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A Closer Look At Unit Four’s Bond Referendum

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A sign in a field on Olympian Drive announces the site as the future home of Champaign Central High School

A sign on Olympian Drive on the north edge of Champaign announces land purchased by Unit Four for a new Champaign Central High School. (Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media)

The Champaign Unit Four School District is asking voters to approve a bond referendum this November, for a major makeover of their high schools, Centennial and Central.

School board members voted at their meeting Monday night to put the item on the ballot.

The $149-million bond proposal has its critics, but they didn’t speak up at the meeting. Instead, support for the referendum was heard from everyone from the school board president down to the student ambassadors --- those are high school students who serve as liaisons between the student body and the board. Cedric Jones is starting his second year as student ambassador for Champaign Central High School, which was built in the 1930’s, and still doesn’t have air conditioning.

“It has a certain culture, where we don’t have a lot, but what we do have, we make it work”, said Jones. “And we’re missing a lot of the things like adequate space and different things that really are necessary for a 21st century high school to be successful.”

The two Unit Four high schools operate at 103% capacity, and provide the least square feet-per-student among districts of similar size in the region. They lack key facilities --- nothing for Industrial Arts at Centennial High School, and no athletic fields at Champaign Central. Concepts discussed for the new building at Monday night’s school board meeting would fix those problems, and redesign the general class space.

Consultants from the Chicago-based DLR Group laid out classroom concepts they dubbed “learning studios”, emphasizing flexibility for different class sizes and learning styles. Champaign Central High School Principal Joe Williams says that’s as important as the square footage.

“If we had, say, more of what we have as far as individual classrooms, we still would be facing the problem of not being able to work within a traditional classroom setting”, said Williams. “So for instance, if I’ve got two classes of 24 students that need to get together and work on a project, where would I put them? We don’t have those kind of spaces in our buildings right now. “

There was little discussion of the district’s controversial pick of a location for a new Central High School , along Interstate Drive on the northernmost edge of Champaign. Critics say Central High School should be in a more central Location. But school officials have said that other potential sites, such as Spalding Park, Dodds Park and the Country Fair Shopping Center are too small, too expensive, impractical or not available.

Some critics have also questioned the need for such a big project. Unit Four parent Charles Schultz is one of those. He writes about the Unit Four district at his blog, Citizen4. Schultz thinks the district should focus for now on the immediate need to relieve high school overcrowding, and give the more ambitious plans more study.

“It seems to me that Unit Four and the board is going with the easy decision”, said Schultz. “It’s easy to put a real expensive school up north. And it has some good qualities to it. But I don’t think it’s what our community needs right now. Too expensive would be my first and foremost objection.”

Schultz says the district should look to opening more but smaller high schools. He suggests obtaining an existing building to relieve immediate overcrowding, and consider creating schools with academic specialties that don’t require so much acreage. But Unit four school board members weren’t thinking along those lines Monday night, as each of them voted to put the high school bond referendum on the November 4th ballot. Even board member John Bambanek, who proposed a property tax freeze when he ran for the state senate a few years ago, said he could support asking the voters to approve a referendum that would result in a raise in their property taxes rates.

“But in this case, we’re not imposing anything on the people, the people would impose this on themselves”, said Bambanek “We’re saying, this is our plan, do you want to fund it with our property tax dollars? And if they say no, then we do something else. I think if you’re going to have tax increases, whether income tax or sales tax or anything else, going to the people who are going to pay the bill is the most respectful way to do it.”

Unit Four School Board President Laurie Bonnett says she’s confident that voters will approve the referendum. If they don’t, the consultants say every year’s delay in construction adds millions of dollars to the total cost, once the project is built.

Categories: Education