Voters told the Champaign Unit 4 school district Tuesday in no uncertain terms that they opposed a $65.9 million bond issue to build and remodel the district's elementary schools. By a shocking 64 percent to 36 percent margin, they rejected a proposal that would have raised their property taxes to build three new schools and to remodel eight others. The no vote was so overwhelming that even in some precincts that were expected to support the measure – such as the neighborhood near Dr. Howard School – it failed by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
The school administration and the school board have a lot of work before them – everything from discerning what went wrong in the bond issue to deciding how to mend an obvious lack of trust.
One suggestion: Don't do anything hasty. Most especially, don't get angry at angry voters and undertake a building program without voter approval.
Superintendent Arthur Culver said Tuesday night that, in order to meet a federal consent decree, the district could opt to issue working cash bonds and build an addition to an existing school.
Since the consent decree requires two strands of elementary school classrooms to be built north of University Avenue, any additions could be made only to Washington, Stratton or Garden Hills schools. But none of those is a good option. Washington is already on too small a site, Stratton is already underused and Garden Hills is not only underused but also adding two stands there would increase its enrollment to an unwieldy 750 students.
The school district has made a good-faith effort to meet the requirements of the consent decree regarding construction of the classroom space north of University Avenue. It should let the federal court know that it intends to continue those efforts with another bond issue attempt in November. And then it should undertake a new effort to persuade the community of the need for the school improvements, show how it has earned the voters' trust, and build a bigger, broader-based network of campaign supporters.
We understand the voters' doubts and concerns, and many are justified. The school district has been plagued by mistakes and misfortunes for years, but there are encouraging signs – improving test scores, better financial controls, a new focus on student discipline and student safety. The school administration and the school board have to make sure that in the next seven months those improvements continue and that that message gets out.
Champaign needs new and remodeled school buildings to meet anticipated growth, to attract new business and industry and to continue to ensure that public education is the best it can be. Few people in Champaign would dispute that notion. They just need to be convinced that the school district is worthy of their trust and their money.
This community has been very supportive of public education in the past, and it will be in the future. Tuesday's no vote on the bond issue was a setback, but it isn't permanent. School officials may need to revise their bond issue proposal before November, and they certainly need to improve their campaign, but they needn't retreat from their core message: existing schools need improvements and new schools must be built to handle existing and anticipated growth.
The community cannot give up on the children and the future of Champaign.