CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school district is working on a process to decide what to do with its facilities, including possibly building a new high school, and it wants community members to participate.
The school district will host what it's calling a Futures Conference from 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Hawthorn Suites, 101 Trade Center Drive, C, and all community members are invited.
The school district is working with educational facility planning firm DeJong-Richter, which will help lead the Futures Conference and do other research and will make sure community members' opinions are included.
Board member Kristine Chalifoux is the co-chairwoman of the process' steering committee, and she said the public's input is crucial. That's true as the school district explores its options about what to do about building a new high school, where to locate it, whether to continue to have three large middle schools and what to do about the school district's older elementary schools.
It will begin by discussing what education should look like in Champaign's schools.
The Nov. 1 conference will get people talking about what kind of educational programming community members want the school district to offer. Participants will answer questions like, what careers will students need to be prepared for in 2030, and how things like globalization and technology will affect education, said Champaign schools Superintendent Judy Wiegand.
Those answers will drive what the school district decides it wants and needs, and that makes the Nov. 1 conference particularly important.
"Since the schools belong to the community, the community needs to have a voice," Wiegand said.
DeJong-Richter Chief Executive Officer Tracy Richter said the conference will feature a short presentation and then participants will work on questionnaires in small groups as they try to work out consensus.
The topics that come out — like what's worked well, what should continue or things participants would like to see change — will set the parameters for DeJong-Richter's research.
"That's a critical piece to get us started in what we do," Richter said. "For us, it's a great launching pad," and it may come down to finding ways in the schools' budget to give teachers and students exactly what they need to teach and learn.
As for the Nov. 1 conference and its daytime hours, DeJong-Richter Associate Director Scott Leopold said, his firm has found that people are more willing to take time off work to attend such events than take time away from their families in the evenings.
Wiegand said she was hesitant at the conference's scheduling during the day, but DeJong-Richter has promised to hold another community conference if not enough people show up Nov. 1.
Chalifoux said she's looking forward to working closely with community members.
"We have a lot of really smart people in our district, but we have a lot of really smart people in our community, too," Chalifoux said.
She said she knows what the people who often speak at school board meetings think; she wants to hear from those who haven't yet expressed their opinions.
It's also important that any decision is based on community feedback, Chalifoux said, because the school district will have to ask taxpayers to approve a property tax increase on the ballot once it decides what to build.
The Futures Conference is just the starting point for the process DeJong-Richter is leading in Champaign, Leopold said.
They'll also research things like demographic information, data about the district's facilities and opinion data. They'll lead focus groups of Champaign residents, and work with a company called Fallon Research on a phone poll of residents, as well.
All this information will help the steering committee, which is made up of school district employees and other community members, come up with viable options for the schools that the community has also indicated it would support financially.
"The last thing we want to do is bring an option to the committee that just isn't affordable," Leopold said.
Those options will also be presented to the community at another open event early next year, probably in February.
The committee's recommendation will go to Wiegand, he said, who may send it on as is to the school board, or send her own recommendation.
There is now a website where all the group's community meeting dates will be posted, along with other information about the process. You can find it at http://futurefacilities.champaignschools.org .