Urbana City Schools and city of Urbana officials continue to dispute the potential extension of Washington Avenue as an access point for the school building project.
The school board decided to have Superintendent Charles Thiel work with the district’s attorneys to develop a response to the Urbana Planning Commission’s requirement to include Washington Avenue in the building project plans.
The school district plans to build an elementary/middle school on undeveloped land off Community Drive and knock down and reconstruct the high school on its current site. The funding for the $68 million project was approved by voters, with the majority of the cost funded by the state.
In November, the planning commission approved a preliminary site plan for the elementary/middle school with a list of stipulations. It added one the school district did not anticipate, extending Washington Avenue as a collector street to Summit Avenue and connecting it to Community Drive. The school district planned to extend Boyce Street to the school building site rather than Washington Avenue.
District officials say the Washington Avenue extension’s estimated cost is too high to fit in the building budget and that the district’s attorneys believe the district cannot be required to improve city streets with voter-approved bond money if it is not essential to the building project.
If the city requires Washington Avenue be extended as part of the building project, the school district may decide to declare its sovereign authority and forego the city’s requirements for development, Thiel said previously. This may lead to a lawsuit filed by the city.
Board seeks attorney response
The school board approved a resolution asking Thiel to work with the district’s attorney to respond to the planning commission’s Washington Avenue requirement. The vote was 4-1, with board member Tim Lacy voting against the resolution. Lacy said including Washington Avenue is a good idea for safety reasons.
“My gut feeling, and it has always been like this with me, is Boyce scares me. I look at it is as more of a safety issue,” he said. “I think right now, I’m trying to look at what’s best in the long run for safety. I think Washington Avenue would be that route.”
Lacy later proposed a separate resolution specifically including consideration of Washington Avenue as an option for development in the attorney response, but it was voted down 1-4, with only Lacy voting for it.
Board member Jack Beard said he wants to see Washington Avenue be viable, but does not think the district has the money in the building budget to pay for it.
“If we were in a perfect world and we had all that money to spend, Washington might be an option,” he said. “But since we don’t have the money to really fund it without taking money away from what we want to do (with the building), I don’t think Washington Avenue is best for our dollars … I wish we could do it, but we have a limited money resource, and we have to spend it for students and try to get the best we can for them.”
The resolutions came after an hour-long executive session for “pending or imminent court action.”
City seeks more dialogue
Urbana Director of Administration Kerry Brugger and Community Development Manager Doug Crabill attended the Tuesday meeting to answer questions and requested the school board sit down with city representatives to hash out the Washington Avenue issue.
Brugger said the district and city have made more progress discussing the project as a group, rather than trading attorney letters. He added the city’s estimate of the cost of Washington Avenue is far different from the school district’s estimate, and it would be best to get clear numbers, so they could talk about the same cost.
The city estimates the Washington Avenue extension would cost $1.2 million, while the district estimates the cost would be $3 million to $4 million.
Crabill added city officials have been investigating grant opportunities to cover some of the cost of a Washington Avenue extension. He said he believed there is one that would be a good fit for this project, but did not say how much money it would bring in if received.
“We want to work with you guys,” Board President Jan Engle said at the meeting. “I know there’s been some miscommunication. It’s got to be a win-win for everybody. You want new school buildings, we definitely want new school buildings, so let’s get there.”
In other action, the school board unanimously approved selecting a consultant to provide owner agent services for the building project. Thiel said having an owner agent provides another option for oversight on the entire building project in the district’s favor. The cost of an owner agent was built into the building project budget and is estimated to cost $234,000 – much less than the original estimate of $800,000, Thiel said. The owner agent is an advisor to the district only and does not make decisions regarding the building project.
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.