CHAMPAIGN — The wait will soon be over: In mid-February, community members will be able to see and weigh in on ideas for what to do with the Champaign school district's high schools, middle schools and three unrenovated elementary schools.
The school district is hosting community meetings from 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 12 at the I Hotel, 1900 S. First Street, C.
If you're planning to attend, expect to hear some options that have already been discussed, as well as some new ideas.
"Many of the options that will be discussed at the Community Dialogue are options that have been discussed in the community at some point," said Champaign schools spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. "But there may be some more innovative ideas that have come from this process that the community hasn't considered before."
The Champaign school district hired educational facility planning firm DeJong Richter in September and is paying the firm $117,000.
Since then, DeJong Richter has been working with a steering committee, made up of both school district employees and community members, to create options for what to do with several of the school district's aging facilities, including its high schools, middle schools and South Side Elementary, Dr. Howard Elementary and the school on Kirby Avenue. The school, formerly Carrie Busey Elementary, is a home for the next several years to other elementaries while their buildings are being renovated.
The meetings will include a presentation of the data collected so far, and participants will get packets including one page for each option presented, said Scott Leopold, associate director at DeJong Richter.
They'll fill out questionnaires stating which option they prefer.
It's not a vote, but a way of collecting written feedback from those who attend, Leopold said.
The steering committee will take that feedback and perhaps combine different options, then make a recommendation to Superintendent Judy Wiegand.
"There's not going to be a perfect solution," Leopold said, about presenting options to community members. "Someone is going to be upset, regardless."
The work is being done to create a plan for facilities that will serve the school district's needs for 50 to 100 years, Leopold said.
"We should be thinking about facilities that are flexible and can incorporate curriculum and technology that haven't been invented yet," he said. "The one constant is change."
The options will mention specific sections of Champaign, but no specific sites the school district has discussed in the past.
"The superintendent will bring forward the recommendation, including the general location recommended by the (steering) committee, but the (school) board will select the exact piece of property," Stuart said.
The steering committee is coming up with the different options for what to do with the schools. So far, the firm has collected and released a huge amount of data on the school district's demographics and expected growth.
There are also results from the school district's two future facilities conferences and the almost 1,200 surveys local residents took online to weigh in.
The firm has also worked with a company called Fallon Research to document local parent and non-parents' opinions during a focus group. The research company also did a phone survey using questions it created after the focus groups.
You can find much of the data at http://futurefacilities.champaignschools.org 
DeJong Richter has also worked with BLDD architects to look at the existing schools to create lists of what the buildings need and what it will cost to improve them. This hasn't yet been released.
Some interesting things that have come up in the data, Leopold said, are that 66 percent of those surveyed support moving Central High School to a parcel of land that also has room for things like athletic facilities.
The data also shows that community members are comfortable with what they know, especially as far as the size of elementary schools, and with having two different high schools.
Some indicated on surveys that they'd be open to having a magnet high school program in addition to two high schools.
Leopold said he's also found that residents are open to new ideas, like one his firm presented at the Future Facilities conferences, that could have two high schools on one campus, sharing athletic facilities and the like.
Some of the data DeJong Richter has released will reach beyond the school district's facilities -- for example, no non-parents and only one parent who participated in Fallon research's focus groups could name Wiegand.
Knowing that many non-parents may be "kind of out of touch with Unit 4" might help the school district create strategies to communicate better with them, Leopold said.
Some participants' concerns about the quality of education in the school district's middle and high schools can help the school district "look at what we can deliver" at those levels, Stuart said.
The phone survey also asked participants how much money they'd be willing to approve when the school district asks for a tax increase in a future election. (The goal now is to put the question on the April 2014 ballot, Stuart said.)
In the survey, 54.1 percent of participants said they'd support a 20-year bond issue for $206 million to replace Central High School, build new schools for lower grades to make room for growing enrollment and renovate other schools.
In a question following that, 4.6 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for that amount knowing it would raise property taxes about $250 per year for each $100,000 of property one owns. Answering the same question, 42.7 percent said they'd be less likely, and 48.1 percent said it would make no difference in their decision.
And in a similar question, 63.8 percent said they'd support an $80 million, 20-year bond issue to replace Central and make repairs to other schools in poor condition. About 14 percent were more likely to vote for it based on the fact that it would raise property taxes $96 per $100,000 of assessed value, and 61 percent said that made no difference in how they'd vote.
The goal of questions like those is figuring out what citizens are willing to support.
"We don't want to put (an idea) up that nobody wants," Leopold said.
Leopold also studied enrollment projections and predicts the school district will grow by about 870 students in the next 10 years, which would be a 9.3 percent increase.
He's still studying whether it will need to build more elementary schools to accommodate that increase, he said.
Leopold suggests that the school district update the enrollment projections every year using live-birth counts from the state. Stuart said the school district is still figuring out the best way to do so.
Kristine Chalifoux, a Champaign school board member who is co-chairwoman of the steering committee, said the data has opened her eyes to how differently people think, both from her own opinions and from what she expected.
"Those points of information I found really informative as a board member, because my job is to do the best job I can with the information I have," she said.
Chalifoux said her favorite piece of information so far is a map that shows where Unit 4 students live, and breaks down the school district into square miles. It then shows bar graphs on each square mile of how many elementary, middle school and high school students live there.
It shows a high concentration of elementary students on the north side of town and in Savoy, and higher numbers of high schoolers west of Staley Road.
Chalifoux said it shows where young families live, and that those who live west of Staley may be sending their elementary students to private schools.
The school district needs to find out why those families are doing so, she said.
"Is it because we're not meeting their needs?" Chalifoux said, or is it because of a poor perception of the public schools? "That is something we need to address."
Chalifoux said having so much data helps the steering committee make the best possible recommendation, and ultimately, help Wiegand make the best decision.
"It would be nice if we could get it right the first time," she said, and the best information helps guide the best decisions.
Chalifoux said she's also surprised by how much she appreciates having an unbiased, non-local firm collect the information.
"They don't have anything in this fight," and are passing on collections of residents' opinions and other factual information, she said.
Chalifoux is an architect and said she's been surprised at some of the possibilities that have come up in steering committee meetings.
"They're going in directions I never ever would have thought of," she said. "For me as an architect, this is something really fascinating. ... It will be interesting to see what the community says (about) some of these options."
Chalifoux said the process is geared toward making sure the community has input and supports the eventual plan for facilities.
"We know we have these incredible needs in our district and we want to get it right," she said. "We know that no matter what we come up with, there's going to be people who will hate it and they will be really vocal about it. (But) as we're looking at the different options, we're trying to look at what's best for educating the kids."
If you go
What: Community Dialogue, in which the Champaign schools, DeJong-Richter and the Future Facilities steering committee will unveil options for what to do with aging facilities, including Central High School. Community members, students, teachers, parents and business owners are all invited.
When: 3-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Feb. 12.
Where: I Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 S. First Street, C.
What to expect: The event will feature a presentation about the school district's future facilities work so far. Participants will receive a packet with information about the options. They'll be asked to give written feedback. That response will guide the steering committee as it makes a recommendation to Superintendent Judy Wiegand on what to do with the school district's high schools, middle schools and unrenovated elementary schools.
Other information: Interpreters will be available for Spanish, French and Korean speakers. Free shuttle transportation will be available to and from the Shadowwood neighborhood and the Douglass Community Center for each session. Literacy activity tables will be available for kids who attend.
If you can't make it: The information presented will be posted at futurefacilities.champaignschools.org after Feb. 12. You can submit your feedback through the website for two weeks after the Community Dialogue.