Placing the cart before the horse

Placing the cart before the horse

By Dannel McCollum

The administrators and members of the Unit 4 Board of Education have determined upon a replacement for Central High School. But it seems that the board has skipped a few steps in the process. For starters, the final say will be for the public to support the idea, and there has yet to be a referendum on the issue. It would be nice to have some idea of where the voters stand. But for a current lack of information an informed expression would be impossible for them to make.

For the enlightenment of the taxpayers, a serious question regarding the issue needs to be addressed. Is there any reasonable alternative to building a new high school with all the bells and whistles? For instance, there has been no serious public discussion of retaining the Central High School building for ninth and 10th grades and the Centennial campus for 11th and 12th. That would at least solve the problem of student parking and unquestionably save a ton of money. And the building would remain in service. The board might also consider making Central a magnet high school emphasizing the arts, sciences and maybe those sports such as basketball, volleyball, etc., which fit.

Another related consideration is that the board has yet to solidly identify a serious new use for the Central building. The main building was built during the Depression, as a junior high, when some outstanding public buildings were constructed. In contrast with the numerous school buildings the public has paid for following World War II, Central stands out as an exceptionally sound facility, in spite of potential upgrade needs. Chalk that up to deferred attention over the years. A well-developed plan for a new use has not been put forth. Located in the central city, the disposition of the existing building, or its site is critical to the health of the surrounding area. The issue has not received the serious attention from Unit 4 authorities that it deserves.

Assuming that the new high school building is a foregone conclusion, the board has narrowed the presumed site down to three possible locations, all on the northern fringe of the city. Would not this further promote urban sprawl in that direction? Why were in-town sites such as Franklin/Spalding Park not given stronger consideration? Does the board have  the funds on hand to purchase whatever site is chosen? Does it make sense to purchase the "winning" site without receiving authorization for the many millions of dollars it will take to develop it? And just how many millions might that all require? What will be the costs of maintaining the new facility, including the inevitable increases in student transportation?

All this being said, a replacement of Central High School will no longer be a Central High School; it will be an entirely new school. Any attempt to carry over a legacy will be highly strained if not utterly fictitious. There are no ideal solutions out there. Increasingly, however, there is the fundamental question of sustainability.

A very strong argument can be made that our top-heavy bureaucracy and built infrastructure is approaching the point of being beyond sustainability. The time to reflect is now, not later.

Dannel McCollum, a former Champaign mayor and a 2002 Democratic candidate for the Illinois Senate, is a historian and a freelance writer.