Feb 27th Special Board Meeting

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? 🙂

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7 Responses to “Feb 27th Special Board Meeting”

  1. Lori Says:

    That was a lot of information. I personally don’t mind the bonds, but I also feel like we should invest in education for our kids. But that is me personally. Out of curiousity what does simplifying the school system mean? I was just curious if we would look at getting rid of school of choice.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    Lori,

    I totally agree, we should invest in our children’s education – no doubt about it at all, and it is indeed an investment. Not an education tax. I hope I speak for those that do not have children in Unit 4 also. I hope. And our taxes are already blessedly low – I am happy for that.

    I think “school of choice” as we know it is on its way out the door. We still need some kind of assignment system, since the population areas do not correspond to the physical locations of the buildings. We need something that determines who goes to what school. And as Greg Novak mentioned at the meeting, it is frustrating for incoming parents who wish to buy a house in the area and have no idea what school they are going to (Sena, looking at you). Greg has some very interesting, novel ideas about this. Unfortunately, it does not sound like he is getting much traction, yet. As I said when I spoke during public comment, the high school discussion is going to be huge and is going to affect so many different things. We need to seriously consider what our school district is going to look like in 5, 10 years and 30 years. We have an awesome, unprecedented opportunity to make awesome long-term plans. In my mind, this is what Great Schools, Together and Big.Small.All failed to do. But that’s just my opinion. As Pattsi has mentioned many times to me, the District needs to get in bed with the City Planners as well, so that the city is shaped in such a way that the District’s long-term plan make sense. Obviously, over the past 50 years we have utterly failed to do that as well. But we have the talent, we have the resources and now we have the time. Let us use them wisely.

    Sorry for proselytizing.

  3. pattsi Says:

    A minor point of clarification–I do not suggest that the district be in bed with the city planners. This already exists. What I have urged for decades to no avail is for Unit 4 board, individually or as a collective unit, appear before the city council when there is discussion about sprawl, development, and housing to be built that will service all economic levels of the community. Never in 40 years of residency have I seen the board take a stand about the housing development that has occurred or is occurring in te Unit 4 district. Much of this development patterns are responsible for the school choice mess. Unless we work toward integrating housing, meaning economic levels, will we ever get rid of busing. Facts are facts. Unit 4 never studies this. And now I am back to my 35 years old argument that this district ought to, no needs to, hire an urban planner as a staff member.

  4. SC Says:

    Charles, thanks for the shout out! I am glad my comments about our experience as a new resident of the district have not fallen on deaf ears. If anyone asks, I would love to be part of a group to consider the future of “schools of choice”.

    The Unit 4 “schools of choice” system and the ramifications thereof (private schools, homeschooling, etc.) fascinates me – even more so now that the lab school where we used to live in Iowa is being closed due to budget issues (aside from a private Catholic school it is the only other alternative to the public schools, with which they have a complicated relationship). I also see that the University Primary School (U of I lab school) is expanding up a few grades. I have also become more aware of private alternatives (Montessori, etc.)

    But I digress! I am glad to see the start of some homework on the high school issue – as I have said before, the start of the discussion needs to be what does the Unit 4 high school (and possibly middle school) education want to look like, not how can we leverage the facilities we currently have. Very interesting initial data collection on student success at different size high schools. Could even lend itself to suggest, dare I say it, three high schools!

  5. Really torn about the current petition push « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] week has been a busy one. Kicking off with the Feb 27th Special Education Meeting, a snowball started its not so gentle way downhill. Since then, I have had an excellent talk with […]

  6. Houlihans: Board President Sue Grey to join us March 21, and a recap from previous Houlihans « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] Pattsi Petri, Chuck Jackson and myself. Greg made a joke about now being a tyrant (in light of the Feb 27th Special Board Meeting). Also, Tom Lockman dropped by to say ‘hi’ (woot! Two Board Members – a new […]

  7. CJB Says:

    I’m curious about the High School Model presented at the 2/27 meeting. Was Unit 4 proposing that we go to the “one high school” model? As mentioned in your report, it does sound like it has a negative correlation with academics, athletics, etc. I am unclear whether Unit 4 has made a final decision that our school district WILL go to the “one high school” model.


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