Public Weighs In On Dodds Proposal At Park Board Forum

Champaign Unit 4 Board member Kathy Richards speaks at Wednesday's forum

Champaign School Board Candidate Kathy Richards addresses the Champaign Park Board and Unit 4 school officials at the Leonhard Recreation Center Wednesday

(Jeff Bossert/WILL)

The head of the Champaign Park District says they’ll decide in the next week whether to vote on a proposed deal with Unit 4 schools that might allow a new Central High School to be built at Dodds Park.

Park Board President Joe Petry said after a public forum Wednesday that a vote could come as soon as March 11.

About 100 people attended Wednesday night’s forum. A majority of those who spoke expressed concerns about building a new Central High School at the Dodds site. Those included fears of losing access to open space, and worries about crime in the area. 

Bruce Hannon with the group 'Keep Central Central' said the effort to locate a school is Dodds is 'apparently meant to confuse the April 7th voter', citing the $144-million referendum to locate the high school on Interstate Drive.

"There's simply no time for their Dodds Park site plan to be developed by April 7," he said.  "You can tell that from the conversation here tonight."

Another opponent of giving up 40 acres in the park for a high school is a member of the Dodds family.  Holly Dodds said she wants to remind the park board about its mission of boosting recreation and green space, and making decisions that may be viewed as unpopular.

“And to protect it from people and entities which may not understand or care about its importance in a strong, thriving community," he said.  "And to do so ethically, ahead of your own political and personal ambitions.”

Opponents are also worried that Unit 4 could request additional acreage in Dodds Park, after a school is approved.

Jane Pica's son, Nicholas, who died eight years ago, is among those memorialized by the planting of a tree in Dodds Park, where he used to play and coach soccer, and could lose it with the location of the high school there.

"That's not respect," she said.  "To me, if somebody says it's going to remain a park, it's going to remain a park."

Kathy Richards is one of two Unit 4 school board candidates who spoke in favor of the Dodds option.

She cited the potential for the land swap that would take place between the school district and park district if a plan is approved – moving soccer fields to the Interstate Drive location purchased by Unit 4.

"There would be another facility where people could continue to have these fantastic tournaments," she said.  "It might be at Interstate, it might be somewhere else, I don’t know, the deal hasn’t been made.  But if we’re going to add up how much park acreage is available per resident, I just would like to ask that people will remember we’re not talking about subtracting, we’re talking about moving."

Current Central High Student Cedric Jones endorsed the plan, talking about the cramped conditions in the current school, and citing the potential for partnerships with nearby Parkland College.

"Building Central at Dodds not only provides an all-encompassing campus with room for growth in the future, and our amazing city of Champaign, where we do have a world-class university, but also provides a connection to our great college - Parkland."

Champaign Park District Board President Joe Petry wants a few days to talk with commissioners, and seek more public input before deciding whether to hold a vote.

“It’ll be next week before we have a definite agenda, give people an opportunity to think through this a little bit, and see if they’re starting to feel like they have the information they need to make a decision, cause that’s what we’re going to try to do, or do they need more information," he said.

Complicating matters, the Park District learned in recent weeks that they’d need an exemption from state and federal officials to move forward with the plan. That’s because grant funds were used to create portions of the park. Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources says it could take a year or more to approve a waiver. 

Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the district would need that decision to be made within two years so school construction could start.  But says she’s happy with the dialogue in Wednesday’s forum.

"I think if there is a sincere interest in making it work, that there’s enough people around that table to make that happen," she said.

The school board hasn’t started discussions on a potential high school in Dodds Park with Parkland College.  Wiegand said that won’t happen until a decision is made by the park board.

Story source: WILL