You do not have to dig too far into the pages of Smile Politely to grasp our respect for Champaign County history. It is of interest to this editorial board, our writers, and our readers alike to gaze into the past, compare where we have been to where we are now, and sometimes just bask in “remember whens” for awhile. We deeply love Champaign-Urbana and its rich history. We also, however, value progress, particularly when it involves creating better learning environments for public school students.
In November 2016, Champaign voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum granting the Unit 4 School District $183.4 million to renovate multiple school facilities, though Central High School has garnered the most attention. The saga of renovating Central has been long, complicated, and heated. There were two failed referendums that would have put a new Central High School north of town on Interstate Drive. The second was stymied quite effectively by the group Keep Central Central, whose efforts directly impacted a no-vote of 70%. They cited urban sprawl, building in the opposite direction of the city’s residential growth, and the desire for urban renewal as a few reasons for opposing the plan. Their concerns were valid, and the electorate agreed.
An almost completely new board, led by new president Chris Kloeppel, took up the charge to put a new referendum on the 2016 ballot, and followed the process closely, you know that this board went above and beyond to take in community input throughout the entire process -- from location, to which schools would receive a portion of the tax revenue, to which schools would get priority, and beyond. They formed committees made up of a multitude of stakeholders from the community and the district, hosted town halls and community forums, took in feedback and posted it on their website. If you’ve got several hours, you can review that process here. It was decided Central would remain on its original site with renovation and expansion, and this came with the knowledge that there would have to be some decisions made regarding properties surrounding the school. This process began in January 2016, when the board approved the optioning of several properties, one of those sites being the Burnham Mansion, an apartment complex owned by Hurst Realty.
All this to say that the district’s intentions here were never hidden from the public. In keeping Central central, sacrifices would have to be made, since the school is completely locked in on all sides by other properties. Voters knew this going into the 2016 election. There was complete transparency, with the school board acknowledging well before the vote that this plan would likely involve demolishing the properties they had purchased.
The Friends of the Burnham Mansion group is interested in preserving the building for classroom use, which is honorable, but completely impractical. The pervasive presence of asbestos alone, and the cost of dealing with that and making it a safe place for students to spend their days, seems like more pain than it’s worth. It also brings added cost to an already pricey endeavor, in a district that is already underfunded, by our standards. Then there is the fact that the building is currently broken up into several apartments. That is not an ideal arrangement for classroom instruction. The district has its hand full with the extensive work needed to renovate Central, a historic building in its own right, also with its share of issues. Another proposal brought up by the group is the use of the mansion to instruct students in skills that would be utilized to restore the building. This is also admirable, but the district has such opportunities currently built into their curriculum through their Education to Careers and Professions program as well as their Industrial Technology curriculum. It’s a large amount of additional space to devote to a small portion of the curriculum.
Much attention has been paid to the fact that a parking lot is what will occupy the land where the Burnham Mansion now stands. It makes for a tragic picture: A beautiful historic building being razed to make way for parking. Yet this is a simplistic picture. A comprehensive plan was put forth, with the school’s needs (ascertained through the previously noted committee meetings with input from those who would be affected most: teachers, students, staff, administrators, etc.) and this configuration was decided upon. A parking lot is just a portion of the entire package. Would it be great if all students and teachers walked, biked, or took the bus to school? Sure. Again, not practical. Students funnel into Central from all ends of the district. So while keeping Central central will reduce the need for driving, it’s not completely eliminated. And can we please allow teachers to park near the school, in an accessible place, where they can have just a bit of convenience when they arrive early, stay late, and in general do all the things that we burden our teachers with?
The group is currently pursuing a petition drive, and they’ve gathered signatures from all over the country. What do people all over the country have to do with what is happening in our community and with our school district? Whether they’ve lived here previously or not, they no longer get to have a say here. There was even a letter to the editor in the News-Gazette from Champaign native and UIUC grad Bill Geist, who may very much want a mansion in a community he once lived it to be preserved, but, with all due respect, now lives in New York and therefore does not pay taxes or vote here, and most likely is not aware of the lengthy process that has led up to this moment.
History is important, and the Friends of Burnham can be applauded for their dedication to preserving it. We by no means advocate for progress at all costs, history be damned. But in this particular case, it’s time to move on. The plans were laid, the conversations were had, and the voters decided.
Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.
Photo from the WILL website.