October 31, 2014 – Public Policy update
Our mission states that we are “a member focused business association” and with mission statements, an organization either gives lip service to the words — or it lives its mission.
While we know that many of our members have strong opinions regarding the proposed $149 million Unit 4 school referendum, the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce can neither support nor oppose this referendum. As a member focused business association, we asked our members to help shape the position of the Chamber by providing feedback through a recent poll; through 100+ random phone calls to members and in-person conversations between staff and members.
It is the role of the Chamber to identify the consensus of our membership and to then act accordingly. But just like the one-cent sales tax increase for school capital projects passed in 2009, the proposed Unit 4 referendum has no consensus among our membership. After reviewing the sampling, our members appear to be split on the issue and many remain undecided.
Therefore, the Chamber will offer information to the membership for consideration before the November 4 election. We hope that the members who are able to vote on this issue will give serious consideration to both sides of this referendum.
Why a Yes Vote Should Be Considered:
- As a community, we have allowed our educational facilities to be neglected for far too long. We have aging facilities that need to be addressed. We cannot continue to “kick the can” done the road on our schools.
- Whether it be talent recruitment for the University; the tech sector; health care or manufacturing, the quality of education and the facilities in which that education is provided is weighed by the people being recruited. Our facilities get compared to other communities and we need to be competitive with other communities for top talent on all levels.
- In a single school district, inequity for students should not exist nor is it acceptable. A child’s address should not dictate whether that child is given greater access to on-site extracurricular facilities; air conditioning; less crowded classrooms and more modern facilities.
- Delaying action on improving school facilities will not get any cheaper. The longer we wait to address the aging facilities, the more expensive it will become and at some point, we will be faced with a crisis situation for failure to act.
- Improving the facilities and following sustainable practices will improve energy efficiencies and ultimately reduce the cost to operate individual buildings. And in spite of the ages, with Centennial High School being the newer facility, Centennial is the most expensive school in the district to operate.
Why a No Vote Should Be Considered:
- While the district argues that the district’s tax rate is one of the lowest in the area, it cannot be ignored that Illinois has the 10th highest property tax collection per person in the country. Additionally, Reboot Illinois ranks Champaign County as tied for 15th out of 50 Illinois Counties as having the highest property tax rate per 100,000 assessed residential property tax.
- The most significant economic development driver for business expansion or relocation is the cost of doing business. Nice school facilities may help a company recruit talent, but if we continue to drive the tax rate up — we lose our competitive advantage. If passed, this will add an estimated annual $1 million+ to the property taxes already paid by the business community. Each tax increase leaves less money for businesses to reinvest in their own companies.
- Public officials are obligated to use tax payer dollars in the most efficient, effective manner. Conceptual drawings to renovate Central High School exist but the district chose to not price these concepts as options. Upon analyzing the options, the outcome may absolutely be the same. But there is an obligation to analyze all options to be sure that the district is being good stewards of tax payer dollars. Opponents also question the validity of the figures for the Spalding Park concept. At this late date, the district should be able to refute the opponents’ claims with certainty. The Chamber has not seen any evidence that the district has done so.
- This referendum is being promoted as necessary to give Unit 4 kids a 21st Century learning experience. 21st century learning requires innovation and creativity. Yet, the district has defaulted to the traditional school model of today. DeJong-Richter, the districts own consultant stated that “students have always learned outside of school buildings, and new technological possibilities will challenge traditional school facilities even further.”* Just one example of innovative construction is a seven-story high school in the heart of the Chicago loop. It is expected to house 1,700 students by 2016. It is a 278,000 sq. ft. building that costs $114.6 ($90.9 million in construction). This is a building that will accommodate its student population on a very small footprint. Did the district really seek a creative solution to an important issue? *School Construction News: Top 10 Trends in School Facility Planning – March/April 2009
- With just days before the election, the district still does not have a viable plan for repurposing Central High School once it is vacated. Without a clear plan on how the building will be repurposed, there is no clear information on how much it will cost. This unknown is part of the total price tag that is not being captured in the referendum – thus making the total cost of a new high school truly unknown.
Both sides of the argument have merit. A yes or a no vote is not a reflection on whether people support a quality education. It is a reflection that people disagree on what it takes to provide a quality education.
Regardless of how you choose to vote, please remember to vote on November 4.