Column: Are you for excellence in our public schools?

By Scott Althaus

Have you ever sat through a lecture when it’s 90 degrees outside in a classroom that has no air conditioning? No matter how interesting the subject, it’s hard to learn anything under those conditions.

Now imagine that you’re 8-years-old and have to sit in that same classroom for six hours a day, with no break from the heat. That’s a typical day for many of our local elementary school students in May, August and September. Not only do seven of 11 elementary schools in Champaign’s Unit 4 district lack air conditioning, most of them lack ceiling fans as well. But air conditioning is only a small part of a larger problem.

My children have recently attended Robeson, Garden Hills, and Dr. Howard elementary schools, and I can say from firsthand experience that the poor condition of many Unit 4 buildings is an embarrassment for a community that is home to a world-class University. It’s no wonder both the News-Gazette and the district’s Parent Teacher Association have endorsed the referendum.

If you live in Champaign or Savoy and are registered to vote in Champaign County, you have the power to fix an important problem that has a direct impact on the quality of faculty and staff we can attract to our campus. Solving this problem will also correct disparities in the quality of schools serving poorer versus more affluent areas of our community.

A $66 million school bond referendum is on the March 21 ballot. If passed, it would build three new elementary schools and dramatically improve the condition of eight others in the Unit 4 school district, which serves the cities of Champaign and Savoy. All of this would cost the owner of a $150,000 house just $3.50 per month.

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    The election falls over spring break, but you can use the county’s new early voting option to cast a ballot. If you’ll be out of town over Spring Break, you can vote today, tomorrow, or Thursday between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the County Clerk’s office in east Urbana.

    When prospective faculty and staff consider joining the University, one of the first things they do is check out the local schools. It is hard to recruit and retain quality candidates for these positions when they see the inadequate facilities that many of our elementary students have to put up with.

    Seven of the Champaign district’s 11 elementary schools were built at least 50 years ago, and two others are 40-years-old. They were built before there was a need for rooms that could be dedicated to arts, music, counseling, English as a Second Language, or special education. As a result, these kinds of activities are often conducted in closets, hallways, and in one case even a nearby church because there is not enough space for them.

    Many schools lack proper gyms and facilities for the arts. If passed, the referendum would add gyms and performing arts space to seven elementary schools that have inadequate facilities.

    Many schools have no room for a computer lab, and even the classrooms often lack space for computers. For example, the school my children now attend has to put computer stations out in the main hallway next to the photocopy machines, which are out there due to lack of office space.

    Something’s wrong when we have to teach our elementary students in hallways and closets. A vote in favor of the school bond referendum on March 21 is a vote that will help the University attract and keep quality faculty and staff. It is also a vote that will correct an important problem in the University’s backyard.

    Before you leave for Spring Break later this week, please help the University and the nearly 9,000 elementary students in Champaign and Savoy by casting a vote in favor of excellence in our public schools.

    For more information on the bond referendum, visit www.u4 excellence.org

    Early voting takes place in the County Clerk’s office at 1776 E. Washington St., in Urbana. Early voting must be completed before 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. More details on early voting can be found at www.champaigncountyclerk.com.

    Scott Althaus is this week’s guest columnist and an associate professor of Speech Communication and Political Science at the University. He can be reached at [email protected].