Study: Staying put may provide only temporary solution

Study: Staying put may provide only temporary solution

CHAMPAIGN — Just days before the Champaign school board voted in August to put a bond issue for a new Central High School on the Nov. 4 ballot, district architects completed a study on the expansion possibilities in Central's current neighborhood.

The district was responding to a determined group of voters who have pushed for it to explore other options besides building a new school at Neil Street and Interstate Drive, at a cost of nearly $98 million. Planned renovations at Centennial would cost another $51 million.

Hear from Judy Wiegand Wednesday at 10 on WDWS.

The "conceptual study" by the district's architects and real estate attorney estimates it would cost $88.9 million to renovate 80-year-old Central and provide the same footprint as a new school, with room for PE, band, athletics and parking. That includes $68.8 million for construction and $22.1 million to acquire and demolish several blocks to the north and east of Central.

That's $10 million less than the estimates for the new school envisioned at Interstate Drive and Neil Street. But it doesn't solve Central's problems, according to district officials. They argue:

— It would leave the school landlocked, making future expansion or improvements difficult.

It would require the acquisition of 70 properties in central Champaign, likely with eminent domain, displacing families and destroying a large chunk of the neighborhood.

It would be logistically daunting, requiring a place to put some or all of the 1,250 students during construction, even if it's phased, because of asbestos abatement.

With unforeseen costs, the price tag would probably exceed $100 million, according to Michael Tague, the district's longtime real estate attorney, who calculated the land acquisition costs.

Champaign attorney David Sholem, a former school board member who has been pressing school officials for months to study other options for Central, argues that the high school wouldn't need nearly that much space. He calls the plan to acquire 70 properties "ludicrous."

His alternative: Build an addition to the north, where the school parking lot is now. Close Park Street. Acquire the old McKinley YMCA on Church Street, tear it down and use that for parking or a marching band practice field, or a combination band/athletic practice field. Leave baseball and football practices where they are now — at McKinley Field. Over time, acquire property as it becomes available around Central.

The district report includes that option as "Concept A," one of three possibilities considered, but did not study it in-depth. The three concepts vary in cost by the amount of property acquired (see graphic).

Sholem isn't wedded to expanding Central, but is pushing for a more thorough analysis and cost estimates for every high school site, including Spalding Park and one city-wide high school at Centennial.

"I don't feel they've scratched the surface with the alternatives," Sholem said.

The choice presented by the district's study is to condemn dozens of houses to get the space needed, or live with athletic fields elsewhere, possibly consolidated at the Interstate Drive site.

"If you want to have your competition fields and your ball fields and your tennis courts someplace else, then you could get by with Concept A or Concept B," Tague said. "A doesn't do much. B probably provides for band, probably football, PE and some other things. It probably mitigates quite a bit of that. But baseball, softball, tennis and competition fields would still have to be a shared or offsite situation."

Previous studies

The school board has considered the idea of expanding Central in the past, before Judy Wiegand was superintendent, officials said.

"It just didn't get past that first level of analysis, when it came to the cost to try to renovate an older building as well as acquire properties around the current Central to expand and provide the space that would be needed," Wiegand said at a recent presentation about the Nov. 4 ballot proposal.

Tague said the question of Central's future has come up periodically at least since the early 1990s as the district surveyed its facility needs.

In 1990, he said, when voters were asked to authorize the new Barkstall and Stratton elementary schools, money was also included for technology improvements at Central. That work was done to bring it up to par with Centennial, Tague said, characterizing it as a "Band-aid fix."

"I think they concluded that it couldn't be economically remodeled in place and be used, except to the limited extent that they ultimately did it — which is part of the knock on the site now for not being up to 21st-century standards," Tague said. "There was information available documenting structural inadequacies and challenges to the remodeling of the existing building."

In ensuing years, balancing space needs with the requirements of the consent decree settlement, the district focused on upgrading its elementary schools. The 1 percent sales tax increase passed in 2008 provided some money to purchase land for a new high school, to "preserve another option" for dealing with Central's future, Tague said.

Given the 60 acres that then-Superintendent Arthur Culver said was required for a new school site, district officials estimated it would cost about $3 million to buy that much land on the edges of the community, Tague said.

The district then studied the options for acquiring property around the current Central: north of the school, up to Church Street; west of the school to Prospect Avenue; and east of the school to West Side Park.

"We found out rather quickly that if you added up the assessor's values placed on the properties, we were well over our $3 million budget," he said.

Acquiring a smaller amount of property would not have solved the issue of having no room for practice fields, marching band, inadequate parking or other problems with the building, he said.

"To my knowledge, at least initially, there was no architectural or engineering work done to look at redoing Central in place because it would be a big expenditure with the inability to really solve the problems that were associated with the inadequate footprint of the building," Tague said.

Culver abandoned the idea of renovation because "he was adamant that there needed to be 60 acres to provide adequate expansion capabilities," Tague said.

More recently, the district agreed to re-evaluate the possibility of expanding Central because of opponents' questions, and because there wasn't a huge cost differential between renovating and building a new school, Tague and Wiegand said. But they've concluded any renovation scenario has too many negatives.

"You'd be crammed, with absolutely no possibility of expansion in the future, and 20 years you'd be right back with the same problem," Tague said.

Analysis 'flawed'

Sholem and other critics of the ballot proposal say the process was skewed from the beginning toward a new building on the outskirts of town, because of the minimum acreage required.

In a series of sometimes-blistering email exchanges with school officials over the summer and fall, they argued that the district never fully investigated less expensive options for adding on to Central, or the idea of a single high school consolidated on the Centennial-Jefferson Middle School site. The list of respondents include Sholem, developer Peter Fox, architect Neil Strack and commercial real estate broker Alan Nudo.

Sholem said previous studies of renovating Central were perfunctory at best. Some of the objections to renovating Central — for example, the difficulty of adding wireless service in an old building — could be solved with innovative solutions used on campus and elsewhere, he said.

The recent Central study was set up to "justify the decision they've already made," he argued.

"Based upon the priorities right now, they can only make one site work for them," said Strack, who favored the Spalding Park-Judah Christian site. "Based another set of priorities ... they could make other options work. In their mind, as long as they stick with the absolute importance of athletic facilities, it's going to be very difficult to make Central work."

Tague said the board could change the parameters to make keeping Central the top priority, no matter the cost, but chose to focus on educational program needs for a "modern, state-of-the-art high school."

The district never spent money on an architectural study because "we didn't want to hire an engineering firm to tell us what we thought we already knew from common sense," he said.

Construction issues

If Central were to be renovated, there are other issues besides space — namely, what to do with the students during construction.

When the district remodeled its elementary schools, the former Carrie Busey building on Kirby Avenue was used as a temporary site for Bottenfield, Kenwood, B.T. Washington, Robeson and Westview students. But it hasn't been able to find a building to hold 1,200 high school students, officials said. An earlier study projected it would cost $25 million to build a temporary building for students.

Sholem ridiculed that figure and said construction could be done in phases — an addition first, then each of Central's two main wings — so students could remain in the building.

But the presence of asbestos might preclude phasing, said board member Kristine Chalifoux.

The building has "known or probable" asbestos in all the floor tiles, all the pipe insulation, all the mastic holding up the chalkboards, in the caulk around the windows and almost all of the plaster," she said. "To say nothing about lead paint covering the walls."

During any renovation it would have to be removed by professionals in hazmat suits in a sealed-off area, she said.

"You cannot have kids anywhere near that. It's not as simple as just putting up a piece of plastic in the hallway," she said.

Centennial doesn't have quite as much asbestos, and the work planned there is not as extensive — mostly additions and modernization, she said. Central needs new mechanical systems and larger classrooms, among other things, which means "tearing out a lot of what's there."

Chalifoux said before becoming a board member, she was critical of the plan to build a new high school and wanted a renovation instead.

"It didn't take a whole lot for me to really dig into it to realize you can't. It is just too small," she said. "Yeah, we can tear down a lot of houses in the neighborhood and make a big school, but that only solves one of our issues. It doesn't work."

Regarding a single high school, Wiegand said that idea was rejected during the "Future Facilities" process, which included representatives of the community. Ongoing feedback since then has indicated the community wants to preserve the identities of the two schools, which allows more students to participate in music, band and sports, she said. But proponents argue it could expand academic offerings and eliminate the need for students to travel back and forth between the schools for courses now offered at only one site.

In an email exchange with Sholem, board member John Bambenek said the district spent years on the process and "thoroughly analyzed" 18 sites in all.

"Interstate drive came out on top, by no means perfect, but the best of available options without dedicating tens of millions of EXTRA funds just for property acquisition and demolition," he wrote. Other solutions are "simply not in line with the requirements set by no less than 3 large-scale community efforts taking place in broad daylight and open to the public."

Sholem said he's not sure what option he prefers but says referendum opponents want the district to re-evaluate less expensive options.

"I prefer the presentation of a bond referendum that is logical, cost-effective, in the best interests of students and can pass," he said recently. "They're headed in a direction that is not feasible, that can't win, and it's not in the best interests of the community."

Taking a second look

Here is Unit 4's latest estimate — $88.9 million — for what it would cost to renovate Central High School and provide 15-17 acres for parking, band practice area and athletic fields:

Renovation cost: 225,000 square feet at $191/square foot — $43 million

Additional space: 85,000 square feet at $280/square foot — $23.8 million

Total construction cost: $66.8 million

Purchase of 70 properties — $16 million

25 percent contingency — $4 million

Demolition/permits — $20,000 per property, or $1.4 million

Legal/appraisal fees — $10,000 per property, or $700,000

Total site acquisition costs: $22.1 million

Source: Sept. 18 memo from attorney Michael Tague to Superintendent Judy Wiegand, based on cost estimates from BLDD architects.

Property acquisition

A Unit 4 study of a possible expansion of Central High School in August looked at three concepts, starting with the smallest footprint, each building on the last. Here's an estimate of the property cost and what each would provide:

1 Acquire three properties north of the school (A2) for an addition and the old McKinley YMCA (D) for parking and a practice field.

Cost: $1.23 million

2 Acquire a total of 40 properties east and north of the school up to Hill Street, with additional parking and practice fields (Areas A1, A2, B, D, E and most of C).

Cost: Approximately $10 million

3 Acquire a total of 70 properties stretching up to Washington Street, with addition of a track, tennis courts, and baseball, football and soccer fields (Areas A through G).

Cost: $16 million

If a new school is built ...

The current plan under consideration for re-using Central, if a new school is built:

Phase 1

— Move district administrative offices from Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St., C, into Central's Seeley Hall area.

— Move Novak Academy, 815 N. Randolph St, C, into Mellon building, allowing the alternative high school to expand.

— Move parts of the Family Information Center, now at the old Columbia School, 1103 N. Neil St., C, to Central.

Phase 2

— Create an "entrepreneurial center" at Central for students from both high schools, modeled after the Center for Advanced Professional Studies near Kansas City, Kan. Students would go there for half the day and take core classes at the new Central or Centennial.

— Eventually move Novak Academy into Central to allow further expansion and give those students access to a gym.

— Mellon building would be used to expand early childhood center or South Side Elementary School next door.

Phase 3

— Possibly create STEM middle school at Central, with smaller class sizes and a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Program could use some facilities at entrepreneurial center and relieve future crowding at district's three middle schools.

— Move any remaining administrative functions into Central.

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rsp wrote on October 26, 2014 at 11:10 am

If the $149 million referendum passes, how much more will they need to renovate Central so all those other groups can move in? You know, like the ac they've been holding out on to try to get people to vote yes. Cause it has to be fixed all pretty so new people can move in, right? So they'll want you to pay for that too, plus the $30 million in interest on the referendum.

pattsi wrote on October 26, 2014 at 11:10 am

Several aspects to consider--There is a huge need to step back from the decision fatigue that is pushing this referendum under the guise that the conversation is years long and truncated community opportunity for genuine, unfrettered comments tells us what ought to happen. This is a half a century decision that will totally influence what occurs in the community without due diligence as to the total cost both actual and all of the externalities that will put our grandchildren into the position of paying this off.

Local Yocal wrote on October 26, 2014 at 12:10 pm
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1) It's what happens inside the classroom that matters. The District's numbers regarding academic achievement and discipline are unsettling at the least. None of the bond referendum goes toward hiring more teachers, and more staff with specialized skills to address the myriad of student needs. Curricullum (like spelling) needs a thorough review. Computers and college are not the only options or skill-sets that need to be taught. As this whole fiasco has shown, we are, as a society, leaving the information age, and entering The Recycling Age. Construction work and retail that can make best use and re-use of what we already have are the industries of the future. Before we move ahead with new facilities, we need to set forth the improvements needed in the classroom so that high school graduates are equipped to work, start businesses and go to higher ed. Having too many kids with already established criminal records, needing remedial coursework to even fill out a job app, and zero training in the industrial arts is poor perparation for the future. 92% of Unit 4's graduates do not graduate from college. As one official said recently, "It was a mistake in the 90's to believe we should be teaching toward a college education."

2) The Bond referendum will "create jobs." As John T. Scott pointed out in his excellent Oct. 16 letter to the editor: fat chance. The District's very specific numbers for construction costs indicates bids have already been accepted, and as all construction projects in this area have proven over the years, very few local people and firms get the work. The District should be forthcoming as to who has already been hired, where are they from, from where are they purchasing the building materials, and where do their employees reside. Too many times have local governments gotten away with spending our tax dollars on companies and employees who don't live here. 

I'm voting no until these overdue conversations are addressed.

bueek wrote on October 27, 2014 at 9:10 am

Hi Local Yocal!

Could you provide a source for the "92% of Unit 4's graduates do not graduate from college" statement?  I am not asking in a "prove it" sort of way, I am just very concerned about this figure and where it has come from, and if it is indeed true, well, that is daunting.  

Since we compare figures and data with the other schools in our Big 12 conference (which in some ways can be akin to comparing apples and oranges), I wonder how does this "92%" figure stack up to these other schools? (Not necessarily asking you to provide this answer, but more of a thinking out loud sort of question.)


rsp wrote on October 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm

I didn't look at the graphics earlier. I don't know why they didn't include room for golf. There is a golf team, right? Why should those few be inconvenienced at my expensed? We could be the next UNC people, think about it. How many of our graduates are not qualified, either?

Just a little fyi, when they did the surveys, they found out people around here are really against eminent domain, so any time they don't want to use a plan or an area like Spaulding they say they would *have* to use eminent domain.

However, Spaulding for example could have been a gradual process, building the school and buying properties as they became up.

They also refer to the survey as were people prefer two schools over three, but it never asks about three schools. Multiple choice questions limit answers and control discussion.

Local Yocal wrote on October 27, 2014 at 12:10 pm
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Here's how the "92% of Unit 4 School graduates do NOT graduate from college" is figured (and please, anyone with better methods of calculating this, please chime in) :

Average graduating class-size at Centennial and Central = 400 = 800 total in the district. 

Average number of Unit 4 graduates who enroll at the University of Illinois from Central and Centennial= 50 = 100 total. 

Average number of Unit 4 graduates who enroll at Parkland College from Central and Centennial = 50 = 100 total.

So we have approximately 200 Unit 4 students per year going onto either Junior College (ours happens to be one of the finest junior colleges in the nation) or the local U of I*. [* it should be noted, the district doesn't track students who go on to other schools elsewhere in-and-out of state.) 

According to editorialist Andrew Wilk, he cited a Complete College America report in his Sept. 28 editorial that says only 68% of college students finish a 4 year program, and only 19% of junior college enrollees will finish a four year program. 

So I am poorly guestimating that of the 800 students graduating each year from Unit 4, only about 90 kids will finish someday with a four year college degree. And this they will do with an average accumulated debt of $28,000. 

Anyone with better information should correct. 

justthefacts wrote on October 27, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I wouldn't get too excited about Local Yocal's graduation rate estimate. He is applying national averages to the Unit 4 school district without knowing if those averages are actually relevant. For example, the graduation + transfer rate for Parkland College is 49.4%, which is significantly higher than the 19% graduation rate quoted by Local Yocal. Of course we don't know how many of those students who transfer graduate from another institution.

Another example; the graduation for the University of Illinois is 82.4%, which is also much higher than the 68% 4 year college graduation cited by Local Yocal.

The point is that we don't know the actual college graduation rate for Unit 4 students  and we can not trust an estimate which is based on national averages which may or may not apply to the Unit 4 district.

Lostinspace wrote on October 27, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Why don't we ask the U of I and Parkland for hard figures?

BROW8155 wrote on October 27, 2014 at 10:10 pm

First, I agree completely to earlier comments and those made to previous articles, what goes on inside the classroom is critical. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college. So HS should educate and train students for all types of opportunities from college to industrial arts and technology and any other employment trend.

We need a serious upgrade to the HS in Champaign. These on-going lazy arguments of ‘I don’t like the location’ or ‘we don’t need sports facilities or band/theater’ or ‘updated learning spaces’ are foolish at best. Any location that has been discussed has serious flaws, there is no perfect or close to perfect situation. Trying to claim eminent domain and buying and then destroying large number properties seems wasteful. The 1st property where the ‘little old lady’ that has lived there for 50 years until the big bad school district rips her home away will lead to an out pouring of protest of hysterical proportions.

This urban sprawl myth is also just foolish, guess what folks, the whole town used to be prairie or farmland, cities grow, all cities grow. Approximately 40 years ago Robeson Elementary was the last building in Southwest Champaign, trust me, we used to have to go into corn/bean fields to get baseballs, PE balls etc. The town grows, our facilities need to grow/expand.

The only location with somewhat less controversy is the Parkland/Dodds site but at this point the Park District is not going to sell it. Unit 4 can’t have it, end of story. Yet, even that site has major flaws such as having both HS on one side of town, etc.

This Board as well as previous school boards have considered the new HS issue for over 40 years, at some point we have to build one. Furthermore, the argument that the Board didn’t consider XYZ is also getting old. List any location or idea such as one HS or 3 HS and I or any number of people on this chat board can give you a laundry list of reasons why it does not work. There have been countless community meetings to bring out the issues including every single school board meeting there is an opportunity to speak.

Regarding the comment above on the approximately 10% of students that attend and graduate from college, it is incredibly misleading to only include Unit 4 graduates that attend two colleges. Having family members and friends’ children who have graduated over the past 4-5 years, I know they had 100’s of friends that were attending colleges including U of I Urbana/Chicago, Illinois State, Northern, Sothern Carbondale/Edwardsville, Eastern, Western out of state etc., etc. So to make any assumptions on the small sample size of two colleges is just, well, odd.

No one wants to pay an increase to our taxes, but we also need facilities that assist our students in learning and growing. These facilities can be academic classrooms, learning/computer labs, industrial art shops and yes avenues for extracurricular activities. We are Champaign, we are home to a world class institution with Nobel winners and countless faculty that are experts in their chosen course of study/research, we should expect to have K-12 opportunities that reflect this same commitment to excellence including our facilities, faculty, staff.

rsp wrote on October 28, 2014 at 8:10 am

Most kids who graduate with a high school diploma and go on to college have to take remedial classes. Things like 9th grade math. If the schools are doing so good why is that? The UI is going after more and more students outside the country for the money and because they meet the grades. We don't. Everyone wants the coaches to recruit from up around Chicago but the kids up there don't meet the grades. We have a serious problem with our educational system and it's not about new buildings. We have a school building with the walls sinking into the ground but they want us to ignore that and act like this is a crisis.

Local Yocal wrote on October 28, 2014 at 5:10 am
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"We are Champaign, we are home to a world class institution with Nobel winners and countless faculty that are experts...we should expect to have K-12 opportunities that reflect this same commitment to excellence including our facilities, faculty, staff."

Which makes the academic achievement and curricullum at Unit 4 so disturbing. Thanks to the above commenters, 92% not graduating from college may be too high a calculation, but the point is the vast majority of Unit 4 students don't go on to college. What will be their work when they leave with "only" a high school diploma? With the state of financial aid and the rise of tuition costs, most students (75-80%?) cannot afford college even if they were elgible. And as we've seen, the U of I prefers the lucrative money to be made off of wealthy international students following their new corporate business model. 

This project gives us a chance to discuss our expectations of what goes on inside the building a good vetting. The good news is we have an administration who are willing to be transparent and accountable. The bad news is they are repairing damage done over a 40-year period during the Tim Hyland and Arthur Culver days. There's much to be done in the way of revamping course offerings, teaching techniques that can reach today's students, and recovery options for students off to a bad start. We can rest assured the administration is committed to improving the academic and work skills of our children. It's now a matter of designing how best to get there. It remains a concern no new tax monies are going to be spent on more staff and faculty. It's also a bit disconcerting how much tax money will be given to just "the air" of finance charges on the bonds.

Thanks to Hyland and Culver's secrecy and neglect, few residents are qualified to build the new facilities. Unless there's something that's not been reported, it's likely our tax dollars will be given over to mostly out-of-town contractors, and out-of-town employees to construct a school for a town with a rising poverty rate of 26%, up from 10% in 2000. It seems only the fast food and hotel chains stand a chance at making some money off of the construction help coming here to do a job and leave.

justthefacts wrote on October 28, 2014 at 8:10 am


Do you have any data to substantiate your assertion that "the vast majority of Unit 4 students don't go on to college"? What about other post-secondary endeavors such as trade schools, technical institutes, or the military? You seem to have a very strong opinion about the education provided by Unit 4 schools. Is that opinion the result of research, personal experience, or coffee break anecdotes?

It doesn't seem to me that the college graduation rate for Unit 4 graduates is the single most important criteria for measuring the quality of a public school system which must meet the needs of a diverse student population. It also doesn't seem to me that college graduation rates should be a decisive factor in determining the need for new high school.

Local Yocal wrote on October 28, 2014 at 10:10 am
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It's completely agreed that college graduation rates are NOT the sole criteria for a good school district. There are numerous other jobs, work to be done that need capable people, and deserving of a living wage while doing it.

It's no secret, and the Unit 4 administration does not shy away from the fact that industrial arts and the trades have, for the most part, gone by the wayside at Unit 4. We are not training our young people to become immediate business people or experts in the trades. I wouldn't mind the trailers-for-classrooms had the trailers been built by some juniors and seniors learning not only construction basics, but also some of the latest green technologies that make such a building energy efficient. There are several generations now who do not know how to change the oil in their car, repair a toilet, fix a piece a drywall, plant a garden, cook a meal, run a small business, work on the line, understand how their government works at the various levels, or even court a future spouse with manners. These are legitimate skills to know and does not necessarily need a college education to perform well.  So first, let's acknowledge that people bring a variety of God-given geniuses to school with them, and let's get real in understanding that most kids graduating around here, don't go to college.   Here's the data that concerns me, and I don't know whether these measurements are the best predictors or not:Only 61% of the kids in the 5th grade are reading at the national normsOnly 42% of the kids in the 5th grade are doing math at the national norms.Only 56.7% of the kids in the 8th grade are reading at the national norms.Only 51% of the kids in the 8th grade are doing math at the national norms.As far as college readiness, about 60% of the kids are averaging about a 21 on the ACT. That represents a marked improvement. The problem is, they compete against a freshmen class at the U of I for example, whose average score on the ACT is 29.  The discipline numbers are shocking and the academic performance by race is not healthy either, but that's a longer conversation.  It should be stressed that the Unit 4 administration is well aware of the challenges ahead and have turned the ship around toward the right direction. Their building plan I do criticize, but their good intentions certainly not. Again, this project represents a chance for the community to improve our schools regardless of what the plan will be. And ultimately, it's up to all of us in our respective neighborhoods to help foster the quality citizens of the future. It is unrealistic to expect the School District to do everything.