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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 10:06 pm

“Visioning” the possibilities

Community work sessions on future of Springfield schools begins this week

Springfield High School.

A group of about 100 local residents will begin meeting this week to help make a decision about the future of district buildings, including Springfield High School. The residents received an invitation from Springfield schools superintendent Dr. Walter Milton.

Feasibility study committee members will participate in four Friday-Saturday “visioning” sessions over the course of five weeks, beginning on Friday, March 27, and concluding on Saturday, May 9. The Saturday work session will also include a tour of the host facility, says the district’s operations and maintenance director Dave Smith.

Leading the study will be representatives from Cambridge Strategic Services, a Plano-Texas based educational planning firm, and SHW Group, which specializes in school architectural and engineering planning and is headquartered nearby in Dallas.

Board members narrowly voted to hire the firms in January. One of the two dissenters, board president Erin Conley said she disapproved of the scope of the firm’s work. She believes that the board has enough information to make a decision about middle and elementary school buildings but she agrees further discussion is needed about high schools.

According to the agenda of the Jan. 20 school board meeting, Cambridge Strategic Services/SHW Group submitted a comprehensive and competitive proposal to assist with planning for facilities, programs and services across the district.

Illinois Times requested a copy of the contract as well as a list of other firms submitting bids, but as of press time, district officials said they could not determine if the documents actually existed. For their services, to be completed by June 15, the consultants will be paid $87,260, with up to $20,000 for travel and other expenses.

The firm’s charge is to develop and present planning scenarios and recommendations to address programs and goals, impact on the community, costs of development and implementation, long-term operating costs and implementation schedules.

Once the committee defines a broad vision, that vision will then be applied to the district’s facilities needs, Smith says. “Education should drive facilities. Facilities shouldn’t drive education,” he adds.

The study group’s proposals will have to be implemented by the next school board, which could get as many as two new members depending on the outcome of the April 7 election.

One of them, Nick Stoutamyer — Conley’s opponent in the Subdistrict 2 race — says he accepted the invitation to join the feasibility study committee even though he didn’t think hiring outside consultants was necessary. He believes the school board could have commissioned a citywide poll for less money than they’re paying Cambridge/SHW.

“This has been going on for three years and great ideas have come out,” Stoutamyer says of facilities planning discussions. “And you know the old saying, two heads are better than one, so a group like this would either be a hundred heads are better than one or it’s going to slow the process down.”

Subdistrict 4 candidates are split on the issue. Susan White, who lives in Leland Groves, says she won’t quibble with the decision of current board members who felt they needed additional information.

“I can’t really criticize them for that,” she says. “What’s important is that this issue has been hanging around for a while. You’re not going to please everybody — ever — but you also have to make a decision at some point.”

Keith Sias, White’s opponent, is more critical of the move to bring in consultants from the outside.

“People feel that this is a delay tactic, that the board or staff people are just waiting until they get the answer that they want to hear,” he says, noting that a facilities planning committee has already completed the work Cambridge/SHW has now been hired to do.

“It’s disingenuous, I think, to seek input and then decide ‘You didn’t give me the right answer so we need to study it some more.

“I also think we didn’t have to go to Alabama or wherever to find a consultant,” Sias adds (Cambridge also has offices in Montgomery, Ala.).

“It seems like there would have been someone local that understands the Springfield culture and all the issues around here.”

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