John Foreman: Dodds site makes the most sense

John Foreman: Dodds site makes the most sense

Let's all agree on this: There ought to be a better solution to satisfy Champaign's need for a high school.

The need, after all, isn't really in dispute. Champaign Central is an aging, crowded and landlocked edifice. Centennial, its younger sister, could use space and a spruce up. Dr. Howard, the elementary school joining those two on a spring referendum ballot, is beyond hope.

All the controversy — and there's plenty — really comes in the school board's choice of a replacement site for Central. It's on 80 acres of farmland at the northernmost edge of Champaign, not central to anything and a certain harbinger of urban sprawl.

It's not a very good choice.

But while some school board decisions may be criticized, I'm not inclined to fault it for riding this particular horse — maybe we'll call it a camel — past the voters for another judging.

The board was nearly scientific in making the choice. Members worked hard. They sought broad public input, and they analyzed, with professional assistance, every site they identified as available. They scored them all on a point system designed to measure suitability against a host of criteria. One site emerged; the district purchased it, and asked voters last November for the cash to build there. By a very narrow margin, the voters said no. What they rejected, in large part, was the site.

I'm reminded of the old adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. A process intended to satisfy many can produce a result that fully satisfies none.

It happens.

No one praised this selection. Those who voted in favor of the district's proposal last fall likely did so in spite of the school's location, not because of it. Mostly parents, I assume, they were desperate to have something better than the status quo for their children. This site — remote and challenging as it was — seemed better than the status quo.

With a few tweaks here and there to satisfy some other concerns, principally the needs of Dr. Howard, the board is headed back to the ballot in the spring — and it's riding the same camel.

The lower turnout of a municipal election will work in their favor. The true believers will show up to vote; many others will stay home. Their new proposal stands an excellent chance of approval, despite the emergence of organized opponents.

A "Keep Central Central" group wants a no vote, wants to send the school board back to the drawing board for an in-fill site — the existing high school campus, Spalding Park or Beardsley Park. The district has evaluated those sites and rejected them for a variety of reasons.

But the district will gladly go back to the drawing board — in fact, is at the drawing board already — on one alternative site that likely would prove overwhelmingly acceptable to proponents and opponents alike.

The elephant in the room for this discussion (or perhaps we can now call it a racehorse) is Dodds Park, an attractive expanse adjoining Parkland College with more than enough space for a new high school. As school sites go, it is in many respects a thoroughbred.

It's located within blocks of the district's geographic center. The proximity to Parkland College offers educational dividends — as well as access to an unused football field. Cohabited with the park district, it would bring excellent softball fields suitable for sharing.

The other primary existing use for the park now is soccer fields. Probably no amenity is easier to relocate, and the new school's footprint, according to Superintendent Judy Wiegand, could be 40 acres or less — leaving the park district 70 acres for its own use. You can put a lot of soccer fields on 70 acres.

So why isn't anyone talking about Dodds? Not the district, not the opponents, not the public. It drops into discussions only parenthetically, "if Dodds Park were available ... ."

The problem with Dodds is that the Champaign Park District, through executive director Joe DeLuce, has flatly and unceremoniously rejected it for a school site. For good measure, so has Newt Dodds, the son of the park's namesake and a longtime park district president himself.

This summary rejection took place, oddly enough, without one public discussion of the idea by the elected commissioners of the park district. Insofar as the public knows, commissioners have never actually taken a vote on the idea — or fully explained the rationale for their recalcitrance.

But I'll admit that the first time I heard Dodds mentioned, I agreed with DeLuce. Dodds is a nice park, heavily used on weekends when soccer season is in full swing and summer evenings during softball season. Why uproot one public use in favor of another? Why shove a park — rather than a school — out in the middle of nowhere north of Champaign?

Three facts changed my mind. First, a lot of park space — up to 70 acres — can remain at Dodds. Second, if the park district doesn't like the 80 acres out north, Wiegand says the school district is open to other deals. And finally, the park district is a public body. Park commissioners don't own the land. Joe DeLuce doesn't own it, and neither does Newt Dodds, never did.

The public owns that acreage, and if the public would prefer to see 40 acres of it used for a school, the elected park commissioners should make the best of it.

My disappointment with the last referendum proposal is that it did so little to inspire the imagination.

A $150 million public expenditure is a big deal — and a big opportunity. A new high school is a big deal — and a community that values education should have the best.

I wanted to see those dollars, and that energy, leveraged beyond development of a farm field. I wanted to see an infill project, an urban renewal effort, a fully-exploited effort to make the city as a whole better.

And I wanted to see public leaders working together toward that end — the city and the park district and the schools. I liked the site at Country Fair. So did others. I thought the Spalding/Judah Christian site was at least an option.

But obstacles to both emerged as study progressed. Maybe they could have been overcome with sufficient intergovernmental cooperation, and maybe they couldn't. Regardless, Dodds has none of the barriers.

The school board accepts it, and opponents to urban sprawl can embrace it. It offers opportunities for public collaboration with Parkland, the park district and the MTD. Efficiencies result. Unlike the 80 acres north of town, it can be more than just a school.

Now, I think, the district should formally and publicly request the Dodds site, outlining its rationale and specifying its willingness to be flexible in making a deal.

If elected park commissioners reject that, they should do so openly, formally and after public hearings. And if residents of the park district find the option more palatable than the current proposal, they should say so — loud and long.

The opportunity still exists for a better solution. A city that values education deserves a thoroughbred.

John Foreman is the president of The News-Gazette Inc. His email address is

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Citizen4 wrote on February 08, 2015 at 7:02 am

"Now, I think, the district should formally and publicly request the Dodds site, outlining its rationale and specifying its willingness to be flexible in making a deal."

Mr. Foreman, you missed one word, "again".


School district wants Dodds land for Central

bmwest wrote on February 08, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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Personally, I would prefer to see Central remain at its present site, possibly as a smaller, non-athletic trade and prep school combined with an expanded Centennial, or moved to Spalding. However, I am open to the idea of Central at Dodds, especially if the only alternative is the Interstate Drive location. It would be a great opportunity for Unit 4, the Park District, and Parkland to collaborate. A new Central could need less than 20% of Dodds Park while the athletic facilities could continue to be managed by the Park District as a shared community resource.

Kathy S wrote on February 08, 2015 at 2:02 pm

My first choice is still Spalding, but I believe Dodds would be an excellent compromise that most members of the community would support.  If you agree, email the Park Board and let them know!  The link below contains the email addresses for all the board members.

michaelrunkle wrote on February 08, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Yes, Spalding is the best choice, in my opinion.  

Some of the parameters that have been set forth disgust me: parking and sports accessibility.  These are key points that strike me as misguided.  Education is not basted on sports facilities.



rsp wrote on February 08, 2015 at 6:02 pm

I agree with you. I don't think they would have to use eminent domain either as some have claimed. Many people in that neighborhood said they hoped it would revitalize the area.

randallkrause wrote on February 09, 2015 at 2:02 am

I'm not fully convinced that Spalding Park is the ideal or even most practicable infill location. City parks should be explored only as a "last resort", once all other options have been exhausted. These are valuable public spaces, after all, and absolutely deserve to be protected and improved.

Being in such close proximity to Franklin Middle School, with only Harris Ave bisecting the sites, is likely to place an excessive burden on the already limited infrastructure (see Jefferson and Centennial for a similar example of urban planning gone awry). Of course, demolishing Franklin is not a reasonable option nor is removing Harris Ave.

Personally, I am in favour of the South Side / Mellon Building property for the construction of a new Central High School. It is on John St, which is already a bus route AND a bike route as well as a direct east-west corridor to Centennial H.S. The location is only five blocks from the current Central building, and as a bonus, it is the site of Central's existing practice track and field. With rehabilitation, it could be expanded to include other facilities for P.E. and band practice. (Of course, the competition athletic fields could all be located off site, perhaps at Spalding Park and behind Frankling Middle School, as those are not needed for daily use).

I actually submitted this proposal including conceptual renderings during the town hall meetings in 2013 and again in 2014. Needless to say, Judy Wiegand was less than enthused about that option. However, she did remember me graduating from Centennial in 1995, as she was still principal at that time.

sanjuan wrote on February 08, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Dodds puts both schools west of Mattis.  As a resident of the Sesquicentennial Neighborhood I can't support going that far west unless we were to revert to one school with Freshmen and Sophomores on one campus and Juniors and Seniors on the other.  Otherwise keep Central central.   

Jam wrote on February 08, 2015 at 9:02 pm

Do you really want Parkland students to have easy access to the high school.  Just last week two Parkland students killed a UI student over drugs.  So what kind of barrier might need to be put up to protect the students who would be attending school at a Dodds location?

aantulov wrote on February 08, 2015 at 10:02 pm

For 150 million there should be more offered up. And these new hi-rises should be footing the bill,by not doing so, tax payers are going to be squeezed out of owning a home. Legal tax evasion, not incentatives is what's going on. And there is no talk of a charters, arts or vocational alternatives. Are the private schools being offered tax "incentives" to provide reduced fees or free terms to lower anticipated numbers.

The Parkland location makes sense. When is the election for our representatives again?


Ellipse Kirk wrote on February 08, 2015 at 11:02 pm

The geographic center of the City of Champaign is approximately the intersection of Springfield & Mattis.

I know, it surprised me too.

I don't particularly have a horse in this race, but this is a fact unknown to many. 

randallkrause wrote on February 09, 2015 at 1:02 am

So, technically, Centennial High School is truly Central. Perhaps it should therefore be renamed as such and Central itself rebranded as "Northwest High School" if located at Dodds since Parkland is nowhere near Springfield and Mattis (as someone who used to walk to Parkland College from my home at Mattis and John growing up, I know that Parkland is very remote even with with respect to MTD routes). And it's certainly nowhere even moderately close to the existing Central High School neighborhood.

jdmac44 wrote on February 08, 2015 at 11:02 pm

Let's not forget that Pick Dodds sold the property to the Park District for somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 (1969 dollars), he didn't even donate it, then he managed to get his name put on it. What a deal that was for the Dodds family! In my book that makes it a public asset, not a memorial. Heck, even State Farm has an expiration for their naming rights on the Assembly Hall.

MSJ66 wrote on February 09, 2015 at 7:02 am

Voted no last time and my wife and I intend to vote no this time as well but with the push to get Dodds Park as the site I may well vote yes this time just so Dodds is off the table and they can build at their site on North Neil. As a home owner in the Dodds Park area most of my neighbors that I have spoken with are against taking a great space like Dodds and putting a high school there. Parkland is a valuable asset to the community but I don't think you have a public park, a high school and a college all in that area. So even though I am in disagreement with the Neil street site and the whole process of how the administration and the school board went with buying all that land prior to having voter approval I may vote yes solely so they will go ahead and build at that site and Dodds park stays in its current state. I will be watching all park district board members and the votes they cast if Dodds park issue is brought before them again. I hope the park district board remains resolute in their stance that Dodds park is not on the table for a land swap or having a school built on it.

sanjuan wrote on February 09, 2015 at 7:02 am

Don't confuse the geographic center of Champaign with the population center.  It's the population center as regards families with children that counts, not the geographic center.   And the geographic center of Champaign is pretty meaningless to this conversation because it is the population center of Unit 4 we need to be concerned about. The Unit 4 boundaries and the city boundaries are completely different.  Where was the last new grade school in Unit 4 built?   Savoy!   Far, far from Mattis Avenue. 

mattd149 wrote on February 09, 2015 at 7:02 am

Man talk about a bunch of hipocrits.  The main problem outlined is that moving the school to north Market Street wouldnt be CENTRAL.  So now everyone wants to move the school to the far west side and its all good.  The only thing that moving it to dodd will do is ruin one of the nicest parks.

loopillini wrote on February 09, 2015 at 1:02 pm

I voted yes the last time and will vote yes again this time. We have the land already and needed a new Central High School yesterday...the faster we can put a shovel in the ground the better for the children in Unit 4.

dw wrote on February 09, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Geographic location is one thing, population center is quite another:  Chestnut (population 246) is the geographic center of Illinois.  The center of the population of Illinois is near Chicago.

The closer a school is to the center of population, the more our students can walk, bicycle and take the MTD to school and after school events, which benefits us all:

Dan Sholem wrote on February 09, 2015 at 2:02 pm

John Foreman provided a nice outline of the common sense options for an in-fill location. This is the conversation that Champaign needs to have...Unfortunately, John Babenek drove the conversation off the rails on Sunday night with his robo-calling poll questions. Each question was deliberately  & ridiculoulsy worded to cast anything but the Board's Interstate Drive location as harmful to children. Let's keep the conversation going with common sense so that a New Board (elected in April) can select an optimal location for the New Central.

Bubbles wrote on February 10, 2015 at 4:02 pm

 As a Ashland Park resident/Central Grad : I have listen to and read all the comments that have gone forth these past months and I still believe this is a big mess! The school board took it up on themselves to purchase land before they asked the taxpayers what they really wanted.  I keep hearing the school board and other 's say this has been  an 8 year process "seriously" I just heard about this about 2 years ago people might say where have you been, right here in Champaign I bought my house in Ashland Park in 2008 I had no idea this was a possible site for my old high school. I  understand that the School board was looking for land but they never really stated what sites they were looking at and to my knowledge they did not let the voters really know what site they wanted until after they purchased it.  I do believe the school board new most people would not want north neil for the Central School site but what I feel it is coming down to is people who dont live in the area dont care and will vote yes and we will be stuck and it will a total disaster and property value in the Ashland Park area has already dropped! in value and putting a high school here won't help the property value of our homes. There are many reason's we have all stated before why  the school should not be built in this area but the majority will have it's way leaving other's to suffer. The school board was pretty clever when they added Dr.Howard to the mix because people want to see Dr.Howard rebuilt so if you vote down the Central Plan then Dr. Howard goes down with it. Wow! why would you try to trick people into getting what you want that is just not right! I have lived in Champaign all my life and normally if you have money your going to get your way and your voice will be heard. Just have to wait and see.  I will still vote NO! 

pattsi wrote on February 14, 2015 at 2:02 pm

As doumented within an online post, the obvious reporting bias of the N-G based on the number of Dodds Park articles as compared to balanced reporting as to the many sides of this issue is disappointing.

The following is a comment by a citizen from another public source: "I would like the parties involved to use the correct term for infill–I understand that to mean property that isn’t being used or is otherwise vacant, not green space being used for a park"

Park land is not categorized as land banking for another use at another time. Park land is park land. Excellent short article as to what land banking is and what Unit 4 never did.