintenance costs would total $1.4 million for Spalding and $2.8 million for Interstate Drive. Roof replacement costs are cited as an example, with a larger roof required on the two-story building that would be more expensive to replace. But school officials said the assumptions were too simplistic, and many other factors go into maintenance costs that weren't included.
The school district is required by law to provide transportation for students who live more than 1.5 miles from a school. Those students can use dedicated MTD routes to Central or bus passes on other general routes. And a smaller number, about 10 percent, who live in distant areas are transported on school district buses.
The current Central location in its densely populated area provides "a wealth of school commute choices," the study said, including walking, biking, car or bus routes.
Spalding would be similar, with 45 percent of students falling within 1.5 miles of the high school, and 44.8 percent within the MTD bus zone. About 10 percent would need school bus transportation, the report said. The study used an analysis prepared by Holly Nelson, a UI doctoral student who wrote a 2012 report on transportation implications of the various school sites under study.
"The Olympian site differs considerably due to its fringe location and isolation from the majority of the student body," the report said.
Almost all students would qualify for bus service to the new high school, leading to a doubling of busing costs to $700,000 annually. The MTD would have to extend one of its routes to Interstate Drive, at a cost of $340,000 annually, and add five other buses with an operating cost of $360,000 annually. The school district now pays the MTD $315,516 annually to bus students to and from Central.
The estimated cost to buy the new buses is $4.2 million, though officials have said a large chunk of that could be offset by federal grants. Wiegand also said the district plans to revamp the Central and Centennial boundaries once the new school is built, which could reduce some transportation costs.
Although the number of students driving would drop slightly with the Interstate Drive site, the number of miles traveled would almost double, increasing transit costs for students and families by $500 to $1,300 a year, the study said. The increase at Spalding would be $14 to $31 per year.
The site presents many barriers to walking and biking, with few existing sidewalks or bike paths and students having to cross Interstate 74, the report said. Spalding, by contrast, is already connected to the city's network of bike and walking paths.
Will it make a difference?
Just what impact the study will have on the Central High project is unclear. The school district said in late July that it was moving ahead with the Interstate site, and on Aug. 11 approved a question for the Nov. 4 election asking voters to approve a $149 million bond issue for the new school as well as improvements to Centennial High School and other projects.
Wiegand said the district plans to address the transportation challenges and "try to be creative," making sure that "we aren't isolating any student or parent population when we redistrict."
She said the various governmental units had agreed to come together and discuss the draft report and the assumptions made before it went public.
"That opportunity wasn't honored. That was a piece that's been disappointing for me," she said. "But moving forward, is there that opportunity to continue those types of conversations? I would hope so."
Deal said he met with school officials before the board's July 28 meeting and laid out the study's preliminary results. They said they wanted to clarify some questions and concerns about the report, Deal said, but he never heard back from them. In fact, he said, he never got any data that he requested from the school district for the report.
"They knew what we were going to say. We laid it out for them," he said. "They went and voted on their referendum without the discussion, without the conversation.
"The idea behind it is to get agencies to cooperate on things that affect all of them," he said. "The point wasn't to criticize their decisions, but to point out a way of decision-making that would improve their decisions. They chose to ignore it."
Deal doesn't expect it to influence the district's decision on Central and doesn't know what impact it will have on voters in November.
"They've now thrown it into the public realm. It's going to play out in the public realm, I guess. I hope it has an impact on the way we view things and the way decisions are made," he said.
Long-term school costs
The study led by UI Professor Brian Deal compared the long-term costs associated with a new Central High School at Spalding Park versus at Interstate Drive. The numbers include a projected loss of property tax income from converting private land to public use; operating, maintenance and energy costs for the four-story versus two-story buildings; extra transportation costs for parents and the district; and related health and pollution costs associated with driving or busing students to the schools.
|Taxes||$4.2 million||$46.59 million|
|O&M costs||$1.39 million||$2.78 million|
|Health cost||$5.74 million||$59.23 million|
|Energy cost||$8.94 million||$9.18 million|
|Total||$21.08 million||$139.56 million|
Source: "Cost Benefit Analysis of the New Champaign Central High School: The Economic, Environmental, Energy and Public Health Dimensions of a New High School in Champaign, Draft Version," Aug. 2, 2014.