Why I voted “no” to the $149 million bond referendum

The question on the ballot reads:

Proposition to Issue $149,000,000 School Building Bonds
Shall the Board of Education of Champaign Community Unit School District Number 4, Champaign County, Illinois, build and equip a new high school building to replace the Central High School Building, build and equip an addition to and alter, repair, and equip the Centennial High School Building, improve school sites, and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $149,000,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?

I also noticed that folks are searching for “champaign school district 4 proposition to issue $149,000,000 school building bonds”

 

After talking to folks on both sides of the issue, reading what materials were available, considering the historical context, I was definitely torn on this issue, but in the end I was compelled to vote “no” on this proposition.

 

In talking to others who also plan to vote “no” (or who already have voted), their reasons are many and varied. Some think the location is horrible, some think the price tag is too high, some just outright do not trust the school district nor the board. In talking to those that support the referendum, they are full of energy and excitement, and full of conviction to give our children “the best.” This made me chew a lot – if anything, I fall in the middle. I found it interesting that when I talked with those who generally did not feel good about the referendum, they often expressed that they felt they were being labeled as being “anti-student” or “anti-public-school”. I have also heard a rumor that teachers are being told that anyone who votes against the referendum also votes against teachers; so far, this remains unsubstantiated (I asked several teachers). Is it possible to oppose the referendum and yet still show teachers and students that you support them? I believe so.

 

Back in April, I mentioned several things that I personally was looking for that would catapult me into a “yes” vote. There are still a few outstanding items on that list. Having said that, there are three factors that have persuaded me the most:

  1. The school district has not had a dedicated planner on staff, and as such, there is no consistent long-term plan, let alone one that has fully engaged the community. To my knowledge, the “living document” of projections and demographic statistics has not been updated, nor was the district left with the necessary tools to do so. The current 20-year strategic plan calls for addressing Garden Hills in 10 years and Edison in 20 years. “Our children deserve world-class educational facilities”
  2. We hear a lot about a “21st Century Education”. However, the precepts of a 21st Century Education are already taking hold in our schools. The vast and ambitious plans to build hi-tech modern high schools are definitely a way for the school district to jump in with both feet in a very public fashion, but I firmly believe a 21st Century Education does not depend on a $98 million high school. I do believe new construction and new renovation would certainly help in a big way. Additionally, it is obvious that many on the board and in district administration want to open the doors of the future by ushering in new facilities. I applaud the forward-looking vision; yet I maintain that the future does not need bright shiny new buildings.
  3. I am very much disturbed by the trend of hiring consultants that do a bare minimum of community engagement, and then turn around a very expensive plan which evolves into a big ticket referendum. Looking at the historical context of referenda (past ballot issues, consent decree and enrollment), we have seen that the school district has a long-standing penchant of seeking new money for new construction as a way to address old problems. When the 1% Sales Tax was passed, the district placed a higher priority on building new schools, renovating several others and paying off previous debt than focusing on the looming problems of Central, Centennial, Dr. Howard and Edison. It is odd that the August heat at Central was not even on the list for mitigation.

 

I wish to reiterate that there are many good reasons to vote in favor the referendum; I want to give credit to those who passionately stand behind Unit 4 no matter what. People like that are much needed. I also note that many stalwart organizations and groups are casting their support behind the referendum, including CUC2C, CFT and possibly “At Promise of Success”. Like I said, I have not arrived at my own personal decision easily, and I am still torn even now.

 

So as not to merely vote “no” and call it a day, I suggest an alternative. In the past I have referenced a “Plan B“. That plan continues to morph and change as I learn more from those I talk with. For instance, Dr. Laura Taylor has convinced me that high school size does not matter (at least, not as much as other more weighted factors in terms of total student achievement). I have also learned that the current building that houses Judah Christian School will not be up for sale in the next two years, probably even further out. It seems to me that one of the most significant priorities of any plan going forward must revolve around what makes an awesome educational environment. I truly believe that the administration and the board believe with their heart that they are pursuing this goal, and I give them all kudos for the bold plans they have laid down, and the taking the initiative in buying a huge swath of land to get the ball rolling.

 

Having said that, here is what I propose:

  • Fully embed and incorporate CUC2C and “At Promise of Success” into the Strategic Plan
  • Retain Central as a high school but cap the enrollment between 900-1000 students to reduce the number of students in each classroom
  • Build a third high school (personally, I don’t really care about the location anymore)
  • Continue to pursue CAPS, Computational Thinking and investing in preparing for the Trades
  • Provide a way for community members to help teachers create awesome learning environments
  • Hire a full-time planner
  • Come up with a new Capital Improvement Plan that prioritizes maintenance projects (including renovations) so as to lengthen the life of all physical structures
  • Pursue and implement distance learning options, with the intent to eliminate busing between schools for classes at one physical location
  • Don’t hire any more consultants; moderators that facilitate discussion panels and deliberations are ok
  • Always invite disagreement and healthy, public debate

 

Of course, I could be completely and utterly wrong. You are welcome to comment either way, but I especially value your constructive criticism and ideas for how you would improve the future. Regardless of how we vote, I do think it is very important for each of us to be involved with students, teachers and/or schools. I urge you to volunteer, whether it be over lunch, as a tutor, or just giving up an hour whenever needed, or sign up to be a mentor. The mission of the Unit 4 School District says it works “in partnership with the community”. We all need to work together to make that happen, and I am convinced that getting involved is one of the best investments you can possibly make.

“a fair shake”

Over the past couple of months, I have had several email conversations with Denise Martin (co-chair of the “Friends of Champaign Schools” campaign), board members, teachers, a student, Dennis Bane (architect for DLR), Stephanie Stuart, Dan Ditchfield (the other co-chair for “Friends of Champaign Schools”) and the Unit 4 Executive Leadership Team (Dr. Wiegand, Dr. Taylor, Dr. Zola, Mr. Foster). A couple Saturdays ago Mark Nolan knocked on my door as part of the “Friends of Champaign School” campaign effort to encourage people to vote for the Nov 4th Unit 4 property tax referendum, which is quickly approaching.

The title of this blog post is “a fair shake” because those are the words Dan Ditchfield used when I met with him in the context of me “covering” the campaign he is involved in. In writing this blog post, I will be pulling in observations from all the above conversations I have had.

You might ask, if I am opposed to the referendum, why am I spending so much time talking to people who obviously support the referendum? For me, especially on this particular issue, it is important to be informed. Better yet, I have learned so much about the people who support the referendum and I have been encouraged by a lot of commonalities between myself and those I talk with.

Both Denise and Dan asked a key question, and I have a sneaky feeling they conspired. *grin* “Do you trust Unit 4?” That is basically what this vote will boil down to. It is however a deceptively simple question – for instance, I cannot say “yes” or “no” because I trust certain individuals involved with Unit 4, but not all.

Yet the main impetus which drives me to write this post in the first place is because I absolutely love the public display of support by so many people involved with the “Friends of Champaign Schools”. As I have told Denise, Dan, board members and others, I do not want to hinder those who rally around our public schools, because I myself am a public school fan, and it is awesome to see so many people put forth the effort to help the schools succeed. I appreciate and value that many folks have volunteered to go knocking on doors, to meet with various groups (ie, churches) and project a very positive image of Unit 4. These passionate folks will need to continue building support regardless if the referendum passes or not because there is still a lot of work to be done.

On top of that, folks like Denise and Dan are not one-trick ponies; they are involved in many other ways. For example, Denise is helping to spearhead the Champaign Urbana Cradle to Career initiative, an awesome project in an of itself. Among other things, Dan is also a Unit 4 One-to-One Mentor and working with CTRL-SHIFT. As I talked with them, we all agreed that the referendum is not perfect, and that many years of neglect, bad decisions and “kicking the can down the road” has led us to where we are. We differ on some points, but we also agree on a number of points.

What points do we agree on? Capacity is a very real issue right now. I have been to Central on several occasions, and the classrooms simply are not designed for the number of students that curretly get stuffed inside. The science labs on the third floor might have been designed for half the number of students, not to mention the band room and other rooms. On top of that, I believe the general gist of the Dejong-Richter projections that things are only going to get worse for the next 8 years.

Next but not any less important are the deferred maintenance items that have been lingering for years. As a district (not just the decision-makers, but all of us) it is utterly irresponsible to let those items go unattended. Based on what I have read in the 10-year CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) and HLS (Health-Life-Safety) report, and from my own obsevations from being inside both high schools, I am aware that there are a number of conditions that have only worsened.

I think it is fair to say that the three of us also agree some form of property tax increase is imminent simply due to the neglect and poor planning of previous administrations and boards. At this point, we agree to disagree on the exact implementation and scope of that work. :) And I believe we all agree that this referendum isn’t “the end” (pass or fail), because of the middle schools and Dr. Howard.

The Unit 4 Executive Team also invited me to a morning meeting to address my question of “What size high school is ideal for Unit 4?” To my pleasant surprise, Dr. Laura Taylor mentioned that her doctoral thesis indirectly addressed that very question; not to be cliché, but size doesn’t matter. Rather, it is the quality and quantity of “teacher care” that has the most impact. I find it quite inspiring that someone who has dwelled deeply and broadly on a contentious topic like the academic achievement of African American students (and the surrounding perceptions) is helping to shape the future of our schools.

One thing I have really appreciated about the folks at the Mellon Center, the administration, the student I spoke with, the board members and the “Friends of Champaign Schools” is the passion and energetic excitement they exhibit in regards to the future of our schools. It is rather intoxicating actually. To reiterate, this is something I want to see grow. When I spoke with Stephanie Stuart and Dennis Bane (before “Friends of Champaign Schools” kicked into high gear), I mentioned that all this awesome charisma almost seems locked within the four walls of the Mellon Center, and that the general public is not yet on the same page. I cannot help but think to myself “what if all this positivity and synergy spilled out into the media and around dinner tables two years ago?”

There is a lot to love about Champaign Schools. Denise Martin and Dan Ditchfield are only two examples of hard-working folks trying to share that love with others. I very much admire what they are doing.

So Dan, is that the “fair shake” you were expecting? :)

Pros and Cons, part 2

This weekend I received several items that reminded me of how dysfunctional our current method of “voting” has become. This post is going to focus on a couple positive examples of looking at issues from both angles, plus also exhibit some cases where healthy community deliberation is clearly lacking.

 

On September 1st I published a post about the pros and cons of the upcoming referendum. Even though a couple minor things have been added or changed, overall that pretty much sums up the pros and cons of the proposed Unit 4 $149 million referendum. Since then, I have been rather impressed with how the Chamber of Commerce has approached the referendum, providing its members with an opportunity to chew not only on the well-publicized and widely distributed facts that Unit 4 and the “Friends of Champaign Schools” are propagating, but also the somewhat-harder-to-find “other side”, by allowing dissenting voices of other prominent community leaders (as showcased in the thread of emails after the September 30 Chamber meeting). But more impressive is that someone obviously did their homework and sent a rather comprehensive and detailed email to Chamber members on October 17th, including a link to a recent Oct 13 Illinois Policy Institute blog post that claims “Champaign County breaks promise on sales-tax hike“. This reminded me of a June 2010 Promised Made, Promises Kept Committee (great question/answer between Greg Novak and Gene Logas). However my point is that the Chamber is doing a decent job at presenting different angles of the referendum for its members to chew on, and I applaud that.

 

Another example of covering both sides of an issue arrived in my mailbox in the form of a pamphlet from Jesse White, Secretary of State, covering the “proposed amendments and addition to the Illinois Constitution”, as required by Illinois Constitutional Amendment Act (5 ILCS 20). What I appreciated about this pamphlet is that it intentionally and explicitly presents a short-form argument (and explanation) both for and against the relevant proposed changes that you and I will be voting on. In my opinion, this is a great start at educating the public. I wonder why we don’t do that for all ballot questions.

 

From there we turn to two new NG Letters to the Editor (also added to my ever-growing index of Letters to the Editor). The first one talks about how the school district plans to defer much needed maintenance on elementary and middle schools, and questions the viability of a single high school. The second talks about several brochures that have been sent home with students (and if you are a Unit 4 parent, I am sure you have seen them – I counted three so far), and even goes so far as to question the legal ramifications with the State’s Attorney’s office. As you can tell from my index, there have been many letter writers who take issue with the location, the plans (or lack thereof), and various other aspects of the referendum. What bothers me is that some of the same topics come up over and over; why have we had no public forum, no open deliberation, no healthy out-and-out argument on these issues?

 

And here is what also bites me. I have talked to many representatives of the “Friends of Champaign Schools” campaign group (still working on that blog post), and I have been very impressed. They have great hearts, great passion and great intentions. I absolutely love the support that is being pulled together for Unit 4. This stuff is awesome! And such support is not very common for Unit 4, so I don’t want to stand in the way of it. Yet people on both sides of the fence have doubts right along side their convictions. How do we, as a voting public, give voice to our thoughts in such a way as to collectively build on our understanding of the root issues? Most people I talk to are basing their vote on a single, passionate aspect; I wonder what that does to elections? I am not saying that is wrong, for we all have to start somewhere. But here we are 16 days out from November 4th and that is all we have.

 

One final thought. We in Illinois have three “Statewide Advisory Questions”; clearly, these are not referenda items and thus are not actionable, and likewise it is unclear how the results of these binary questions will be used, but at the very least it is interesting that the questions are even being asked in the first place. I wonder, what if all Unit 4 residents had an opportunity to answer similar “school district wide advisory questions” in an official ballot? Not just approving a $149 million bond issue, but other questions. What would that look like? Would it even be helpful?

Unit 4 providing more opportunities to learn why they want you to vote yes

I have a couple bigger posts that I am working on, but I did want to relay recent news, including upcoming events where the school district is holding informational sessions about why they think the referendum is a good idea:

October 19th

http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/8294

Community Lunch & Info session

Champaign Unit 4 School District will host a Sunday Lunch and Info Session on the upcoming high school referendum.

Where: Booker T. Washington STEM Academy (606 East Grove Street, Champaign)

When: Sunday, October 19, 2014 from 1:30-3:00 p.m.

Join us for lunch provided by Seaboat and an information session about the November 4 high school referendum as well as other important developments in our community schools!

 

October 21st and 30th

http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/8284

Champaign Unit 4 School District will host two Public Information Nights to provide opportunities for evening school tours and to educate voters about the November 4 high school referendum.

Public Information Nights will be held:

•    Central High School – Tuesday, October 21 from 6-8 p.m. in Seely Hall
•    Centennial High School – Thursday, October 30 in the Main Hallway (just inside the Visitor’s Entrance)

Information tables will be set up during this time. District representatives, students, and architects will be on hand to answer questions and provide information. School tours will also be offered.

“Our goal with the Public Information Nights is to ensure that voters have access to the information they need to make an informed decision on November 4,” said Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand. “We hope community members will take advantage of these opportunities to step inside our schools and speak with our teachers, students, and administrators who utilize our current school facilities daily.”

UPDATED (thanks Pattsi)

October 15th

7:00 – 9:00 pm at Jericho Baptist Church (discussing the referendum)

 

October 26th

Community Education Forum

6:00 – 8:00 pm at the Rose & Taylor Barber and Beauty Shop

 


In other news, Tim Mitchell reported from the October 13th BOE meeting that while Dr. Howard would not be addressed until 2025, Edison would be even further down the timeline, possibly around 2034. One of my own problems with the referendum and the “planning” surrounding it is that we have never seen the list of deferred maintenance items that spell out why these buildings (and others, to a lesser degree) are “falling apart” as some have said. I am going to put John Bambenek and Kerris Lee on the spot by mentioning that I have repeatedly asked for these lists, and lately I have tried to make it simpler by focusing on a list of maintenance items that John Ayers keeps, specifically those items that are over two-years old and over $100k. I don’t care about broken fixtures and the “riffraff” that changes from day to day, I am more concerned about those big ticket items that have been “kicked down the street” for a long time now. For instance, the A/C at Central, which is no longer a hot topic (tongue in cheek) as we move into winter.

 

Speaking of the A/C at Central, a reader submitted an interesting question to Tom Kacich in his mailbag:

http://www.news-gazette.com/tom-kacich/2014-10-10/toms-mailbag-oct-10-2014.html

“Tom, regarding Unit 4 and their need to air condition Central High School, either now or following the pending re-purposing of that space, has Unit 4’s consultants investigated the feasibility and cost of installing a ductless A/C system. The cassette type units are designed to fit in existing spaces where ductwork would be difficult to install. Newer models are very quiet, and my understanding is the system is considered efficient. The coolant lines, electrical lines, and drain lines can all be ran with flexible materials meaning the existing ceilings can mostly be preserved. The units would require the dreaded electrical upgrades, but any decent use of that space – school or otherwise, would surely require electrical improvements anyway. Perhaps the power efficiency achieved by newer, more efficient lighting could provide enough power for some or all of this type of a system, at least within the classrooms.”

 

 

In other news, a free local Solar tour

News-Gazette: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-10-03/money-local-look-cost-doing-business.html

Unit 4 news: http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/8293

 

I meant to mention this sooner, but it slipped. Especially since it is coming to Carrie Busey. And since I like those pretty pictures:

ensight_carrie_busey_metrics

From https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/pv/public_systems/NEj8228852

 

Note that Centennial and Jefferson both have Ensight systems as well.

 

More emails traded about planning for Central and the BLDD Concepts A & B

A few more emails are making their way through the internet – check in with:

http://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/email-thread-from-the-sept-30th-chamber-of-commerce-meeting/

 

I am waiting for verification before I post Tom Lockman’s FOIA response; I am pretty sure that the FOIA laws say that FOIA responses are 100% in the public domain, but I just want to make sure.

 

UPATE: Mr. Lockman’s response and attachments have been added as well.

Another take on Tuesday’s Social Justice Committee meeting

This from Chuck Jackson, who also attended the Social Justice Committee meeting on Tuesday, September 30th (see the agenda):

 

School to Prison Pipeline presentation by Jenine Wehhbeh, Illinois Safe School Alliance. Look for her presi presentation on the social justice page on the unit 4 website (LT said in about a week).http://www.champaignschools.org/pages/social-justice-seminar/social-justice-seminars
One link from it that I can recall is http://fairtest.org.

Her focus was on reforming the no tolerance policies that target severe consequences for minor infractions.
Then bullying, schools aren’t handling it well. Bullying needs to be handled better-in a way that creates dialogue rather than is simply punished.
Systemic oppression. Disproportionate contact. Black students 4x more likely to be expelled than white students, etc.
LGBTQ teens make up only 5-7% of the population. 3x that percentage are disciplined.
Prison moratorium project, website.

Restorative justice
1. Repair harm caused
2. Cooperative amongst stakeholders
3. Transformation

Try to teach socio-emotional learning, empathy, etc.
1. Adopt a social emotional lens
Teach to the whole child
2. Know your students and develop your cultural competency.
Learn and affirm the social and cultural capital your students bring to the classroom.
3. Plan and deliver effective student-centered instruction.
Teach with the purpose and urgency your students deserve.
4. Move the paradigm from punishment to development.
Model, reinforce and praise polarities healthy behavior
5. Resist the criminalization of school.
Keep kids in the classroom and police out.

Scenarios and conversation about them.
End of schools to prison pipeline presentation

Restorative justice
Patricia Avery
Good things in unit 4, e.g. Social justice committee
Alarming things too, e.g. Harsh discipline practices
Three most severe practices (suspension, out of school suspensions, expulsions) have doubled in middle school and tripled in high school here.
Tragic story of her personal experience with the school to prison pipeline

Sara Balgoyen
IBARJ
Restorative Qs
(went by too fast to make notes of them, but they were helpful)

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