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 sciene 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? :)