News-Gazette Editorial, Feb 6, 2011, Laurie Reynolds

{posted with permission from the author}

The future of Central High School is currently on the school board’s agenda. In fact, the school board has scheduled a joint meeting with the Champaign City Council and with the Champaign Park District board, which will take place Monday night at 6 p.m. in the Mellon Building.

This year board members are likely to vote on whether to build a new high school on the periphery of the community. It also appears that the board is poised to decide to either exercise an option on or to purchase outright a very large tract of land, even before making the decision whether to move Central. The current discussion seems to center on which of seven remote sites is preferable, without having first considered the long-term negative consequences of such a drastic move. The options of preservation, renovation, and/or expansion at the current site have not been seriously studied. This sequence puts the cart before the horse.

No decision to build a new school on the edge of town, and no decision to purchase land, should be made until the district has first considered less extreme alternatives. It should undertake a serious, focused, three-step study: first, it should specifically document Central’s deficiencies and strengths; second, it should present concrete alternatives to new construction that would correct those deficiencies; and finally, it should publicly identify a full range of options with their cost estimates, much as the Urbana Park District did when it recently dealt with Crystal Lake Pool. One thing is certain – the sizable price tag of new construction (estimated to be in the range of $60-$80 million) is a sum that should get our collective creative juices thinking about ways to preserve the central location of Central High School.

Although board members have indicated that their minds are open on this subject, the district’s Power Point (available on its website) pays mere lip service to everything except new construction. Four alternative approaches are listed on one short page of the 92-page presentation: “do nothing; purchase land around Central; build a third high school; and build a freshman-only campus and expand Centennial to make a single high school.” That is the extent of the document’s consideration of alternatives – it is a cavalier, dismissive, almost farcical treatment. The clear focus is to make the case for building a new school. Central’s problems and shortcomings are seen as reasons to leave the building, not as challenges to be overcome with creativity and commitment to the current site. Yet the document does nothing to answer the basic question: Why would we want to put a school as far away as possible from most of the students?

In postings on a community blog late last year, one board member was asked to explain his support for building a new high school. To paraphrase his answer, the reasons included: lack of electrical power for technology; poor heating and no cooling system; lack of space for PE classes, band and large group classes; parking; and the feeling that Central is the No. 2 school in the district. It would be unfair to use this casual conversation by one board member as evidence of the group’s opinions but, in the absence of any open board discussion, it does suggest issues that appear to underlie the preference for new construction.

Though the items listed above may well be problems that should be corrected, they fall far short of making the case for building a new school. For one thing, many of those shortcomings will have to be fixed anyway, because the board has stated that it plans to continue to use the Central building for other educational purposes after its students are moved. More fundamentally, though, this same listing of shortcomings could be the trigger for a very different question: the board, as custodians of the district’s buildings and finances, should be asking if the price of staying at a renovated Central is less than the cost of new construction.

Careful stewardship of Unit 4’s facilities and revenues would seem to dictate that a hasty decision to abandon an existing facility is unwise. Moreover, basic principles of fiscal responsibility require careful study of potentially less costly and less extreme solutions. Demographic considerations should factor into the decision as well, yet I have heard no projections of high school enrollments over the next several decades. I applaud the suggestion of several board members that we should have a communitywide discussion of the issue, but those of us whose inclination tilts toward preservation of Central’s current site are at a severe disadvantage in that debate. We cannot make a reasoned case for staying in place because we simply do not have the facts and figures that would allow for an honest evaluation of that alternative.

New school easy fix at best

Remote construction of a new high school on the edge of the school district is at best an easy fix that ignores many long-term negative costs and impacts. “School sprawl” has as many, if not more, negative consequences than residential subdivision sprawl. It creates a new community destination that is far removed from many residents and users. Unlike the construction of far-flung residential uses, whose owners voluntarily pay at least the short-term costs of their choice, school sprawl imposes negative consequences on those who have no choice but to accept them.

Although it is true that many high school students currently drive to school, opening a school at any of the proposed sites will lengthen the drive substantially (and increase the travel costs) for large numbers of them. Moreover, students who do not drive to school will find their daily journeys on public transportation extended significantly. The burden will not be distributed evenly across our school population, but will be borne disproportionately by those with fewer economic means.

According to the Power Point, acreage requirements are a primary consideration. The district is considering sites ranging from 70 to 80 acres. Any site that large, of course, is located far from the center. The astonishing acreage numbers are admittedly in line with guidelines proposed by some school advocacy organizations. But we should carefully consider how those acres would be used.

According to the district’s general diagram, approximately a quarter of the land would be devoted to stormwater management and parking, both of which are consequences of moving the school, not reasons to do so. Well over half of the site appears destined to athletic fields. The debate over athletics at Central, with some teams currently sharing facilities or traveling a short distance to practice, should not be rolled into the case for a new school. Some board members have given assurances that the issue of athletic fields will not drive their decisions, yet I have heard no questions raised by them about whether alternative solutions could be found. The irony of the district’s suggestion that a new high school with adjacent athletic fields will reduce travel time, of course, is that this convenience will be provided to a few for a small portion of the year, at the expense of the convenience of all students whose new school is suddenly located miles further from their homes.

Costs will add up immediately

The district’s Power Point takes pains to illustrate what it dubs “21st Century Trends in Learning and Teaching.” Those slides are devoted to pictures of airy, modern layouts, with amenities such as open multi-use areas, spaces for different kinds of interactions, and open staircases and balconies. Though it may be tempting to get caught up in a sense that new is better, we should be skeptical of arguments based on the premise that modern school facilities will enhance student learning. After all, the current Central High School facility would be quite palatial and luxurious if located in many countries whose students routinely and handily outperform ours on a battery of standard achievement tests. And as one parent in Two Rivers, Wis., put it: “If an older building can be equated with a poor education, why would anyone want to send a child to an Ivy League school?”

Surely our students deserve to have a safe and comfortable place to learn, and of course updating science labs, Internet and general computer access would be an essential part of any renovation. But to suggest that the style and shape of our classrooms will have an impact on the students’ academic accomplishments denigrates the intelligence and diligence of our teachers and students alike.

In the short run, it may be easier to simply plow up a cornfield and build a new school. But the costs will begin to add up immediately: remote construction will increase transportation costs, with the attendant negative impacts on air and road quality; it will exacerbate sprawl; it will have a negative effect on the older parts of the community; and the replacement building will have a much shorter life span than the current Central High School. Based on current construction standards, it seems safe to speculate that a new Central would last for fewer years than the building it would replace. That means that an assessment of the real cost of a new building will have to factor in the reality that the replacement cycle on new construction is shorter than for older, better constructed buildings like Central.

Explore all options

Though I am glad to know that no board member’s mind has been made up, there is currently no basis on which any individual could make a rational commitment to renovation over new construction. We simply do not have the information to make the case for staying at the current site. No building lasts forever, but basic principles of fiscal responsibility suggest that our elected officials should take care to explore alternatives to new construction.

Acquisition of property near the high school should be considered, not dismissed outright as unacceptable. The YMCA site, for instance, is but a few minutes’ walk from Central. Acquisition of other property in town to supplement the existing site should also be examined. Building up rather than out seems like an option as well. And surely, there are other possibilities. Well-regarded local professionals who are used to working with the renovation of in-town public facilities have no shortage of creative approaches that we would be well-advised to request of them. But if we continue the discussion along the lines we have followed so far, those options will never be explored, and the ultimate decision on Central will be made with incomplete information and without an understanding of all of the costs that new construction on a remote site will impose on the community.

Laurie Reynolds of Champaign is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.

3 Responses to “News-Gazette Editorial, Feb 6, 2011, Laurie Reynolds”

  1. norepinephrine | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] “keeping two high schools” argument. However, U of I Law professor Laurie Reynolds points out that a lot of work needs to be done before we seriously consider a high school north of I-74. Of the […]

  2. Future Facilities: do your homework and talk to the board | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] editorials and letters to the editor in the News-Gazette. I draw your attention, again, to a Feb 6, 2011 letter by Laurie Reynolds, which describes a path the she sees would be optimal for the school district to follow in planning […]

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