Ten panelists spent a couple hours talking about the possibility of a new Central High School, and by the end, many expressed a similar idea: the school district and school board need to start taking some action.
CHAMPAIGN — Ten panelists spent a couple hours talking about the possibility of a new Central High School, and by the end, many expressed a similar idea: the school district and school board need to start taking some action.
The panelists met for a town hall meeting at the school district's Mellon Administrative Building, and took written questions both from a full audience, as well as those submitted through the school district's Twitter and Facebook sites and through email.
Panelist and parent Angie Patton asked the school district for a plan.
"I would like to see the board whittle it down," when it comes to possible sites for the school, Patton said, "just really cut through it and get to the bottom of it and (include) a detailed time line: here are sites and this is how long going to take if we go here."
Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery said she would like to see a plan, as well.
"I certainly can get behind a plan that makes sense, fair and equitable for all students," she said, "a site that is conducive to 21st-century learning," she said.
The school district needs to choose a site that community members support, though, said Dan McCall, the president of Bricklayers Local #8 of Illinois.
"There is no perfect site, so when a site's picked it's going to be important that every community member is behind (it)," he said. "It's time to build a new high school."
The panelists discussed how a site for the new high school would affect things like graduation rates, skill levels of graduates and and transportation, including by means other than by car and the ability of parents who might have two jobs to be able to get there.
The panelists also touched on the idea of equity and race relations and how a location could affect those things in Champaign. They also talked how a new high school and a renovated Centennial High School could put Champaign at a competitive advantage when it comes to retaining those who come to the University of Illinois to study and to attract new businesses.
Many of the panelists expressed interest in a site that's centrally located, including Imani Bazzell, director of At Promise ... of Success, who several times mentioned the site at Country Fair, and also brought up of the idea of having Central students study at different sites around the community.
Central Principal Joe Williams said the school district has talked about using part of the existing Central building to house a specialized career and technical education program for all Champaign students. Otherwise, the school district has talked about keeping the rest of Central's programs together, as well as provide a place for students to participate in their extracurricular activities in the same place.
Champaign parent Byron Clark said he wants the school board to think about accessibility for low-income students and their parents, who might work non-traditional hours.
A site could affect their ability to get their kids to school or extracurricular activities on weekends.
"This is an important distinction," he said. "We need to think about how these families and students are going to be affected."
Williams said that access is already an issue for some Central families now.
"Where Central is located creates an access issue," Williams said, adding that students whose families have trouble getting around are already at a disadvantage, especially to get to practice and competition facilities elsewhere in the community that the current campus doesn't have room for.
"How much better is it going to be to go to school and walk out a door to go to extracurriculars?" he asked.
The school district has said it's looking for a site that's at least 30 acres, in order to have space for adequate facilities and parking. Williams said when the school district first started looking for a new site, it said it needed 80 acres.
School board member Phil Van Ness said he thinks it's important to understand educational programming needs as a new school is built
"It's really key that we understand what we expect to have happen in that new high school, and for that matter, in the other high school that will have to remain competitive," he said.
One thing the panelists didn't spend much time on was about a possible referendum to pay for a new high school.
Alejandra Aguero, who is assistant director of graduate admissions at the University of Illinois College of Business, said she sees it as an investment, but it has to be accessible for all of Champaign's students.
"I would like it to be an equitable investment for all of our kids," she said.
Bazzell said she sees a need for to educate those who don't have kids in the Champaign schools on why a new school is needed, though.
The city's Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said the school district doesn't have many options when it comes to paying for a new facility, and the school district has already used school facility sales tax money to sell bonds to build new Booker T. Washington and Carrie Busey elementaries, as well as renovate Garden Hills, Westview, Bottenfield, Robeson and Kenwood elementaries.
He said the city is committed to infill development, or developing inside the city without spreading outward.
Architect Bob Porter said he thinks, when considering both geography and the location of Champaign's population, Country Fair is the most accessible site.
As far as Country Fair goes, Knight said it's a location that currently houses some successful businesses that would need to find places to relocate. It would have a significant cost to redevelop, as well. He said the city could study putting the area inside a tax increment financing district, but that's different than one the city has ever created before.
"It's probably the most accessible" of the sites the school district is now considering for Central, but he said the school district may also come up with some new possibilities for centrally located sites as it moves toward working with a developer to specifically look for those.
Superintendent Judy Wiegand said after the meeting that she expects a recommendation on hiring a developer to go before the school board in October.
Williams said students want a facility that's a "showcase for what it looks like in a small urban community."
"They want people to stop talking about Normal," he said. "They want people to start talking about Champaign."