Central High School issue takes center stage
Champaign school board members have had their hands full picking a site for a new high school and then selling the costly idea to voters in a property tax referendum expected to be held in November 2014.
Board members recently narrowed down the site list to four locations, all located on Olympian Drive in north Champaign. They wisely reversed their earlier decision to withhold the locations, which makes sense because the only people unaware of the four choices were the public. The landowners with whom the school district's lawyer is negotiating clearly knew what was up.
Site selection is a big job, but it's not the biggest job facing Superintendent Judy Wiegand and board members. Selling higher property taxes to pay for the $80 million-plus new school will make site selection seem like a walk in the park.
For starters, all the proposed locations are a disappointment, nothing to get excited about. The simple fact is that it's less expensive to build on undeveloped land that's found on the fringe of the community.
The most attractive site under consideration was the Country Fair area at Mattis and Springfield avenues in Champaign. But even though a high school at the site would have boosted the entire community, land size limitations and clearance costs made it unaffordable by comparison.
So it was to the north that board members looked, finding locations that are anything but central for the proposed new Central High School.
The idea of a new high school may appeal to many people, but the location isn't likely to add to community excitement.
Then there's rising taxes. For those who haven't been paying attention, local taxing bodies are dramatically increasing their property tax levies. Champaign schools alone increased their levy this week by more than $3 million, up to $82.7 million, and then there are the parks, the city, the mass transit district. These taxing bodies are going for taxpayers' jugular veins and striking a gusher.
It would be no great surprise if voters, fed up with eye-popping tax bills, will say no when they are asked for a big hike to pay for new school construction.
Even worse than rising taxes are rising taxes in a lousy economy. Statistics tell us the economy is slowly recovering. If that's true, the improvement is so slow people aren't noticing. Perception is reality, and the perception is that a killer recession is still with us.
Finally, the school district's past actions will generate skepticism.
In 2009, voters approved a 1-cent increase in the sales tax for Champaign County schools. The board took the many millions of dollars that tax generates each year and spent it to finance bonds to pay for $83 million in new construction and renovations to many of the district's elementary schools.
When that wasn't enough to satisfy the district's appetite for school improvements, the board bypassed the voters and used the state's working-cash fund law to finance another $14.5 million in spending that had nothing to do with working-cash issues. It was, in our view, a clear demonstration of bad faith by board members, and it's our bet voters won't forget it.
The fundamental question, of course, is whether Champaign needs a new high school. That case is strong. Central is insufficient in many ways to provide the best learning environment for students.
Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that. Voters will decide this question based on many factors, including cost, location, competing demands for their limited dollars and trust in the district.
Considered in that context, it's going to be a tough sell.