Champaign school tax increase a tough sell

Champaign school tax increase a tough sell

CHAMPAIGN — With the slide show complete, Champaign school Superintendent Judy Wiegand turned to her audience for questions about the upcoming high school referendum.

Sales professional Jon Rector raised his hand. He was convinced of the need to modernize Central and Centennial high schools but wanted to know one thing:

Could he vote for the $149 million bond issue but not the proposed location for a new Central north of town?

"I support the referendum, I support the schools," Rector told Wiegand. "I despise the site."

Wiegand has fielded that question more than once as she's made the rounds explaining the measure, which will ask voters for $97.7 million to build a new Central High School at Interstate Drive and Neil Street and $51.3 million to renovate Centennial.

"The discussion seems to have changed from, 'Do we really need this?' to more of an acceptance that 'Yes, we need to do this,' " but again still questioning the site, as we heard today," Weigand said Wednesday, following her appearance before the Champaign West Rotary.

The outcome is a tossup in her mind: "I still think it's 50-50," she said.

With just 37 days to go until the election, and lots of voters to sway, the only tangible sign of the referendum campaign so far is a wooden one — staked in the ground seven months ago in the cornfield that could one day be Central.

The Friends of Champaign Schools committee, which organized in August, has been busy on social media, creating a Facebook page (510 likes) and Twitter account (@VoteYES_FOCS, 89 followers) to get information to voters.

Some radio ads have also aired, but no billboards, yard signs or other commercials are visible yet. Plans for a big campaign rollout are still "fluid," according to committee co-chairman Dan Ditchfield, owner and insurance agent at The Atlas Agency.

Committee members have focused on a "grass-roots campaign" — talking with everyone they know to make sure voters have the facts, he said.

"We're looking at different ways to increase our outreach," he said.

The Facebook postings include data from the school district and personal stories from parents and students about the need for new facilities.

Tony Johnson, social media chair for the committee, said the panel has spent some money to "boost" social media posts and plans to buy radio, TV and newspaper ads. The committee also hopes to print yard signs and get them distributed "as soon as possible," he said.

"Obviously, we're near the end of September now," Johnson said.

Some district residents, in fact, may have cast their votes already. Absentee voting began Thursday, and early voting starts Oct. 20.

Raising money

The committee sent an email this week to potential supporters, asking for "yes" votes and donations.

"Despite the clear need and critical nature of this problem, the referendum is in danger of not passing," the email said. "Some people just don't know enough about it to make an informed decision, or think they are just too busy to pay attention. Yet others oppose this idea all together. I can't understand how someone would want our children to sit in a classroom that is 90 degrees or hotter, necessitating an early dismissal to avoid heat illness, or in a trailer in the middle of an Illinois winter?"

It continues, "I hope you'll stand with me in proclaiming that our community deserves exceptional public schools. ... Please spread the word, and tell your friends to vote 'yes' for Champaign Schools.

"Our opponents are well-funded, and willing to spend whatever it takes to defeat us," the email said, without specifying who the opponents are.

The committee hasn't set a budget yet, according to committee treasurer Tim Jefferson, a Champaign attorney.

"We are actively engaged in fundraising," Jefferson said Friday. "At this point, we have not yet reached the $5,000 threshold for filing with the State Board of Elections, but we are close. I anticipate filing with them early next week."

The committee includes a mix of concerned citizens, business and community leaders, teachers, school administrators and some school board members, officials said. It's also received support from local trades unions.

Under state ethics laws, school employees are allowed to work on referendum campaigns on noncompensated time, and school board members are free to do so as long as they don't use district resources.

Election advice

Johnson said the months of debate about the location for the new Central slowed the momentum for the election campaign.

Every day is crucial in a school referendum, said Mark Daniel, superintendent at McLean Unit 5 school district in Normal. Last spring, voters in his district defeated a countywide sales tax proposal by a 2-to-1 margin. Supporters prepared for a full year but didn't roll out the campaign until the last two to three months, and that wasn't enough, he said.

"I think you really have to build that case, and certainly have that message out there, the facts out there for your constituents to vote knowledgeably," he said.

"You certainly have to have the full support of your educational community," including teachers and parents, Daniel added. "That's a critical piece."

Todd Wernet, superintendent at Lockport school district, said it's important to "keep the focus on the what the essential 'ask' is all about. This is because voters inquire into so many other unrelated areas that are distractions. These can include issues such as boundaries, co-curriculars, facilities, salaries, etc. It then often becomes a matter of winners and losers — and once that occurs, a positive outcome is difficult."

Campaign challenges

Johnson characterized voters' responses as "mildly positive" so far.

"There's been some response, both positive and negative, for the location. There's been responses, both positive and negative, about the price," he said.

Ditchfield said he thinks more and more people understand that the district has to act to address a space problem, with both high schools already above capacity, and update facilities to deliver a "world-class school system."

"I really think that we are building momentum," Ditchfield said, predicting it will "absolutely" pass.

It may be an uphill battle. Judging by the comments Wednesday, they first have to win over:

— Voters upset that Dr. Howard Elementary, which needs extensive repairs, isn't included in the bond issue.

— Voters unhappy with the location of the new Central, because of sprawl, transportation headaches and other factors.

— Voters who think the plans cost too much or don't want to pay more taxes (an estimated $140 a year for each $100,000 of assessed value, which is one-third market value).

— Voters who still don't realize a major renovation of Centennial is part of the plan.

"That's the response we've heard more than anything else," Johnson said. "A large portion of the people I talked to don't have any idea some of this money is going to Centennial. They think it's $150 million for a new Central High School way up on the north side.

"We're just spending a lot of time trying to educate the voters that this is a $150 million tax referendum to give us two virtually new high schools that are going to be able to serve us for 40 or 50 years."

Fight over the site

There's also a group of influential voters who firmly believe the district hasn't done enough to explore a renovation at Central or the possibility of one high school at the Centennial site. They're pushing the district to investigate those options more fully.

Attorney David Sholem, a former school board member, said the current proposal would raise real estate taxes significantly without solving the district's facilities problems — specifically, the middle schools and Dr. Howard — and build a new school in a distant location that would promote urban sprawl.

"There is a limited amount of available taxpayer money so it needs to be spent more wisely," he said.

District administrators say their analysis shows that renovating Central would be just as costly as a new school, with land acquisition included, and wouldn't provide room for parking, athletic fields or future growth. Sholem and others question many of the assumptions in that analysis.

Wiegand said last week that the community has made it clear that it wants to maintain two high schools.

"Anytime you're facing a big decision like this, in a community with this many people who are passionate about what their community looks like and what the community is all about, no matter what decision the school board makes there's going to be people who disagree," Ditchfield said. "I think there's a lot of people in the middle. We hope to get information out there to make an informed decision."

The district continues to offer tours of the high schools each week, and is planning an evening event next month at the two schools where voters can get information, said spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. Information will also be sent home to parents.

Wiegand reiterated that the process to choose the new high school site started several years ago.

"It certainly has not been a rash decision," she said, adding that there was no "perfect site."

Some of those who listened to her Rotary presentation Wednesday appeared supportive, but others asked tough questions.

In response to Rector, Wiegand said the ballot question does not list a specific location for Central but board members have made it clear that "this is the site that they've selected." She said his question would have to be answered by the district's legal counsel.

Rector said he will probably vote for the referendum but then work with friends to lobby the school board "to get what I feel is a better site."

"It's obvious this town has the responsibility to make improvements for the high schools and I acknowledge that. I don't mind paying the money," Rector said.

But he said other people share his doubts about the site. He thinks the measure may pass, but "it'll be real close," and a proposal of this scope should get a "resounding majority. I think the site selection clouds the issue."

Sections (2):News, Local
Tags (1):2014 election

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45solte wrote on September 28, 2014 at 9:09 am

'"I can't understand how someone would want our children to sit in a classroom that is 90 degrees or hotter, necessitating an early dismissal to avoid heat illness, or in a trailer in the middle of an Illinois winter?"

lol. And these are the people educating voters about the so-called facts...

rsp wrote on September 28, 2014 at 10:09 am

I'm still laughing at your comment. Central hasn't had ac for how many years? Now it's a crisis. I don't have any, anyone want to buy me central air?

pattsi wrote on September 28, 2014 at 11:09 am

Actually, as Charles Schultz has pointed out via Unit 4 documents, supplying Central with A/C has been in the school district maintenance plan for a decade.

aantulov wrote on September 28, 2014 at 2:09 pm

New high school in Champaign sure, but WHOSE PAYING FOR THIS? These skyscrapers going daily, won’t be. The Champaign council seems to be having a garage sale of the tax base.1. There needs to be a full account of tax breaks and a moratorium on any more "welfare" on the city webpage, before the school budget is raised.2. Alternatives to building new expansively. Charter schools? Supported programs at private schools? Alternate hours?  Specialized arts & trade schools in small locations.3. Location- The obvious choice is next to parkland a public entity that recently took without referendum 90 million from property tax payers for the very facilities the new highs school covets. Or has everyone forgot the last tax hike?   

prp wrote on September 29, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Those private owners of those skyscrapers will be paying property taxes too, right?

awycislo wrote on September 29, 2014 at 7:09 pm

I'm much like the first person in this story.  I know the schools need it, but the new school site is horrible.  There's no way I'm voting for it unless there is a solid plan laid out to upgrade the infrastructure and road network north of the interstate to alleviate what will be a traffic nightmare.  I know that won't happen.  Traffic is already horrible up there, and they want to make it many times worse?  No thanks.

Perhaps a failure to pass this time will force them to try a little harder the next time.  I wish they'd get with it this time, the kids deserve better.

cgirl wrote on September 29, 2014 at 8:09 pm


Kathy S wrote on September 29, 2014 at 9:09 pm

I agree!  Even if they had such a plan, it would probably double the cost, and we're going to need that money for Dr. Howard and other maintenance issues.