After hearing about Meg Dickinson’s article highlighting the working cash bonds and taking a peek at the Agenda, I decided to drop by and see what was going on. In truth, I was very interested to hear about the Great Schools, Together (GST) report and the research on the high school options, both of which have received very little coverage. Both topics consumed roughly 2.5 hours, a long, drawn-out “conversation”. I kept thinking to myself “there has got to be a better way to do this”.
I am going through the notes I took, and I have to apologize that they are not fully organized. But I’ll relate to the best of my ability.
Before the meeting kicked off, I had a great talk with Deb Foertsch, President of the Teacher’s Union (Champaign Federation of Teachers, aka CFT).
As the first part of the Board Meeting is a segment for Public Comment, Don Kermath got up and questioned the idea of buying laptops for every child. For props, he had brought along 3 of his own laptops, none of which had lasted more than 3 years. Does Unit 4 really want to buy laptops that will incur a long-term recurring expense? Judy Wiegand did clarify later on that the District is looking into alternative “devices”, and they had already slashed the projected money for “laptops” in half. Don also made a strong point against the “mechanism” of procuring the working cash bond and was extremely worried about the lack of a referendum. I found myself agreeing with him.
Later on under the topic of transportation, Greg Novak went on record as to wanting to revisit school assignment. He observed 10 busses going past his house recently and related stories he has heard about kids in his neighborhood being on the bus for an hour or more. He also let drop a note about “looking at Dr. Alve’s contract”. With gas prices going up as they are, transportation is currently a killer; need to re-think school assignment with an eye towards simplifying the system.
Dr. Wiegand launched into the GST report. Personally, I was a bit underwhelmed with the report. I had looked at it yesterday and was hoping that Judy would go into more detail. I find myself wanting to like GST and wanting to see how important it is, but I just couldn’t. It seems too dry, too distant. I do not get the sense that many folks even care about it that much.
For the Student Achievement section, she took care to explain what would otherwise be a horrific number for high school freshmen retention (12%). Apparently, this is the measure of freshmen that do not complete 5 credits and are enrolled for the entire year. Which means they do not count anyone who left school early or came in late. Which tells me that, as a metric, it tells part of the story, but we are missing some other pieces. And holy Crikey! 12%?!?
Judy also mentioned “At Promise of Success”. I had not heard of this before, but my ears perked up when she said this is something she had worked on with Imani Bazzell through the Urban League. Apparently, UI Extensions has picked it up, but to what degree?
However, the above point brings to light much of my frustration with the report. We are given a summary of programs that are “in progress” or as a “key initiative”. But what the heck are they?!? Hyperlinks would be nice, or some Bibliography or something that gave more details. The way it is, it reads like a recipe and one is suppose to know what they are. And how does one track these things? There is so much overlap between the previous year’s report and this one that at first glance it almost looks like nothing has changed. Which tells me that nothing will change. But I refuse to accept that.
Yesterday I asked about the Parent Teacher Survey (among other things) so I was glad to hear that Judy is working with Lynn Peisker on such a survey. I hope it is a useful tool – I sincerely believe that Judy really does want to hear about parent and staff perceptions.
Some other tidbits after the report
Carrie Busey is scheduled to be substantially complete by July 11th.
Jamar Brown suggested that a better calendar tool be used on the District website such that one could easily find events, not only at the Mellon Center, but at area schools as well.
Stig highlighted a couple areas of strengths and weaknesses from the report. On the plus side, he put Finances, Scholarships and Community Engagement (which I seriously question). On the “challenge” side, he put Retention and Student Achievement.
Judy mentioned something to the affect that the Administration and the Board have embraced the GST as the District roadmap. This kinda scares me. On the one hand, I don’t see the public even talking about this thing. Ask anyone on the streets what Great Schools, Together is, and you get blank stares. Ask about the website (*cough cough*). On the other hand, I am personally concerned about several areas of it. As mentioned above, there seems to be a lack of tracking progress. Also, I do not agree that Community Engagement is measured well. And Student well-being and achievement really concern me.
Next up was the High School research. I did not know what to expect about this section; it turns out that both the Centennial Principal (Greg Johnson) and the Central Principal (Joe Williams) worked together to find some facts and research about how the Champaign High Schools compare to others in the state, and how a unified High School might stack up. They had a lot of stats and had obviously done their homework, using IIRC a lot and going from there. As Stig mentioned later, it seemed that the numbers they found painted a picture that two smaller high schools would be better than one big giant high school.
As I was listening to these fine folks rattle off information, I got to thinking “What does the University have to say?” I was sitting next to a masters student and Judy had mentioned that they had a Doctoral student looking into issues. The College of Education is huge with lots of departments, and I know several have done things with Unit 4 in the past. But what about all the decades that the University has been sharing a bed with Unit 4? Surely there is significant research that has been done to answer the questions we have. When it came time for public comment, I had to stand up and mention these things. We will see if anyone responds to that.
Later, Wiegand talked about removing Judah as an option for a site for a potential new high school – it seems a bit expensive, and the costs they have considered so far do not seem to be comprehensive.
And then the working cash bonds. It was already 8:30 (2.5 hours) by the time we dove in. I had to fight myself not to leave.
First and foremost, Gene Logas laid out that any petition to block the Board would have to find 5918 signatures (10% of the registered voter population). I respect that he came right out and put the number on the table. He did not hide from a possible petition at all.
As he was going through his numbers (*mind starting to get really numb*), he did finally get to a point of spelling out the bottom-line for taxpayers. If the Board wanted to spend $12.5 million, that would amount to $22.50/year for a $150,000 home over 20 years. 20 YEARS! At $15.5 million, it would be closer to $25/year for the same house.
Kristine reported that about half the money spent on lighting would come back to the district in the form of incentives. One wonders what bucket that money would go into.
Novak mentioned that we just need to do the “laptops” and wireless because of the federal mandates, but I still not sure about that. What is the ramification if we do not comply? Can it be done over the course of several years? A decade? Why does it have to be so expensive? The folks I hang with at IMC are exploring mesh networking and there is no need for a multi-million dollar budget. Surely the University can come up with much cheaper solutions. Stick a graduate level CS networking course on it. 🙂
At the end of the day, the Board voted unanimously to launch this thing. There was still some question as to how much the final bond would be for, and to what exactly the money would be used for. I got all kinds of dirty feelings about that – it so much feels like a blank check with no strings attached.
As a side note, I noticed Arlene Blank sitting next to Gene Logas. Sue Grey has mentioned to me that Arlene does an excellent job of holding the Board’s collective feet to the fire. I wonder how that works out for this situation. I would love to have a chat with her some time about this. 🙂
I talked to Don Kermath afterwards; I noted my distaste for his marketing of his petition, but I did end up signing. If nothing else, we will get this into the public sphere for more discussion. Speaking of which:
Meg’s NG article, gathering comments (really appreciate that Meg is interacting as well): http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2012-02-27/school-board-approves-145-million-bonds-petition-could-force-vote.html#comment-412611
Eric Bussell’s Halfway Interesting article (and comments): http://www.halfwayinteresting.com/Pages/CityofChampaign/tabid/90/entryid/859/Updated-Unit-4-Tax-Hike-Working-Cash-Bonds.aspx
I should have mentioned – as you can see from the Halfway Interesting thread, I am making plans to get involved in some kind of petition. Who wants to sign up? 🙂