IN THE NEWS: Wiegand: Unit 4 should act now to address the needs of aging high school facilities

Sun, 02/09/2014 - 8:16am

The following guest commentary from Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand ran in the Sunday, February 9 edition of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. You can read the article on their website here

Recently, the Unit 4 Board of Education announced that it purchased land for a new Champaign Central High School on Interstate Drive next to the Ashland Park subdivision. As superintendent, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the process our district has used to arrive at this decision for our schools and community.

Our community values education greatly. This is evidenced by the important work taking place at the University of Illinois, one of the nation's top research institutions, as well as Parkland College, a top-notch community college that has become an invaluable resource for knowledge and training. Both institutions work to share this knowledge on an ongoing basis with the community and within the local schools.

Our community also feels a great sense of pride in its high schools. Central and Centennial high schools have an established and thriving group of alumni, many of whom choose to establish roots in Champaign after graduation. The future is continuing to look bright for our graduates, with the Class of 2013 earning more than $7.8 million in scholarships to colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly challenging to deliver a 21st-century high school education in the current Central facility. Built in 1938, originally as a junior high school, Central High School features small classrooms, dated electrical wiring, no air conditioning, limited parking, and lacks specialty facilities.

Expansion on the current site is not possible since it is landlocked. Although major renovation of the current site could minimally address the academic needs, it does not address the need for additional space for a growing student population. As of last year, Central and Centennial were at 103 percent capacity, according to the Illinois State Board of Education Standard Utilization Factor for determining effective building capacity.

The last three school years have brought record levels of kindergarten enrollment, which will lead to further overcrowding of our high schools if no action is taken. In fact, once our current kindergarten through third-grade students reach high school in the year 2022-23, our existing high school facilities will be at approximately 120 percent capacity.

In 2006, the board of education began discussing possible solutions and the need for a new Central and has since held nine community meetings to discuss this topic more in-depth. Early in the conversation, it became clear that it would be necessary to find a new location in order to address the educational needs. Discussion continued and the board began to look at locations in the community where land was available.

The conversation continued into the 2012-13 school year when, in an effort to turn the conversation into action, the district began the "Future Facilities" process with the help of public engagement firm DeJong-Richter. More than 1,500 individuals participated in community meetings, online questionnaires, focus groups and phone polls conducted to gather feedback about the district's school facilities and what its priorities should be moving forward. A vast amount of community data was collected and one message was clear: The district should act now to address the needs of its aging high school facilities.

This year, the board of education answered the community's call. To make sure that functional interior sites were not being overlooked, and that the district purchased an adequate amount of acreage to support educational programming, the board contracted with Gorski Reifsteck to uncover any interior sites that were not yet under consideration and assist the board in identifying the site that best fits the district's needs. Instead of the original estimate of 70-80 acres needed to build a new high school, the board reduced the requirement to 35-40 acres. The board began with a list of 13 possible sites, including the Country Fair Shopping Center site.

However, the Country Fair Shopping Center site presented a number of challenges and restrictions that eliminated it from the final list. These challenges included a footprint too small to hold a comprehensive high school for 1,700 students, high cost of acquisition and development, no room for future expansion, and relocation of existing businesses, among others. The one high school model and the Judah Christian School site were also given serious consideration, but did not meet our district's needs.

We know through the student density analysis completed by DeJong-Richter that the population center of our community is near the intersection of Mattis Avenue and John Street.

This means that Centennial High School is actually a more "centralized" campus than the current Central facility. Another finding from this work indicates the district's population growth is trending away from the southwest and shifting to the northeast. Currently, our most densely populated student area is near our renovated Garden Hills Elementary School.

Of the available sites, the board examined each site objectively and looked at factors such as transportation costs, size and accessibility. It narrowed the list to six and then four, taking the time to further examine the final sites with a team of engineers. It determined that the final site on Interstate Drive would best serve our students and community for the next 50-100 years by allowing room to build a 21st-century high school that supports collaboration, innovation and technology. The site will allow for future building expansions to support our growing student population.

In 2009, the countywide 1 percent sales tax was passed in a referendum, with the purchase of a site for a new Central High School as one of the promises made by the district. Funds from the 1 percent sales tax were set aside to purchase land for a new Central High School, but the approval of a second referendum proposal would be required to fund the construction of the building.

Moving forward, the board will work to more clearly define the programs the new school would support by speaking with district administration, our community partners, and the Central students, parents and faculty. The board will determine the cost of the project and the cost to bring Centennial High School up to the same standard. At that time, the board will also present to the community a plan for the current Central High School as well as an updated long-term district facilities plan.

As a public school district, our schools belong to the community and it will continue to be the community's decision to determine the direction we take regarding the new high school as well as our other school facilities. I believe that it is critical for the public to be educated on this topic in order to make an informed decision, as these choices will impact many generations to come.

I hope that this information provides clarity regarding how the district arrived at the location for the new Central High School as well as a glimpse into the future. I invite the community to visit the current Central High School and speak with the faculty, staff and students about their experiences. I also invite the community to visit one of our new elementary buildings to see what a 21st-century school facility looks like and experience how the delivery of education today has changed since Central High School was built in 1938.

We will continue to provide opportunities for community members to become engaged and informed as the district moves forward in this process. Our board will be working to bring our school facilities up to the standards that the community established in 2007 with our "Great Schools, Together" strategic plan. In February, the district's facilities committee will discuss our facilities needs with these standards and our educational programs in mind.

Please consider the following ways to get informed and join the conversation on these important issues:

— Attend one of our board of education meetings.

— Watch a board meeting from home on CGTV5 or past meetings on our Vimeo channel.

— Email our board at u4boe@champaignschools.org.

— Talk one-on-one with any board of education member.

— Join the conversation with us on social media via our Facebook and Twitter pages.

— Review the information available on the district website and "Future Facilities" website.

Champaign school Superintendent Judy Wiegand has been with the Unit 4 district since 1987.

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