Jim Dey: Time to make hard decisions on new school
With more questions than answers about a proposed tax hike to pay for school construction, Champaign schools Superintendent Judy Wiegand sometimes finds herself at a loss for words.
"I wish I could say more. But so much is up in the air right now," she said.
Not only are there unanswered questions, but each passing day draws the Aug. 17 legal deadline for putting a tax question on the November ballot ever closer. Wiegand said the board has a schedule for dealing with the issue that calls for a "first reading of the (administration) recommendation at the end of July" with a final vote at the school board's Aug. 11 meeting.
But a vote on what? And for how much?
It's hard to say.
The district spent $3.2 million on 80 acres of farmland north of Champaign, where it could build a new non-centrally located Central High School, a locale that has critics sputtering in anger. The Spalding Park site, located east of Prospect and south of Bloomington Road, is under half-hearted consideration. But board members question both its suitability for a massive construction project and extra cost — an estimated $20 million-plus for site preparation.
Then there's talk about acquiring the Dodds Park site adjacent to Parkland College on North Mattis Avenue from the Champaign Park District. Although some think the plan is dead, it remains on life support. It, too, could be costly, not to mention the fact that it would draw feverish opposition from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who use the hugely popular park for a variety of recreational activities.
If that wasn't enough, it will be difficult to persuade beleaguered taxpayers to say yes to a property tax hike in the Nov. 4 election.
Even by the thankless standards of serving on the school board, this is a tough situation.
"I think we're running out of time," said board member John Bambenek. "We may have to push (the referendum) back to April (2015) by default, or to November 2016, which has its own set of problems."
Bambenek is conflicted on the issue, contending that an expected enrollment increase requires new facilities, while fearful voters will resist the tax increase necessary to address the problem.
"Come 2022, our public schools will be at 120 percent of capacity," he said. "I don't think it's a good economic development activity to have 20 percent of our students educated in trailers."
At the same time, he said, "the more (money) we ask for, the less likely it is going to pass."
The ultimate plan could take a variety of configurations.
Superintendent Wiegand said plans call for construction of a new Central High School and new Dr. Howard Elementary School, as well as the renovation of Centennial High School, or some combination of the three. She estimated the costs would be "anywhere from $100 million to $150 million, give or take a couple million."
That's on top of nearly $100 million of school construction and renovation work already underway in Champaign.
In 2009, Champaign County voters approved a 1-cent per dollar sales tax increase that produced a gusher of new revenue for local school districts. After it went into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, the sales tax produced in the first six months nearly $21 million in new revenue for county schools, more than $8 million alone for Champaign schools.
Using the sales tax revenue as a financing mechanism, Champaign school board members quickly approved an $83 million bond sale to finance construction and renovation of its elementary schools, including a new elementary school in Savoy.
To help persuade voters to pass the sales tax hike, local school districts promised to use a portion of their new revenues to pay off existing bonds, resulting in a property tax decrease. In Champaign, however, the property tax swap quickly turned into another property tax hike. In early 2012, using a new loophole in state law created to allow school boards to bypass voters, board members approved a $14.5 million property tax increase. On the surface, the money was intended for a working cash fund, but in reality it's paying for additional work at the elementary schools.
The few voters with long memories could be motivated by that subterfuge to take revenge against the district in November. Even if they don't, it still will be a tough sell.
Wiegand said no committee has yet been formed to campaign for the property tax hike, but she said one will be once the board decides how it will proceed. She expressed confidence that committee members will be able to make an effective pitch during the 10-week campaign that follows.
"I think we will have an audience that is listening," Wiegand said.
But there will certainly be opposition.
Former Champaign Mayor Dan McCollum has made no secret of his unhappiness, appearing last week on WDWS' "Penny for Your Thoughts" program to air his grievances.
He acknowledged the debate has "barely begun to surface" but said "I don't see it flying."
"I've talked to a lot of people, and I haven't heard anyone supporting it," he said.
McCollum faulted the district for having no specific recommendation on how the current Central High School building will be used after the new one is opened; for not acquiring the old Champaign County YMCA property on Church Street near Central to use for additional space; and for having "no Plan B if it fails."
In addition to his criticism of the district, McCollum said he has growing doubts about the future financial viability of local government because of skyrocketing expenses.
"I'm concerned about the costs of paying for local government, including the schools," he said. "We are boxing ourselves into a position where it is not sustainable, We need to fight for financial sustainability. I don't think we're headed that way now. Actually, I think we're headed the wrong way."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.