Does April offer a better chance?

Does April offer a better chance?

Will it pass? Let our columnist know your feelings by clicking here

CHAMPAIGN — It’s been 28 days since the Champaign school board last met, two months since its $149 million facilities proposal came up short at the polls, and seven weeks since members vowed to listen to the people who voted “no” and explore changes.

Now it’s decision time, the sequel.

The board has just 16 days to decide what ballot question, if any, it will ask of voters during the April 7 consolidated election. The public discussion begins Monday night, the first of two meetings where the future of Unit 4 facilities is expected to be at the top of the agenda.

There are minds to change, critics to silence and details taxpayers anxiously await. 

“My hope is that the board will have taken a deep breath and realize that the community has not been fully engaged,” said district parent Charles Schultz — or, “Citizen 4,” as he’s known to followers of his Unit 4 blog. “My expectation is significantly different.”

President Laurie Bonnett says the board will vote on either Jan. 12 or 19 whether April is a go. Here’s why there may be no better opportunity to get it passed.


1. The ballot question voters see in April could be significantly different than the one that failed in the fall — with one notable exception.

Days after November’s disappointment, school board members Kristine Chalifoux and John Bambenek put their heads together to address the “no” votes. Those largely centered around three issues — the hefty price tag, the proposed location for a new Central High School and the millions devoted to renovating Centennial High School, leaving nothing for 104-year-old Dr. Howard Elementary. 

Just last week, Chalifoux and Bambenek met to finalize their proposal for a tweaked ballot question, which they plan to unveil Monday night. It will likely include solutions for two of the three issues, Bambenek said — reducing the overall borrowing cost and including money for Dr. Howard — but not the location of Central, he said.

The district paid $3.2 million for 80 acres of farmland in northernmost Champaign, intent on building the next Central — and possibly one day, down the road, a middle school — on that property.

That part has not changed.

“At present, no locations exist that would not entail major cost increases such as Spalding Park or renovating in-place at Central,” Bambenek said. “If someone has an idea for an apples-to-apples comparison of another location that we did not take a look at, now is the time to make their ideas known.”

Bambenek, who reiterated he speaks for himself and not for the board, said there’s only one satisfactory alternative to the 80 acres on Interstate Drive. If the Champaign Park District came up with a plan to bring Dodds Park back to the table, the board would “very seriously examine it,” he said, repeating a refrain expressed often in recent months — by Bonnett, Superintendent Judy Wiegand and others.

It would suffice “even if it happened after the referendum passed — obviously, with a new park board and a new school board, which changes things,” Bambenek said. 

Bambenek and Chalifoux are not the only board members planning to share proposed edits at Monday’s meeting, he added.


2. Fewer voters could mean far less “no” votes.

Without a high-level office at stake, far fewer people will turn out on April 7, 2015, than did in the last election (Nov. 5, 2014) or the following one (for president, on Nov. 8, 2016).

“Roughly speaking, turnout is highest in presidential-year generals, then midterm generals, then presidential primaries, then midterm primaries, then all other elections fall well behind,” said Brian Gaines a UI political science professor.

If history’s an indication, the timing of April could bode well for Unit 4 with voters. Marginal voters who tend to vote only in general elections, or even mid-term elections, are less likely to know anything about a school district issue, and may just vote no, Gaines said.

But it’s not as easy as just pasting the old question on a new ballot, Gaines is quick to point out. 

“Marginal voters tend to vote ‘no’ if they know little about a proposition and ‘no’ if they are voting on something that has previously lost,” he said. “It is wise to change the features of the proposition a bit.”

Another possible difference-maker: a strong, organized “vote yes” campaign.

“Contests with active campaigns — grassroots efforts that produce face-to-face contacts and, to a lesser extent, phone calls from individuals, not robots — see higher turnout,” Gaines said.

Nearly 79,000 ballots were cast in Champaign County during the last presidential election, in November 2012. That turnout was well over five times higher than the last consolidated election, in April 2013, when 14,522 voters went to the polls. 


3. The sooner the measure passes, the cheaper construction costs will be. 

Wiegand has estimated the cost of constructing a new building — like Central — will increase by 3 percent each year. 

Generally speaking, she’s right, said Champaign construction company owner Stuart Broeren.

“Any given year, construction costs could be less or more than initially anticipated. On average, the 3 percent margin is a conservative number utilized when trying to get a handle on costs for building in correlation with annual increases,” said the owner of Broeren-Russo Companies, which built Unit 4 elementary schools Bottenfield and Westview.

Broeren cites the economy, worker wages and the fluctuation in cost of raw materials as contributors to yearly construction cost increases.

Adding 3 percent to November’s $149 million price tag would mean an extra $4.5 million tacked on to the project.

“Now is the time to do something and obviously construction costs will increase,” said Chris Kloeppel, a Champaign plumber and pipe fitter who handled most of the underground work at Booker T. Washington and Carrie Busey elementary schools. “You know what the cost of something is today and you really don’t know what the cost of the same construction will be tomorrow.”

Kloeppel, who’s also a Unit 4 parent, is among eight newcomers who’ve filed petitions to run for five open seats on the Champaign school board. Part of the Local 149 plumber’s pitch: He’d bring professional experience to the school facilities conversation.

“My main concern is the fact that we have middle schoolers and high schoolers who are not getting the best education possible in the current facilities,” he said.


4. The current school board members are all on the same page. After April, that likely won’t be the case.

Six days after the referendum failed in November, Kathy Richards presented a petition to the board, asking members to reconsider changing the Interstate Drive location of the would-be new Central. 

Board members didn’t even blink an eye at the 186 online signatures and kindly asked her to take another look at the data, said Richards, who’ll also run for a school board seat in April.

The solidarity all seven current members share could shift with the transition coming to the next Unit 4 board in April. At least three seats will go to new faces, with Bambenek, Chalifoux and Ileana Saveley all choosing not to run for re-election. Incumbents Jamar Brown and Kerris Lee, whose terms also expire in April, said they will run again.

Richards said her experiences trying to reopen the conversation about location are what propelled her to add her name to the ballot.

“Something needs to be addressed, I feel like the district is so married to the idea of this 80-acre space on the edge of town, but I think there’s room for more creativity,” she said. 

And she’s not alone in that sentiment. At least half of the 10 candidates running in April have expressed concerns over portions of the referendum in interviews with The News-Gazette, citing those worries as reasons for running. 

Still, Lee is certain: Once new members are elected and shown the data, they’ll change their minds.

“I would caution the candidates running to read the eight years of data and the comprehensive plan that the city council has passed that says growth on the north end of town is where it’s at and schools and parks should be there, before making a commitment to change, and to be open-minded,” he said. “The reason I’m running again is because the majority of people in our community expect board members to make a good decision based on the community.

“We can’t wait another year when both high schools are at 104 percent capacity. I can’t honestly say we’re providing the best education for our kids when we have a school that doesn’t have air conditioning here in the Midwest. That’s something that deserves a champion. That’s something that deserves being noted when someone is making these tough decisions that impact our community so much.”

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Local Yocal wrote on January 04, 2015 at 7:01 am
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Could the school board be clear this time with the voters: the proposal is not $149 million tax dollars. When you include the finance charges for the construction loans, it's $230 million tax dollars. (Without factoring in Dr. Howard)

OldIlliniFan wrote on January 04, 2015 at 9:01 am

I agree that the Board needs to be honest with the total dollar amount.  They predict financing costs of $230-$149 = $81 million, but then conveniently 'forget' that amount, and also don't discuss what an increase in rates will do.  Bottom line is we are looking at a quarter of a billion dollars. Wow.

Kathy R. wrote on January 04, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Many people (including me, at a meeting with Dr. Wiegand in Nov.) have asked the board to investigate how many "yes" voters were supporting improved facilities but not the Interstate Drive proposal. I look forward to Monday's meeting to find out what they have learned. 

jwr12 wrote on January 04, 2015 at 1:01 pm

About that 'data' the school board likes to cite.  It doesn't include any comprehensive transportation plan, despite the fact that the Olympian Drive site includes obvious transportation challenges and huge transportation costs.  Yes, I am aware of the 'traffic study' that was produced.  But that asked a very limited question: how would traffic on Prospect, etc., be affected.  That is very far from a comprehensive collection of data the transportation issues raised, and doubly far from any data-driven plan on how to deal with this question.  The only broader study I'm aware of (despite repeated requests to Unit 4 for information on this issue) is the one produced by MTD, which shocked everyone with costs.

This all makes me jaded about vague references to how 'looking at the data' supposedly shows that Olympian Drive is the only feasible location.  If the most basic question surrounding the site's feasbility--namely, how students will be transported from central and south Champaign to the new school-- has never been seriously studied by the board, how thorough can we imagine its other studies to have been?

I would be happy to vote yes for new schools; but I feel that the board owes the public a study of this huge issue.  Or at least a plan.

BruckJr wrote on January 04, 2015 at 5:01 pm

No means no.

Kathy S wrote on January 04, 2015 at 6:01 pm

If growth on the north side of town is "where it's at and our schools and parks should be there", does that also mean we should close West Side Park and move it north of the highway? 

justthefacts wrote on January 05, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Have you noticed that the land north of Markeplace Mall and west of Market St is being developed? Development north of Marketplace, east of Prospect, and west of Market St is proceeding and will continue. Students will either be traveling south on Prospect and Market or north on Prospect and Market.