Wiegand: Voters have future of district in their hands

Wiegand: Voters have future of district in their hands

Judy Wiegand, superintendent of the Unit 4 school district, updates the public on what factors the school board considered when drawing up the referendum.

On Nov. 4, the future of education in Champaign Unit 4 will be in the hands of voters.

In February, following the selection of the new site for Central High School, I wrote a letter to the community outlining the process used to select the school's future site. Since then, the Unit 4 Board of Education took the time to thoughtfully consider which projects the district would place on the ballot and to share the vision for the expanded educational opportunities the new high school facilities could offer our children.

In the voting booth you, the voter, will be asked to weigh in on that plan: a $149 million bond referendum that would allocate $97.7 million to build a new Central High School and $51.3 million to renovate and expand Centennial High School.

Our Board of Education, comprised of volunteer community members, faced a number of difficult decisions on this journey to Nov. 4. A critical need to address the district's expanding enrollment was at the top of their list of challenges. In eight years, based on current elementary school enrollment, we will have more than 500 additional high school students than we do today. With existing facilities over capacity, a plan was needed to address this pressing issue. We do not believe the long-term solution is placing hundreds of students in portable classrooms outside of our schools, dramatically increasing class sizes, or cutting elective programs. Furthermore, numerous surveys of our community have overwhelmingly supported the continuation of the two high school model. The board ensured that this overcrowding challenge would be addressed and proposed a plan to provide true classroom spaces for 1,700 students with space to grow in the future.

Our high school facilities are not only too small to meet the current and future enrollment needs, but, are also aging. Built in 1938, Central High School simply does not provide for 21st-century learning environments for students and lacks modern technology infrastructure, adequate lunch room capacity, on-site parking, athletic fields, outdoor physical education spaces, marching band fields, and air conditioning. Centennial High School, built in 1967, lacks adequate science labs, sufficient classroom space, modern mechanical and technology systems, and on-site industrial technology spaces.

In addition to providing all of these things for our students, the proposed plan provides for a moderate increase in the size of our high schools compared to our competitors in the area, bringing both facilities up to approximately 300,000 square feet. The new Central and Centennial high schools would provide for 182 square feet per student, up from 152 at Central and 141 at Centennial. This size places Unit 4 right in the middle of our peers in the Big 12 Conference districts.

The Central High School site has also been a subject of much discussion within the community. In January, the board purchased 80 acres at the corner of Neil Street and Interstate Drive to fulfill the promises made to the community with the passage of the 1 percent sales tax in 2009.

The eight-year search to find the new school site is well-documented, and a summary of these efforts is available on our website: http://futurefacilities.champaignschools.org/hssitejourney.

Because our community has done an outstanding job developing within the core of the community, no interior high school site existed that would provide for all of the educational needs of a large student population. The chosen site on Interstate Drive is located next to Ashland Park subdivision and Hunters Pond Apartments in an area of town slated for continued residential growth according to the city's long-term plan, Champaign Tomorrow. While the new Central site is located in a developing area of our community, this referendum provides the community the opportunity to also reinvest in the Centennial High School campus in the city's core.

One of the most common questions I am asked is, "How much will it cost me?" For each $100,000 of assessed home value, the new schools will cost homeowners approximately $140.09 per year, or $11.67 per month. This tax expires once the 20 year bonds are paid in full, and these bonds would be issued in phases upon the passage of a referendum. Our district has consulted with the very best national and local architects, engineers, and contractors to ensure this project cost is on target. One piece of information to keep in mind is that construction prices are continually rising. For each year a project of this size is delayed, construction prices increase approximately 3%, or $4.5 million.

Another question I am asked is, "How will I know that the funds will be used responsibly?" When the countywide 1 percent sales tax passed in 2009, the district formed a community oversight committee called Promises Made, Promises Kept. This committee meets quarterly and ensures the funds are spent as promised to the community. The board and district are committed to forming a similar oversight committee following the passage of this referendum.

The new facilities are not just about bricks and mortar, but providing educational programs and opportunities to students that they cannot currently access. According to Edward E. Gordon, internationally recognized expert in America's Future Workforce, "Under current circumstances, by 2020, there will be 123 million high-skilled positions and only 43 million workers qualified to fill them, and in comparison, there will be 44 million low-skilled jobs and 142 million workers qualified to fill those positions".

Our district is preparing to meet this need for a highly skilled workforce, but our current facilities limit the courses and opportunities we can offer students. Centennial High School does not currently offer industrial technology courses and students must travel to and from Central High School during the school day to access these programs. Central High School does feature industrial technology spaces, but space in this area is limited and the tools and equipment are dated. The proposed plan would provide for 21st-century Career and Technical Education spaces at both schools and opportunities to grow existing community partnerships in the STEM fields, computer science, auto mechanics, manufacturing, and the trades experiencing a shortage of qualified workers. Career and Technical Education (CTE) plays a vital role in closing this gap by building a competitive workforce for the 21st century and ensuring all students are college and career-ready after graduation.

I personally believe there is no better time to be the superintendent of Champaign Unit 4 School District. Our students are thriving in the classroom, our teachers are connecting with students and keeping expectations high, and our community is working to ensure that our children have what they need to be successful in the future.

I hope you have had the opportunity to gather all the facts in order to make an informed decision on Election Day. If you are still finding your questions unanswered, please reach out to me personally at wieganju@champaignschools.org or visit our informational website on this issue: http://futurefacilities.champaignschools.org.

Thank you again for remaining engaged in this important discussion, and please remember to exercise your right to vote Nov. 4. The future of our community schools is up to you.

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jwr12 wrote on October 26, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Thank you for this column, but I find it distressing that transportation costs -- both those born by taxpayers for new bus service, and those born by students and parents traveling to this inconvenient location -- are not discussed.  Yet they are crucial.  While there undoubtedly will be some growth in that direction, still the school has to serve our current, as well as a possible future population.  Though the issue of transportation has been raised many times in many fora, I have never seen it addressed by the school board in any convincing detail, or even in outline, for that matter.  I'll be voting no unless it is.  I regret that Ms. Wiegand has failed to do so here, though I would like to express my gratitude to her for working hard on the public's behalf.  I just can't agree, absent a coherent plan for this, the most obvious deficiency of the new site.  Absent a transportation plan, it just seems like subsidizing sprawl, and an automotive age we can't afford.  Although I would love to send my daughter to Champaign high schools in 8 years, I do not want to have to -- nor can I afford -- to buy a car for her to do so.