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CHAMPAIGN — After years of planning, voting, speculation, demolition and foundation work, some of the more concrete returns of the six-school, nine-figure Unit 4 referendum project that Champaign taxpayers approved in November 2016 are finally visible.

After houses were knocked down to clear space, Champaign Central’s massive gym addition now sprawls across what used to be Park Avenue and blends in with the rest of the school.

During the summer of 2018, Dr. Howard Elementary School on University Avenue was demolished and turned into a pit of debris. Now, it’s a brand-new two-story red-brick structure.

To get the full effect of the new structures, though, you have to go up high.

“The footprint of the new addition at Central, you can stand on the second floor and look out and you can really get an idea of how big it is,” said Mark Roessler, Unit 4’s capital projects manager for the high school renovation projects.

At Dr. Howard and South Side, the massive windows look straight out into trees across the street.

“The exterior storm front, which are really glass walls, almost give you a tree-house effect at Dr. Howard and even South side,” said Sandra Roesler, Unit 4’s capital projects manager who is in charge of the elementary school projects. “It allows a lot of light and provides the connectivity for the students with the natural space outside. So I’m excited to see it start to develop and continue to move forward at this point. I think any district staff that have been inside of Dr. Howard would agree at this point.”

The next step for several projects is interior work.

Centennial High’s north addition is on the verge of becoming weather-tight, meaning indoor work like drywall and finishes can soon be done and ready to turn over by the end of the summer.

McKinley Field is still slated to be ready in time for Champaign Central to use the track this spring, although issues with the soil have made those plans contingent on weather. All the while, some interference with ongoing classes was inevitable.

“It’s never easy working in an occupied building with 1,400 kids in it,” Roessler said. “So I think the first time we did it moving out, we learned a lot and it seemed to go a little bit better. This time around ... we did a little bit more planning ahead. We had a little more time in this phase of construction to kind of go room by room and say, in this room, this has to come down off the wall or this needs to come down here, or this needs to be moved out of the room altogether.”

Of course, issues have come up, but built-in contingencies have kept projects on track. When workers were preparing to put in an elevator at South Side, they discovered the soil was unsuitable for the structure they were building. Instead of moving back the timeline, the district approved overtime to push the project through.

They were able to do that within the referendum’s financial parameters, Roesler said, by using built-in contingency money for South Side and also by transferring contingency money from Dr. Howard.

“If you had seen the amount of work and trucks and people to get the building ready by (January) 7th, you would’ve been impressed,” Roesler said. “My impression of all of these projects is that they involve so many different elements of input and labor from different people in the community.”

With so many projects, timing setbacks can have major implications. That’s why Dr. Howard is assured to be done by June, so teachers can make way at the Columbia School building for some of Edison’s teachers, who are moving out due to their own renovations that are set to start at the beginning of next school year.

While a few additions are finished and have been turned over for general use, students and teachers will begin to see more of the fruits of the labor and annoyances caused by multiple years of planning and construction this fall.

The high schools will have new furniture throughout, Dr. Howard will be a brand-new school, McKinley Field will be in use for football practices, and South Side will begin using additions.

While the referendum projects won’t be done until 2022, seeing at least part of the end-product has been satisfying for those involved.

“Your labor goes so long through programming and designing and then the bidding process and the start of construction, and then the beginning part of site development work before you can put foundations in,” Roesler said, “but now we’re at the point where we’re seeing real progress.

“And week by week, you see more being done on all of the projects, so this is the time where you see all of the fruits of the year-and-a-half worth of labor.”

News-Gazette