Community Dialog: what to do with Central High School?

I attended the 3-5:pm Community Dialog, the latest in a series of public-engaging discussions put on by Unit 4 and DeJong-Richter. I have a number of mixed feelings about it. Before I jump in, those who wish to form their own opinions are welcome to peruse the futurefacilities links first:

  • The options themselves: 4 Elementary School (ES – Green), 3 Middle School (MS – Yellow) and 4 High School (HS – Orange) options
  • The “District snapshot“: A amalgam of previously released reports, updated with more information about the current schools and a bonus track with Holly Nelson’s work
  • The questionnairre: we did this both as individuals and as a group during the session today (note the online version can indeed be submitted online)

Also, here is Meg’s scoop on the options:

So here we go.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the presentation, having seen most of it before, knowing what was coming. I did browse through some of the new information, and I slowly realized that there was a whole lot of emphasis on the elementary schools. Let me emphasize, I was very slow to pick up on that. 🙂 With the benefit of hindsight, I see it much more clearly now. It was almost as if this “high school siting” project had morphed into this ravenous beast. To be sure, we already knew that this project wasn’t going to be merely about siting the high school, no matter what the initial RFP said; there is simply no way we could just find a new lovely plot of land and bit-a-boom-bit-a-bang have a new facility. We have too much other crap to deal with, especially the middle schools that will require some attention in the very near future. But the elementary schools had not been on my personal radar in the context of DeJong-Richter. Somehow I missed that. And now as I look back at the information packets, I am reminded about a bunch of history surrounding maintenance and upkeep. So let us take a quick trip down memory lane – I’ll spare you and only rewind the clock about 5 years. Actually, as I was researching this topic, I have too many sources and information to pack into this post about the Community Dialog. I am going to summarize with this:

  1. the school district did a crappy job with finances until Gene Logas was hired in 2006. Meaning, the district had zero plans to finance maintenance on any of the buildings
  2. 2008 rolls around and you can hear a collective “oh shit, we gotta do something”. And a lot things started happening; Great Schools, Together came out with a 10-year capital improvement plan, a number of taxes were levied, and we voted in favor of the 1% sales tax in 2009.
  3. Additionally, pressure from the Consent Decree Plaintiff Class, Judge McDade and the Court Monitor convince the district to build seats “north of University” by remodeling Garden Hills and BTW. (I don’t know how the Savoy school slipped in there, but it did)
  4. Last year, the district dipped further into the taxpayers’ pockets with a crafty working cash bond that allowed the district to narrow the gap between monies being spent and monies coming in.

So with this brief historical context, I am confused why we are thinking about yet another portion of tax to cover $38 to $59 million of elementary school upgrades. I am finding it really difficult to keep all these taxes straight, and how much money is dancing around. (but more on that in another post)

As I was looking through the Elementary School options, I was very pleased to see that K-8 was being considered in two of the four options. To be honest, the bulk of my happiness came from the mere fact that it was simply different. I am very worried that most people are going to like and want a picture of our schools that very closely reflects what we have now. But what we have now is not necessary the best. Hence, I like differences – they are like spices and seasoning on otherwise bland food. So I instantly gravitated towards the two options with K-8 plans.

Moving on to the Middle Schools, I was a bit nonchalant about it. The only thing that even caught my attention was the idea of moving Edison into Central (two of the three options). I think the reason I like that idea is that it allows Edison (the people) to grow while recycling the older structure (of Central). Overall, I found the Middle School options to be expensive.

And then the High School options. This one raised my blood rate a bit. Frankly, I very much disliked all the options presented. It was frustrating. I didn’t even choose the “best of four evils”. The first option is basically to leave everything where they are, but we get to spend $106 million and the total capacity will not be enough. Umm… how does that even make sense? As much as I don’t like the second option, I at least give the folks kudos for thinking up something strange and “out of box” a little. The reason I didn’t like the second option is that I don’t see the point of co-locating two fully functional and mostly independent high schools withing a stone’s throw of each other. In that scenario, it makes more sense to have a 9-10 building and a 11-12 building. But two side-by-side 9-12 buildings just …. flabbergasts me. I don’t get it. And then the last option. I call this the “sprawl” option – it throws the high school way out to the edge of development (in one of four directions, take your pick). Overall, I don’t like how these options focus on taking the high school away from the highest densities of population, especially those areas that are expected to have high populations of high school students in 10 years. I was disappointed that these were the only options we have to choose from. Very disappointed.

On that note, I felt our discussion was a bit rushed. The focus was to try to get some kind of concensus so we could mark up our decisions on the big sheets of paper in front (just like the initial community discussions we had a few months ago). This meant we talked more about what to mark down as a compromise rather than the stregnths and weaknesses of these choices. I really wanted to have a ton more discussion, with a ton more people. The reason is primarily to help me understand why people would even want any of these high school options. Perhaps if I can learn some of the really strong benefits from the people who will be paying the taxes, it would help me vote for it. On the other hand, if taxpayers don’t really have any strong feelings and are just going with the flow, we are screwed! Our table came up with a plan that was $350 million! It was absolutely ludicrous, even though I tried to fight against it. It was almost as if we had to decide on an option for all three (ES, MS and HS), but we didn’t. I refused to agree to any high school option, and I still think we don’t need to do the Elementary options quite as big as what we were given (even though I still like the K-8 possibility). It all felt so… contrived in a way. As if there is this big train barreling down on us and we just have to decide how much it is going to hurt.

I mentioned to Scott as I was leaving that I would really like to see this as the first of several discussions. I still feel that way. You all need to speak up, and often. 🙂

9 Responses to “Community Dialog: what to do with Central High School?”

  1. pattsi Says:

    I, too, attended. My comments will focus on the environment and presentation generated to push and pull the attendees to conclusions.
    First, the materials were overwhelming to digest within the limited time. There is absolutely no way any participant, even those who have been following this bouncing ball for months and months could not do so, as stated by Charles. Second, Scott Leopold’s verbal presentation was filled with biased statements, potentially skewing the outcome. (By the numbered assignment I received when I arrived for this meeting, I was seated next to Superintendent Wiegand.) I made a comment about the overt bias in Scott’s presentation, the professional consultant hired by Unit 4 at a tidy sum of money. She agreed.
    Third, the packaging of the options is nothing short of using the Delphi method. This is a decision-making approach used by the military. There was virtually no time or space to “unpack” the “prepackaged” options so the participants could move around ideas. Not that people in the room are not smart enough to do so, but there was lack of time to absorb the presentation, digest it, think outside the box (though I am not certain that the district decision makers really want people to think outside the box because this has not been encouraged.) The district has Holly Nelson’s work, but has not engaged architecture or landscape architecture and additional planning students to challenge the staid present thinking.
    Fourth, I can guarantee now that these “canned ideas” are in print and there are written responses these will be used to institutionalize the arguments for the need for so much more money than already has been generated and is on the horizon in the form of an upcoming referendum.
    I discovered during my conversation with the superintendent that no one, not even the consultants, had mentioned to her the location at the intersection of Bradley and Neil. I have been conversing about this site for ages to everyone, including Scott Leopold. Mainly to get people to think outside the box–do we really need a 70 acre site, do we really need to build on a green or gray field, or could we possibly think about infill and an infill that would build connectivity throughout the community, stimulate regeneration of areas, stimulate economic development in the center of the community rather than on the fringes, as is the happening now aka SW Champaign. This is the potential of the Bradley/Neil site–population density, an area that is being a bit regenerated east of the tracks but needs more with new economically integrated housing and businesses, especially if the lower floor of a new HS is space used for businesses such as art co-ops, art supply store, grocery, restaurant–you get the idea.
    And last but not least let your mind wander and wonder how to design a building complex that spans the four streets–Carle Hospital does this, Illinois State University does this, this is done all over the world–use air space. The connecting bridges could be used for computer labs, cafeteria, library, study spaces.. The design could integrate the old Columbia school, keeping that history. The design could connect with Stratton so the older students might integrate with the elementary ones as mentors, teachers, etc.
    The only thing limiting turning Unit 4 into a model, exciting, dynamic district is the “canned presentations” and lack of willingness to say to ourselves “what if” we do this,” “what would it look like and mean for the students.
    Not asking such questions is a huge lost opportunity for a community made up of the demographics that we have.What is presently being built as elementary schools, though I applaud the “green” aspects, all will be identified as build in 2010.
    This project so needs a community charrette where the participants can walk around a map of the district layed on the floor. Each participate would have monopoly-like pieces that can be placed on the map, moved around, to see what if this is done, how does it affect the rest of the community. While doing this participants have interactions to explain their thinking, challenge each other, different expertise exchanging more ideas. Heaven forbid that an environment to generate serendipitous stimulation be afforded the community, rather than sitting in chairs around a round table in a dark windowless hotel room.
    Just a reminder that Central HS is a WPA project. And Edison is a very solidly built structure, though architecturally destroyed with the horrible windows and plastic sign.

  2. An incomplete historical snapshot of bond issues, tax levies and referenda « Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] attending and chewing on the Community Dialog about various school options (which all lead to big tax referendums), I got to dwelling on the the […]

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    Greg Novak wrote a great piece on Halfway Interesting:

    Additionally, there is a very thorough and critical look at the Board’s decision-making process in regards to Central in a Feb 6th 2011 News-Gazette Editorial by Laurie Reynolds (no link available, yet).

  4. pattsi Says:

    So post the editorial. I am certain that Laurie would give permission.

  5. pattsi Says:

    P.S. contact the N-G archives to see if a copy can be provided and then scan it and post it. It was in the newspaper so it is in the public domain.

  6. Karen Says:

    D’oh. That’s wrong. Disregard. How concerned should we be that there is no CFO or appropriately credentialed financial person with the district involved in this process? Who on the board is an expert in the area of finance?

  7. charlesdschultz Says:

    Karen: Actually, we stumbled upon that one and a few others that are quite interesting reads:

    Champaign plans study of aging schools: 06/08/2003 Anne Cook, News-Gazette

    Criteria for evaluating high school sites: 02/06/2011 Jodi Heckel, News-Gazette

    Sites for new high school up for discussion in Champaign: 02/06/2011 Jodi Heckel, News-Gazette

    School site needs a vigorous search: 02/13/2011 News-Gazette Editorial

    Joe Davis is currently the acting CFO (and he is credentialed); he is obviously involved as a Unit 4 employee, but I am not sure how directly he is involved with DeJong-Richter.

  8. Steering Team Committee meeting tonight (6:pm) | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] I have written about my concerns in regards to the feedback collected during previous events (1, 2) and I remain concerned about how this is going down. I think my biggest concern is the way […]

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