Quietly, Unit 4 expands with building purchase

Quietly, Unit 4 expands with building purchase

CHAMPAIGN — Four years ago, prior to the Champaign school district paying $3.2 million for 80 acres of farmland on the city's northernmost edge, it arranged a series of public meetings where community members could weigh in on where they thought the next Central High should be built.

But the district's $3.4 million pending purchase of an office building at 502 W. Windsor Road didn't merit the same kind of process, Unit 4 officials told The News-Gazette.

School board members signed off on the purchase without comment at the tail end of their Feb. 12 meeting. It was the ninth of 10 items on the "new/unfinished business" portion of the board's agenda — referenced as "approval of contract by deed — 502 W. Windsor Rd."

It came just before a resolution authorizing the disposal of two school buses.

"There was no formal (public) input," said Tom Lockman, the district's chief financial and legal officer. "The money that is being used to acquire this building, it's not part of the referendum; it's not like people's taxes are going up in any way because we are doing this."

The money for the building will come out of the district's operations and maintenance account, which is funded by property taxes and interest earnings, among other things. Unit 4 spokeswoman Emily Schmit said the purchasing process was "consistent" with other Unit 4 administrative decisions.

"We didn't need to gather information about usage of space for certain needs as we did for the referendum, where we were talking about size and needs and a reflection of details you would want to see happen with an actual school," she said. "That would be consistent with other things we've done in terms of how we are housing administrative functions."


A place for displaced

The need for the purchase, district officials said, stems from the decision to move Dr. Howard Elementary students and staff into the Columbia Center early this summer. While Dr. Howard is torn down and built anew during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years — part of the six-school, $183.4 million referendum district voters approved in 2016 — students will attend classes at the Columbia Center, at 1103 N. Neil St., displacing the staff currently occupying the building.

"Seventy-five or 80 people currently work there," Lockman said. "The majority of them will be moving to the Windsor building. Some of them will be moving to the district's curriculum center building on Hill and Randolph."

Lockman said the bulk of Columbia-based employees who will move to West Windsor are teaching and learning staff or special education teachers.

"One of the things we have tried to work to do is have a space where we don't have, as we currently do, half of our special ed staff here (at the Mellon Administrative Center) and half are at Columbia," Lockman said. "That's just really not that efficient."

Also currently based at the Columbia Center are some Unit 4 programs, including the Family Information Center, where school of choice registration is held. Schmit said those programs would be moving to the district's curriculum center at 402 N. Randolph St. after the Youth Assessment Center, Champaign County's juvenile-diversion program, moves out. It's been housed rent-free at the Unit 4-owned building for the past three years but is expected to move this spring to the Round Barn complex in west Champaign.

"We're trying to close down one day, then open up the next morning so there's literally no gap in service so families can get what they need," Schmit said.

Schmit said having the publicly-oriented programs in a central location was the district's reason for moving them from Columbia to the building on North Randolph.

"I think maintaining choice registration staff in the central part of town is very important because we want to make sure we're by bus routes and close for people who are walking," she said. "Keeping them at the curriculum center for now is certainly a good move."

After the new Dr. Howard is built and students and staff return to that location, the district will have an extra building on its hands. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Lockman.

"Of course, we plan on Dr. Howard being on schedule and ready to go, but if something were to happen, then they don't have to leave" Columbia, he said. "If we look at a few years from now at what is the best use of that building, I think we would want to think thoughtfully about exactly what that could be."


Property values

Unit 4 plans to pay over $400,000 more for the office building at 502 W. Windsor Road than tax assessors say the property is worth.

According to county records, the building at the corner of Fox Drive and Windsor Road had a market value of $2,972,097 at the time of its assessment last year for 2018 real estate taxes.

"Before moving forward with an agreement, we had the property appraised," Schmit said. "We offered and paid the appraised value for the property."

The property owner, Par 3 Development, is a limited liability corporation managed by Fox Development Corp. in Champaign, and its sale to the school district isn't yet final.

The district has a signed contract to purchase the building, but hasn't yet closed on the property, according to Andrea Ruedi, chief executive of Fox Development Corp. and the broker representing the seller.

The district may need to occupy the Windsor Road building for a bit over four years to break even with the purchase price, compared to the cost of leasing the same building.

According to leasing information for the property still on Fox Companies' website, the building has 25,000 square feet available for lease at $13 per square foot a year — adding up to $325,000 a year for the entire building.

Meanwhile, the market value of the Windsor Road property has risen three times in the past five years, based on county assessment figures. It was valued at $2,859,210 during tax years 2013, 2014 and 2015, and $2,910,660 for 2016.

Par 3 Development's current tenant in the building, Busey Bank, will vacate it before the closing, Ruedi said.

Busey plans to move its Windsor Road operations to a bank-owned building it's been remodeling in downtown Champaign, according to First Busey Chief Financial Officer/Chief Operating Officer Robin Elliott.

That leased space has been housing primary bank operation and information technology functions, and the 100 employees working there will be moving to Busey's executive center at 115 N. Neil St. sometime in late spring, Elliott said.

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GLG wrote on February 25, 2018 at 9:02 am

"Unit 4 plans to pay over $400,000 more for the office building at 502 W. Windsor Road than tax assessors say the property is worth."


Educated idiots!  They should have bought farmland, It would have generated some income.

champaign61821 wrote on February 26, 2018 at 9:02 am

All that means is the the property was under-assessed. Your anger should also be directed at the Champaign County Assessor's office. They have consistently undervalued commercial properties in and around Champaign. The article said that Unit 4 offered what the appraisal said it was worth, so they didn't overpay anything.

DEB wrote on February 25, 2018 at 9:02 am

Oh yes, no money from the referendum was used. At the same time, if we hadn't asked to see our property taxes skyrocket, the "other" money wouldn't be available. Money is money and entirely fungible. Adding money from one sourse means it frees up money from another. Just look at the lotter that "goes entirely for education." Except Gov. Ryan decided that money from the lottery could replace money from taxpayers that was originally meant for education. FRAUD.

sanjuan wrote on February 25, 2018 at 6:02 pm

Why was there no RFP?

Why pay a significant premium?

Why did the documents posted with the agenda not list the sale price?

Why does Lockman say there was no public input like that was a good thing?

Why is there so little respect for the taxpayers?

So many questions.  Too late for answers. 

Annotator wrote on February 25, 2018 at 7:02 pm

It's all taxpayer money!  It just has multiple collection agencies - local (county) - state - federal, which is all paid by we the taxpayers.