Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tier Two Has Spoken!

On behalf of the Tier Two Committee on Facilities, the group's facilitator Steve Carter officially presented its final report to the Unit 4 Board of Education, at our regular meeting this past Monday.

The 16-member group reached unanimous agreement... that Unit 4 definitely needs to update its facilities. This is no small feat; at their final meeting, one Tier Two member even exclaimed something along the lines of "I'm a Republican and I want to pass a large referendum!"

(Watch the video of the final Tier Two meeting here, from 6/9/16; watch the video of the Board meeting here, from 6/13/16. Nicole Lafond's News-Gazette reports on each meeting are here and here, respectively.)

The first question that arose repeatedly during the Tier Two process was how to choose between renovation versus new construction for Unit 4's six most inadequate buildings, and the final Tier Two meeting on 6/9/16 was no exception. Craig Rost (representing the Economic Development Corporation) described encounters during his recent business travel with Japanese officials, who were proudly showing off 500- to 600-year-old buildings still in use. Craig Hays (representing the Champaign Park District) suggested using the term "modernization" instead of "renovation," in order to show that this process would enhance function as well as fixing problems. Laura Weis (representing the Chamber of Commerce) compared 3 high school buildings from oldest to newest -- Central from the 1930's, Centennial from the 1960's, and Lisle High School (built almost entirely without windows in the 1970's) -- to challenge the assumption that newer is always better.

A second question that arose near the end of the Tier Two process involved the financial aspect of long-term planning, with two different approaches on display. At every stage, Al Nudo (an at-large community representative who also spoke on behalf of Keep Central Central) asked how to break down each project into modules, such that capital improvements could be accomplished by adding one module at a time to most closely mirror capacity and curriculum changes. At the other extreme, Jamar Brown (representing the Black Chamber of Commerce) frequently articulated his view that as many capital projects as possible should be addressed -- and addressed completely -- as soon as possible. His reasoning: that as Board membership changes or as community priorities change, projects left half done or undone are in danger of being completed in a piecemeal fashion (two words: Dr. Howard) or not at all.

If our community continues to define these two questions only through opposing viewpoints, we will sabotage our progress. To move these facilities discussions forward -- as a community -- we must explore the middle ground that exists between the extremes. For example, Tier Two eventually endorsed a plan for Central that involves targeted demolition of the least functional areas of the old building, adding 200,000 sq. ft. of brand new construction, and renovating ("modernizing"?) the remaining 170,000 sq. ft. of the original historic building.

Proposed Scheme for Central High School: Tier Two 6/16

Similar compromises will be needed when the Board decides on a dollar amount for any future referendum: how many complete projects will our community support? or are there parts of any of these projects that we can realistically divide between now and later?

During their final meeting, the Tier Two committee reflected on the influence of Keep Central Central (KCC), which opposed the district's April 2015 referendum. Clarissa Fourman (representing the Champaign City Council) expressed ambivalence about whether KCC had overly influenced the group's ultimate recommendation to re-work Central on its current site. However, other members of the Tier Two committee responded that they had reached that decision solely based on the merits of the options explored by the committee -- a committee of 16 containing only 1 KCC member.

KCC may have played a significant role in the defeat of the previous referendum, but it was that same electoral defeat that led the current Board to initiate the two-tiered, long-term facilities planning process that created this Tier Two report. Many more stakeholders in our diverse district participated in the Tier Two process -- as committee members, as audience members, as questioners -- and many voices contributed to the lively debates and the concrete plans on the table. Now Tier Two has passed the baton back to the School Board, but the conversation is not over.

Mark your calendar for two Town Hall Meetings: June 23 and July 14, 2016. (Details can be found here.) Let's continue this conversation, remembering that improving even a single building in our district improves our entire community.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Tier Two and a Lot of Numbers

The intrepid volunteers who make up the Tier Two Committee on Facilities will soon need to find new ways to fill their time on Thursday nights. The committee will hold its final meeting on 6/9/16 at 6:00pm (Mellon Building Board Room, 703 S. New St.) before reporting on 6/13/16 to the Board of Education.

Look for Thursday's Tier Two agenda to be posted here. To catch up with Tier Two discussions that have taken place since the last Board Corner post, see the videos here (from 5/26/16) and here (from 6/2/16). The agenda for the 6/13 regular Board meeting will appear here (under the Meetings tab).

Anyone need a reminder of the task set for the Tier Two committee?
The charge of the Tier Two Committee is to review recommendations [on needs for capacity and programming], and based on this information provide recommendations to the Board of Education in the following areas: location of facilities, collaborations/partnerships with other public entities in the Champaign Unit #4 District, and finance/referendum schedule.

So how did they carry out this charge?

Since they began meeting at the end of February, the Tier Two committee has heard presentations from multiple Unit 4 administrators on topics ranging from curriculum to athletics to school finance; from City of Champaign Director of Planning Bruce Knight; from MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt; and even from Adrienne Booker, a financial advisor with Ehler's and Associates. At every meeting, community members were invited to contribute their thoughts during public comment or through correspondence. Members of Unit 4's architect/construction management team -- Perkins + Will, IGW Architecture, and O'Shea Builders -- shepherded the committee through a variety of conceptual test fits for a total of six school buildings, discussing each scenario with the committee and modifying their plans accordingly, all in pursuit of the ultimate question: "What work needs to be done, and how much will it cost?"

Regarding the first charge -- location of facilities -- the committee ruled out a variety of possible locations for Central High School, settling on options at or near its current site. Members examined the pros and cons of moving Edison Middle School to a new facility near Barkstall, and decided to recommend it stay at its current location. The committee also considered how to consolidate Central's athletic facilities, decided Dr. Howard's current building was not worth saving, and examined multiple aspects of renovation-with-addition versus demolition-and-building-new for the remaining buildings.

Regarding the second charge -- collaborations with other public entities -- talks are now underway between Unit 4 School District and the Champaign Park District about possible collaboration on athletic facilities at Spalding Park. The committee was able to hear from the MTD how school location affects transportation costs, and hear from Champaign and Savoy how each city could accommodate school construction or relocation.

Regarding the third charge -- finance/referendum schedule -- that's the million dollar question. Or the hundred million dollar question. Or more.

As Steve Carter, former Champaign City Manager and Facilitator of the Tier Two committee, put it quite succinctly when wrapping up the June 2 meeting, "the needs are greater than our ability to pay."

Here's a chart I put together to show where we stand.

Summary of (preliminary) project budgets

Choosing the cheapest option to transform each of these six buildings into facilities that fully support our educational curriculum would cost us $240 million; choosing the most expensive option for each would cost $277.3 million. Bringing the bulk of Central's athletic facilities within walking distance of campus would cost an additional $13.1 - $14.5 million.

No one expected these preliminary numbers to be small. They are what they are, a stark reminder that we have some catching up to do in order to become more responsible stewards of our educational facilities. Here are a few more important numbers to consider:

  • $257,546,551.00 -- Unit 4's current Statutory Debt Limit Margin. In other words, the maximum dollar amount that voters could be asked to authorize, based on a percentage of our district's EAV (Equalized Assessed Value)
  • 2036 -- the year that the bonds issued in 2010 will be paid off, when Unit 4 can access funds from the 1% sales tax for significant capital projects.
  • $6,300,000.00 -- Health/Life/Safety projects in the six buildings considered by Tier Two, required by IL state law to be completed by 2019
  • 10 -- portables to be used by students in Unit 4 during the 2016-17 school year

If numbers are your thing, take some time to peruse Tom Lockman's 6/2/16 presentation to Tier Two about district finances. Near the end, he compares levy year 2015 tax rates for Champaign Unit 4 with seven of its peer downstate districts. As you can see below, Unit 4's rate is the lowest.

Tax rate comparison: Unit 4 and other downstate districts
Here's how the comparison would look if 2015 had included a $100 million referendum for Unit 4:

Tax rate comparison with hypothetical $100 million referendum
And if Unit 4 had passed a $200 million referendum:

Tax rate comparison with hypothetical $200 million referendum

After these figures were shared at the 6/2/16 Tier Two meeting, Steve Carter said:
People always ask, "Why can't we have the same beautiful schools Normal has?" Well, they're paying for those. Those schools didn't just appear ... the community made a commitment to have quality schools and they tax themselves to pay for it... Unit 4 is a low tax district ... You can't have the same quality at a discounted price.