Unit 4 Schools need a 'Plan B' in place
By Dannel McCollum
The Champaign Unit 4 school administration and board are relentless in their determination to create a new high school campus somewhere in north nowhere. This would entail land acquisition for which the district apparently has cash on hand.
Funds, however, are not available to finance building a campus, with all the amenities. Plans are afoot to interview possible architects. All thinking by the school board is based upon the assumption that the taxpayers/voting public will approve the huge bond referendum required to pay the bill, somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million!
To further plan ahead, the board has assembled a facilities committee composed of "teachers, principals, business professionals, parents and a student," a group noticeably light on the taxpayers and voting public. All this is happening without any serious demonstration that a referendum can pass.
The question is, will the public support the most costly possible option to dealing with the Central High School question? And is there a Plan B if the deck of cards put up by the board should fail?
What is surprising is the apparent vacuum in public interest as this gigantic, costly plan constructed by the board moves ahead. The capital costs are staggering without factoring the long-term expenses of implementation. There will be a very large increase in student transportation to a location far removed from the center of student populations. Additionally, there are the costs of operating a huge new facility over of the years of its lifetime.
Finally, with the state already in financial straits and support of a number of districts already threatened, can Unit 4 bear any serious cutbacks should its funding from the state take a hit?
Sustainability must be a major consideration for governments at all levels, and especially for school districts with over half of our property tax dollars going to their support. These are times of strained government services and a painfully slow economic recovery. It is a very uncertain future out there. That makes it all the more important for local boards of education to be especially prudent in their determination of capital expenditures.
While some proposals from the district see the future of Central as a middle school, one board member has thrown up the wacky idea of its redevelopment as a joint residential-commercial complex. Get rid of the best-built building the district possesses?
Given the financial magnitude involved in the Champaign school board's great plans, coverage in the local media has been weak. The electronic media has treated the proposal as an accomplished fact. Only The News-Gazette (Jan. 30, 2014) raised questions as to the ability of the board to sell the new high school proposal.
It seems to this taxpayer that the Unit 4 board has failed to include the above concerns in its plans. Public support cannot be taken for granted, nor should it be. It would seem prudent for there to be at least one credible alternate proposal, a "Plan B."
The long tradition of Champaign Central High would be totally lost with a new campus on the far northern frontier of the city. If Central remains in its current location, it could be a magnet high school. Its facilities could be expanded with the lease or acquisition of the former McKinley YMCA property. Most of the current sports programs could continue except possibly football. Special programs could be offered not unlike magnet elementary schools to give students more choice at greatly reduced impacts upon the tax base. It is something to think about, fellow taxpayers.
Dannel McCollum, a former Champaign mayor and a 2002 Democratic candidate for the Illinois Senate, is a historian and a freelance writer.