CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school district recently became the proud owner of a 67-year-old, 1,152-square-foot, single-family home in the Spalding Park neighborhood.
But that doesn't mean it has its sights set on that part of town for a new Central High School, as was discussed and debated for months last summer.
For now, school board member Kathy Richards says, plans for the home at 714 W. Harvard St. — bought for $100,000 — remain "loose."
"There's still some questions about whether we'll be able to use the house for educational purpose and I'm not sure how interested the district is in being a landlord, but it was discussed," Richards said. "Long term, it's a piece of property right next to Franklin (Middle School), so it was a good purchase. There's future potential."
On Monday, for the first time since five new members were sworn in, the Unit 4 board will talk about the six-year-old consent decree — and what it allows, and doesn't allow, with regard to location for any new school. That could someday include Central, where Monday's school board meeting will be held.
After two failed attempts at getting voters to sign off on building a new high school along 80 acres of undeveloped farmland in northernmost Champaign, this board isn't in a hurry to put a third proposal before taxpayers, President Chris Kloeppel has said. But when it does, the Spalding/Franklin area is likely to be discussed, given its central location and available acreage.
A few years ago, the district sent our notices to residents in the Harvard Street neighborhood, asking owners to contact Unit 4 if they were ever interested in selling. The owner of the home Unit 4 wound up purchasing reached out to the district directly to see if it was interested, Richards said.
During the where-to-put-Central discussions last year, Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand bemoaned the district's history of not "land banking," the process of investing in property near existing facilities for future use. It's been a popular practice in Urbana, where the school district has purchased 15 of 21 homes one block north of the high school as part of a program that began in the 1990s.
Friday, Kloeppel said the Harvard Street home's proximity to Franklin made it valuable and the board went through with the purchase because "at the end of the day, we were comfortable enough with it just being a parking lot expansion, at the least."
Harvard Street isn't the only part of town where the school board is scouting property for sale.
Despite comments to the contrary last week from owner Leon Jeske, the former McKinley YMCA building — conveniently located two blocks from Central — remains a possibility down the road for the district, Kloeppel said.
The school board's real estate representative — Champaign attorney Patrick Fitzgerald — is still in "ongoing discussions" about the mostly vacant building, Kloeppel said.
"We have nothing definitive to discuss. We are still investigating the option," Kloeppel said.
Hours after Fitzgerald met with Jeske on Monday for what Kloeppel described as an "informational" meeting, Jeske told WDWS 1400-AM the district wasn't interested in buying the building because the board didn't want to commit to any purchases for at least another 18 to 24 months.
Earlier this year, the Champaign Park District investigated and eventually passed on purchasing the YMCA because of the $2 million price tag, plus the $8 million to $9 million it estimates it would have cost to remodel the facility. In an email to The News-Gazette, Jeske said he doesn't envision Unit 4 having that high a renovation price tag because the park district was looking into adding a large pool and "removing some existing structures."
"It has already been remodeled," Jeske said, rattling off the fixes that would need to be made — replacing the heater, filter and chlorine feeder for the large pool; a new roof over that pool; new lighting fixtures; and a small section of the carpet in the men's fitness center, among other things.
"I doubt you could spend more than $200,000 to get everything working properly and usable for Unit 4 schools," Jeske said.