Plan B much cheaper than proposed tax hike
By Charles Schultz
At its Aug. 11 meeting, the Champaign school board approved the final draft for the wording of the November 2014 referendum asking for $149 million in property taxes. There are many reasons why this tax increase might fail.
The concerned citizen should be made aware of the many factors that are coming into play.
Here is one example: According to the Champaign County clerk's "referenda 1940 to present in date order" (April 11, 2014), since 1983 the Unit 4 school district has requested, and has been denied by the voters, $91.63 million in tax rate adjustments and bonds on six separate referendum items. Despite that, the school district has successfully requested and received $41 million in property taxes and bonds and $25 million via the 1 percent sales tax — all that money has provided you with the current state of the school district, leaving us with an $8 million annual debt service.
Furthermore, even though the 2008 "Great Schools, Together" initiative established many excellent short-term and mid-term goals, few of them were met or even attempted.
There are many facets that the concerned citizen will wish to explore, but I will focus on one: versatile and agile facility planning.
One short-term goal of Great Schools, Together that was entirely missed was to hire a facility planner. Another missed short-term goal was that of exploring "land-banking" options, many of which we have seen come and go even as we have "talked" about where to put a high school.
One very crucial point the Great Schools final report made was that it was paramount for the school district to answer questions like "Should we have K-8?" "Should we have many smaller schools or fewer larger schools?" before moving forward with any of these plans ("Unit 4 Long Range Strategic Plan: Final Report," 2008, page 6).
Lisa de la Rue, a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Illinois, addressed these concerns in her June 11, 2012, presentation to the board, yet unfortunately her conclusion was somewhat inconclusive in that transitions and school size actually correlate weakly to student outcomes.
Ms. de la Rue did note that in schools with a higher proportion of low-income students, the number of transitions and the larger size appeared to have a slightly negative overall effect ("School Configuration and Considerations," pp 6-7).
Also in 2012, the district spent $116,000 for a consultant to tell us that we (the community) basically want what we already have. This year we hired yet another consultant for $120,000 to determine that we need a high school footprint of at least 47.68 acres. Despite the many recommendations and goals laid out in Great Schools to foster and generate two-way collaborative discussion, it seems that "experts" have cornered us in a box. Like horse blinders, these parameters have caused the school district to pursue a two-high-school model, with a goal of 47-acres for the new one, to meet capacity issues.
If voters reject November's plan, what next?
First thing, buy Judah Christian School and keep the building. Right now, it houses over 500 students. This action is purely to buy us some breathing room in terms of capacity issues. After all, the district is already renting trailers and plans to do continue doing so until the tax increase passes. Judah previously was listed for sale around $6 million. During recent talks about the Spalding site, there seemed to be a lot of community support for that area, especially in terms of its centrality and accessibility. We can off-load the overcapacity issues (currently 103 percent) right now.
We still need another building. While Judah might hold 500 students, that is K-12; let's call it 300 high school students, realistically. We currently have a little over 2,700 high school students and we are aiming for capacity for 3,400 by 2022. That leaves us with another 400 students (700 total, with 300 in Judah building). Here are some suggestions where a building could hold those students: Neil and Bradley, Bristol Park, South First Street, along Duncan.
The idea is that smaller buildings are much more agile and versatile for the changes the school district may face over the course of 80 years. In 1969, Unit 4 had a whopping 12,381 students (Patterson's American Education); just 16 years later we were hovering just over 8,000, and we still have not yet fully recovered to the local maximum just prior to the Consent Decree in 2001. Smaller buildings are easier to site as in-fill, especially if we explore the controversial idea of allowing the park district to own and maintain athletic fields.
This is my Plan B. It beats renting trailers, and is not nearly as expensive as $149 million.
Charles Schultz is a Champaign parent who authors a blog about the Unit 4 school district (thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.