Sides have their say

Sides have their say

Now what? Tell Tom Kacich here

CHAMPAIGN — The final taxpayer tally: 12 against using part of Dodds Park for a new Champaign Central High School, seven for.

Wednesday night's two-hour public discussion of Champaign's most polarizing topic was a split decision, with community members on both sides offering strong opinions at the Leonhard Recreation Center.

Of course, the votes that count most are still to come:

— Sometime between now and the middle of next week, Champaign Park District board President Joe Petry said, commissioners will decide whether they'll hold a formal vote to swap land with the Unit 4 school district, a necessary first step before taxpayers get their say. The soonest a vote could happen is March 11.

"It will all depend on what the commissioners tell" park district leadership, Petry said. "Are we ready to have another discussion on March 11? Are we ready to vote at that time? We will see what they are thinking."

— The next big vote happens on April 7, the date of the consolidated election. The school board's ballot question is already written; it asks for approval of a $144 million bond issue, with the biggest chunk — $94 million — going to build a new Central. Whether that high school would be on school district-owned farmland at Interstate Drive or park district-owned recreation space at Dodds remains unsolved.

Here's a glance at what we did learn Wednesday:

Parkland College has a few concerns about the Dodds location. Namely: traffic and security.

In response to a question by park commissioner Jane Solon, Parkland President Tom Ramage said the only discussions school officials have had with their potential new next-door neighbor dealt with sharing some tennis courts.

Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the two sides have no plans to pursue collaboration conversations until a decision is made by the park board.

Ramage said, "It's hard to address issues when we don't know exactly what the siting or the layout of the building would be, or the impact. I think that the largest issue I've heard from faculty and staff and board of trustees has to do with open campuses and what students do over their lunch hour. I think discussions about closing the campus (for lunch) would be a good discussion, but I don't know that we can direct those conversations until we know what is actually happening.

"The traffic piece and the security issues, those are our top two concerns. I'm sure both could be addressed adequately with conversations, and the question of when those conversations will start is the debate."

The MTD supports putting Central at Dodds more so than Interstate Drive or other locations.

If transportation were the only obstacle the school district had to overcome to settle on a location, MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt said, he would fully support Dodds over Interstate Drive or Spalding Park.

"I agree with Dr. Wiegand that Dodds presents some great opportunities for collaboration between the two different districts," he said. "Dodds has a lot of advantages from a transportation perspective — primarily, we already have service in that area to a very heavy degree; there's multiple routes that serve that area. While we also have some routes that serve the Spalding Park area, there's not as many as Dodds Park. And then the Interstate Drive site is the one that's furthest from any currently existing service, so the costs are going to be the greatest to provide transportation to that location."

Confidence is high that a proposed land swap likely wouldn't be an issue with state and federal agencies.

There's no disputing the length of time it would take to try to lift land-use restrictions set at Dodds decades earlier by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It will take at least a year, maybe longer, an IDNR official told The News-Gazette last week.

But park district Executive Director Joe DeLuce said during his opening presentation Wednesday that the IDNR deals with many land-use exemption requests each year, and the majority of those proposed are approved.

In his conversations with officials at the IDNR, DeLuce said he was told a property swap — 40 acres of Dodds for 40 acres of Unit 4-owned farmland (purchased last year from the Ponder family) — would likely be approved. The key, he said: the farmland the school district owns must be of equal or higher value when broken down to acre-by-acre costs.

Wiegand figures Unit 4 won't wait more than two years for land-use restrictions to be lifted at Dodds.

She said the school district needs a replacement for Central ASAP, citing the well-known rhetoric that both Unit 4 high schools will be at 120 percent capacity by the 2021-22 school year.

"That's the start of when we will see having to have these types of (portable trailer) classes at both of our high schools," she said. "It's a time-sensitive issue for us in the school district."

If the park district were to vote in favor of a land swap and start the long process, Wiegand said, Unit 4 could probably wait two years at most for the exemption to pan out before it would have to drop the deal.

"When it comes to this concern, if there was the ability to move forward, it would have to be in some way time-bound, stating that at a certain time this would have to be resolved. Otherwise, the district would have to move forward and build on Interstate," she said. "It takes probably three years to build a new high school."

Dodds is the most "sensible, innovative solution," Wiegand said.

One reason: More students would be able to walk to school there than are at Central's current University Avenue location, she said. During her presentation, Wiegand shared data about "walk zones" — identified as being within a mile-and-a-half — surrounding both sites.

A little more than 1,400 district students live within a one-and-a-half mile radius of the current school, Wiegand said. At Dodds, that number is almost 400 students higher.

Central-at-Dodds opponents want park commissioners to remember what they were elected to do.

Upon stating her full name at the microphone before her public comment, Holly Dodds said she knew she wouldn't have to tell the board how she felt.

"That should be a given, based on my last name," she said.

Dodds went on to echo a sentiment expressed by the majority of community members who spoke, which was to remind commissioners that they were elected to protect, preserve and expand community parks and green space.

"There's been a lot of information and misinformation being tossed around and a healthy amount of finger pointing, but to me, it's all just noise to distract this board from the job at hand," she said. "Is selling off 40 acres of Dodds in the best interest of the park district? Keep in mind the one thing you were elected to do — oversee and serve as advocates for the park district, even if it is seen as unpopular by some in the community.

"Protect it from the people and entities who may not understand or care about its importance."

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rsp wrote on February 25, 2015 at 11:02 pm

40 acres of Dodds for 40 acres of Unit 4-owned farmland- That's not quite how it works. It's property of equal value, that also means the ability to use it. The value of the soccer fields, etc. We would be paying for those again through the school because the school would be responsible for replacing them. The value is not just a dollar amount even though it considers the land appraisals.

Citizen1 wrote on February 26, 2015 at 6:02 am

It is not for the Park District to bail out the failures of Unit 4.  This is not a contest of epic fails.  Keep the park.

sil wrote on February 26, 2015 at 10:02 am

If the park district were to vote in favor of a land swap and start the long process, Weigand said, Unit 4 could probably wait TWO YEARS at most for the exemption to pan out before it would have to drop the deal. “When it comes to this concern if there was the ability to move forward, it would have to be in some way time-bound, stating that at a certain time this would have to be resolved. Otherwise, the district would have to move forward and and BUILD AT INTERSTATE,” she said.

If Unit 4 can wait 2 years for a possible site other than Interstate, ask yourself WHY is it so crucial a Referendum be voted on now? If they can wait 2 years, why is it not a reasonable request that proposed sites, other than Dodds, be given the same serious consideration?

This clearly states the direction of Weigand and the current school board, and should leave no doubt in any person's mind of their intent..they are willing to consider no alternative to Interstate Dr other than Dodds. If the current referendum is passed and Dodds should fail to be approved, Unit 4 has been given the funds necessary to remap the future of this community, period. 

Lostinspace wrote on February 26, 2015 at 10:02 am

How in the world can anyone vote on this pig in a poke?  Can it not be removed from consideration until the mess is cleaned up?

sil wrote on February 26, 2015 at 11:02 am

Nope, ballots printed.

pattsi wrote on February 26, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Many votes are already cast for the April election.

Champaignite wrote on February 26, 2015 at 9:02 pm

One speaker did make an interesting point last night that I hadn't thought of.  He argued that the school district really needs to pay all the expenses associated with new facilities for the park district for many reasons, but one of which is that the Unit 4 boundaries (and taxing area) is much more than the park district's which I think is just the City of Champaign.  Unit 4 encompasses Savoy, Bondville and lots of rural area too and since those populations will also benefit potentially from the Dodds location, they too should bear some of that expense.  I have heard lots of people talk about how this is all taxpayer money (which it is) but it also begs the question of which/how many taxpayers. 

That thought lead to another question which have been addressed and I missed it.  If they were to do a land swap for Interstate Drive, is Interstate within the park district boundaries or would that require some sort of annexation?