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Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 03:13 pm

Board worries building plan may cause voter sticker shock

Springfield High School.

Bill Castor, president of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association, was once a staunch supporter of keeping Springfield High School rooted to its historic downtown location.

One of 59 members of a community committee charged with proposing a new plan for Springfield’s three public high schools, Castor initially hoped to see the Springfield High campus doubled in size by encompassing the two blocks to the east and by closing sections of Lewis and Adams streets.

But at Monday’s Springfield School Board meeting, Castor said that his neighborhood association was on board with the committee’s recommended “Option B” — an estimated $231 million plan that would move Springfield High School to a west-side Koke Mill site, remodel the current SHS building to create a magnet high school with offices for district administration, replace Lanphier High School and renovate Southeast High School.

“You do have to have something appealing for all areas of the city,” Castor says. “While it might be somewhat of a compromise for our immediate area, city-wide, I think it’s not at all. It’s a far better solution.”

But that solution comes at a cost — Option B was the most expensive of all plans considered — and every school board member on Monday questioned whether they can ask the community to pay for it.

While the community committee showed a “grand vision” of what could be done with Springfield’s public high schools, Bill Looby said, the board needs to compare that vision with what community members can afford.

Susan White and Nick Stoutamyer agreed that Option B’s price tag was a concern and asked if the plan could be pared down.

Similarly, Judith Ann Johnson said: “Before I can vote on the process, I would like to know the best numbers we can get before we can go to the community.”

Even the three board members who openly said that they support Option B — president Art Moore, Cheryl Wise and Cindy Tate — agreed that the board needs to explore funding options before they can publicly present a plan.

“We need to be realistic,” Moore said. “We need to know, how much money are we comfortable asking the public for?”

Dave Smith, the director of operations and maintenance for Springfield Public Schools, told board members that Option B’s $231 million cost is based on proposed square footage for each building. It’s a close estimate, he said, but it’s not a specific estimate.

“This is the big picture at this point,” Smith said. “There is probably room to come down.”

It’s not exactly clear when school board members will receive a final cost estimate. It takes about a year for stakeholders and architects to plan a new school, Smith says, and another year for architects and engineers to design it. Then the bidding and construction processes begin.

“There’s still a process you have to go through until we get to final numbers,” Smith says.

Funding options were not discussed in detail Monday, but board members have previously heard that the district could receive state construction grants to help fund the high school upgrades.

The district, in collaboration with the county, could also ask voters in the February 2010 primary or November 2010 election to increase their sales taxes by up to 1 percent to fund school construction. Springfield could annually receive $10 million if such a referendum passes. A possible property tax increase is another option for raising funds for the district.

The Springfield School Board plans to vote on the Option B proposal at its next regular meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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