Readers of this blog will probably have already seen the next day's headline in the News-Gazette: "Interstate Drive site off the table" (and the article here). While the Tier Two committee is only empowered to make recommendations to the School Board -- who make final decisions on how to move forward -- the committee's vote to include only the on-site Central options in its deliberations deserves further explanation here.
The briefest of meeting summaries would read as follows:
Centennial needs renovations and additions; Central needs more renovations and additions, or could be demolished and rebuilt; and the task of addressing both buildings' inadequacies for programming and for capacity will cost money.
Knowing the above summary doesn't capture what made that Tier Two meeting last for over two hours, I want to touch on three themes that surfaced repeatedly during the evening's discussion: preservation, school capacity, and MTD costs.
Not only does part of the current Central building date from the 1930's, the neighborhood that surrounds it is even older. Some of the properties which would be slated for demolition if the Board exercises any or all of the options it has purchased date from the nineteenth century.
|Existing Central campus and Optioned Properties|
Preservationists and urban planners are thus faced with a dilemma: if a historic school building has so thoroughly outgrown its original mission, as Central has (see here), what educational options are least destructive to history?
Ceasing to use the building as a school altogether in favor of new construction elsewhere leaves the most historic structures intact (for now), but negatively impacts the vitality and usefulness of the neighborhood. Few developers are interested in purchasing abandoned school buildings and might eventually choose demolition anyway.
Demolishing properties of historic significance around the existing school comes at a cost to the community of forever losing those buildings. However, all of the current owners of those buildings want to sell them to Unit 4, and none of the owners are currently operating the buildings in a way that educates the community about the lives and achievements of their original owners.
Using the Central building for other Unit 4 functions (administrative offices? Novak Academy?) would require the least outwardly visible renovation, but would still necessitate building a new high school elsewhere in town at a location that satisfies the Settlement Agreement. After an extensive search by multiple school boards that was revisited by the Tier Two committee earlier this spring, the only locations identified would require either significant property seizure through eminent domain or would contribute to urban sprawl.
The community will have to arrive at a compromise of some sort, together, because inaction is no longer an option.
Another question that surfaces repeatedly is the question of capacity. Current student enrollment at Central and Centennial is around 1300 and 1500 respectively. The district has charged the architects with planning for a total high school capacity of 3400 (to better house the current student population as well as to accommodate future growth), with the idea of 1700 students at each school.
Some members of the Tier Two committee have asked the architect/construction management team to examine what an unequal distribution of students across the two schools might look like, both in concept and in cost. Here are the results:
First, I will show a comparison of Centennial for 1700 to Centennial for 1900. (Note in the complete presentation that either plan could add $3.7 million to the cost range by deleting the gym addition and adding a fieldhouse instead.)
|Proposed Centennial for 1700 students|
|Proposed Centennial for 1900 students|
And here is a comparison of the selective demolition/addition/renovation option of Central for 1700 to Central for 1500. (Note that the complete presentation also contains options for Central to be demolished and rebuilt on the old McKinley YMCA property, but I've not posted those images here. All budgets for Central options include any costs of property acquisition and site preparation, as well as complete renovation of any existing building.)
|Proposed Central at 1700|
|Proposed Central at 1500|
The take-home point from the architects about capacity is that the size of the core spaces in each school (such as gymnasiums, music rooms, cafeterias, libraries, etc.) remain the same when you vary the total capacity by 200 students. The only part of the plans that change -- in this conceptual test fit phase -- is additional classrooms for those 200 students. As a result, the site fit in either case is not tremendously affected, making the question of total enrollment more of a curriculum/programming question than a site planning question.
It will fall to the Unit 4 administration to weigh the pros and cons of equal vs. unequal capacity, since it would affect everything from community districting to sports conferences to hiring to course offerings. (And interestingly, as Central principal Joe Williams noted at the meeting, the options presented here for constructing each school to hold 1700 students total $.7 to .8 million cheaper than the options for unequal enrollment at 1500 + 1900.)
MTD director Karl Gnadt discussed preliminary figures with the Tier Two committee (see his notes here) of the additional costs for Unit 4 to transport students to a Central High School built at the Interstate Drive site.
The Unit 4 Board just approved the Transportation Agreement between Unit 4 and the MTD for the school year 2016-17 (on 4/25/16), which will cost the district approximately $369,000 for MTD transportation of eligible 6-12 grade students. (Just an FYI for blog readers: the MTD only charges Unit 4 35% of the total costs to transport its students; the Illinois Department of Transportation pays the other 65%.) Mr. Gnadt picked SY2019, projected inflation-adjusted costs of serving our current schools to be closer to $400,000, and calculated if Central relocated to Interstate the annual total cost to the district would at least double: $800,000 to $850,000 per year. In addition, the MTD would need to purchase up to 12 additional buses, with Unit 4 bearing some significant portion of the over $8 million cost.
Some readers will recall that the MTD provided a similar estimate of the doubling of annual transportation costs for the Interstate site nearly two years ago; however, the resulting public discussion of these figures happened mostly in the media. This time, Mr. Gnadt was able to answer questions from Tier Two and describe in greater detail just how much the MTD has integrated its school service into its regular service, as well as how much it combines school routes with each other. Removing even a single building away from other schools, as well as away from other community locations currently served by the MTD, incurs such a great cost precisely because of this tight integration happening now. My son, who on his MTD bus to Edison rode with students from 4 other schools as well as with regular adults headed to work, would be happy to attest to the MTD's current efficiency in this regard.
Other transportation-related costs for Central at Interstate, not included in this estimate:
- increased time spent by students on the bus
- increased need for bus transfers at Country Fair
- early arrival of students at middle schools before buses travel to Interstate
- increase in behavior problems and/or supervision costs as a result of those first three items
- increase in MTD costs for Urbana District 116 (they also benefit from the current tight integration of routes)
- increase in transportation costs for individual students/families
Given this information, and given the fact that two referendums placing Central at Interstate have already been defeated, the majority of the Tier Two committee voted to take that option off the table. The architect/construction management team is still tweaking a detailed comparison summary of total cost (locating Central onsite compared to at Interstate), so that document will soon be available. I hope this blog post has helped readers have a fuller understanding of why Tier Two made this decision.
Please look over all the plans presented at last week's meeting -- including those for proposed extracurricular sports facilities for Central at South Side, Franklin, and Spalding -- and let me know if there are other questions that I can answer here or that Tier Two can answer at their next meeting: Thursday, 5/26/16, 6:00pm at the Mellon Building. An updated agenda for that meeting is now available here; note that the finance presentation has been moved to next week, June 2 at 6:00pm [new meeting added to schedule!] to allow for more discussion this week of plans for South Side, Central, and Centennial.