Really torn about the current petition push

This week has been a busy one. Kicking off with the Feb 27th Special Board Meeting, a snowball started its not so gentle way downhill. Since then, I have had an excellent talk with Board Members and community folks at Houlihans, graced with an impromptu chat with Judy Wiegand and Gene Logas at the Mellon Center, received the DVD for the Board Meeting, picked up a small stack of petitions, corresponded with Don Kermath a bit, talked with my local PTA and held a discussion with the PTA Council. Also during that time, a number of articles, letters and news pieces have hit the public news media.

Why I am against the petition

First and foremost, I recognize that the School District is cash-strapped. Anyone living in Illinois can feel its pinch, some much more than others. We have new tax after new tax, the hole in our wallets burning larger and larger. We can’t seem to find trustworthy leadership at the state level (or other levels for that matter), and the state is so far behind on payments and promising to give us the responsibility of recovering that gap. I have recently gained new insight showing just how much our School District is hurt by tax caps. If a petition is successful in forcing a referendum, there are some serious negative side-effects that need to be considered and weighed; if the district is not allowed to issue working cash bonds, they will not have money to pursue what they have deemed as necessary upgrades. Worse, the chance of passing a referendum is extremely slim.

However, I think the most significant factor for me right now is that some vocal folks are villifying the Administration and the Board. This bothers me greatly. I can understand the arguments of the petition (see below for why I am in favor of it), but when fingers are pointed, the barbs are poisoned and stones are hurled, I want no part of it. Loaded words like “tyranny”, “playing dirty” and painting the Administration and the Board as overlords; these have no place in this discussion. Moreover, they are divisive, hence anathema to bringing parties together. I very much dislike that and will not stand for it. There is a huge outcry about what the School District is doing, but hardly a tear is shed over other examples (State taxes, gas tax, sewer run off tax, City of Champaign, etc). I understand that there is so much crap going on that one can only focus on a small number of things, and the School District is one place in which change is most likely. Oh the irony.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because I have talked to these individuals. I know them. I have good, solid relationships with them. The Board Members are not paid; they essentially volunteer their time. Yes, I fully realize they are elected, and that part of the job description says they have to deal with the dirt. I get that. And it is expected that people will disagree with their actions. I have a lot of respect for the way Don Kermath spoke to the Board and the Administration during the Board Meeting – he spoke with dignity and treated others with dignity. He knew the score. Which is why I am perplexed why he chose to use “tyranny” as part of his “marketing”.

Why I favor the petition

In an Utopian sense, I see a lot of value in bringing the community together to break down long-standing walls of tradition. I like the idea of going out and asking people what they think of having higher property taxes. I like the idea of explaining what the tax will be used for, and urging folks to give voice to their opinions. Is this not what the newly hired, out-of-town PR firm will be doing? I really like the idea of having a referendum in which people are given a choice, a chance to actually say something.

Along this line, I recognize that the Board and the Administration has had 4 meetings to discuss and talk about these money issues, and that the public has been “invited” (used loosely) to speak during Public Comment during any of these meetings. Based on the response but certain members and the media, it is obviously apparent that the interaction with the community did not happen well. In more psychological talk, we could say it was “ineffective communication”. I think (and I could be wrong) that a referendum could open up those doors. At the very least, I would initiate Open Forums on the topic, to meet at the Champaign Public Library; I see the CPL has large chunks of open time next week on Wednesday and Friday. Anyone interested?

Wrapping it up

As you can see, I wrote a lot more about why I am against the petition. And if you read carefully (including what Don Kermath, aka SPFZero, says), you will see that we are not opposed to geothermal, nor the need to address crumbling buildings and distractingly hot summer rooms. I am actively still pointing people to Don’s website, I still converse with Don and offer to help. I am on the verge of writing a Letter to the NG Editor, expressing a summary of the thoughts here. We need to come together, not tear ourselves apart. As I have stated several times, the “coming together” means that we, the School District and the community, need to meet on a new, neutral ground – both have issues, skeletons in the closet.

The “Promises Made, Promises Kept” angle still is not clear to me. What exactly is the truth? What exactly did the Board promise to us, and how is it really doing? I hear one side that says the promises were kept, and another side saying that raising property taxes via a working cash bond is breaking that promise. In the back of my head, what if, just spitting out numbers here, the tax caps have saved us $100,000,000 over 15 years? I cannot help but think that asking for $14,500,000 in that context is not unreasonable. Perhaps the logic is just barely avoided when there is no “asking” but rather a “telling”. Is that it?

The District and the Community are estranged spouses, like a married couple cohabitating but not really living a married life. We need counseling, my friends. And since I do not believe in offering a critique without a possible solution, my solution is Open Forums. If I can get signoff from Administration, Board Members, activisits and community folks, I’ll set up a meeting. Not sure if we can find a moderator we are all happy with, but I have two names in my back pocket of people who have volunteered to take up the task.

Talk to me.


11 Responses to “Really torn about the current petition push”

  1. charlesdschultz Says:

    In reading what I wrote (I am not going to change it now), I realize I seem hypocritical. If I say I want no part of the “tyranny” name-calling group and then say I am working with Don, that sends two different messages.

    Please note the subject of the post. 🙂 I am laying my cards on the table. You can even check my sleeves.

  2. SC Says:

    I am torn as well. I don’t have the historical perspective that so many people here do but I am bothered by the fact that this feels like a backdoor method to institute a tax by Unit 4, in addition to whatever they have received thanks to the county sales tax increase of 1%. (Is that 1% add-on “permanent” or for a fixed period of time?)

    I agree that the money is likely needed and I would probably vote for the referendum (if it comes to that) – I am fortunate that the amount is not a hardship for my family – and gathering enough signatures on the petition will allow the voters to weigh in.

  3. Chuck Jackson Says:

    I’m in for a forum but not a hasty, ill conceived one that is designed to vent angry spleens (I not suggesting that’s what you’re looking for, just a point of order).

    I have previously had an offer that would open up a large public space for such a gathering, I expect the offer could be repeated should it be an attractive option.

    I don’t know if we set ground rules and enforce them with an iron hand or if we allow venting for a time and then shut it down. In my experience, group venting just leads to more anger and there is never really a catharsis and a willingness to move on. So, I guess I answered my own question, I think we must enforce civility and decorum in such a gathering.

    It would be even so much better if people would commit to a series of gatherings. Where true relationships could form and a discussion could be ongoing rather than provide the illusion that we are going to fully process this idea in one, two hour session. Is it reasonable to ask that of people? Could we formulate a series of questions/ issues that a living room sized group could answer (commit to by signing each signing that they agree with the group consensus) and then hand in to a central clearinghouse? This is unwieldy and difficult but, as has been said so many times, the schools reflect the community and so perhaps this is a way to get into the community.

    We need, like a school needs, something like a room parent for every classroom who can get to know and understand the issues of the individuals represented in the larger group. Then they come together and can speak both authoritatively because they know what people think and wisely because they have been in lots of these conversations already.

    I guess I continue to be afraid that open forums are a recipe for inflaming division rather than healing it.

    (Not an important point but you confused me with your typo (“Special Education meeting” up top – instead it is “Special Board meeting”)

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Typo fixed, thanks.

    I am afraid of doing nothing, and the wrong thing. I am afraid of being all talk and no walk. I am afraid of looking stupid (although I am accepting it better now).

    I am glad that folks are galvanized at least about this issue. For that reason alone, it seems a ripe opportunity to leap into action with some plans to do community engagement. I admit, Don has some great ideas and I am really curios how the community reacts. And I have to be careful with “the community”, because far too often we say that and we want it to mean everyone but then we end up standing around in a group of 20 people just like us. Don seems intent to getting folks “not like him” and is pushing for bi-partisan support. I give him kudos for that. He is meeting with Administration and the Board Members, and I give more kudos for that. Maybe I am envious? I don’t know.

  5. Karen Says:

    Just my thoughts, as follows:

    If people are expected to just ‘move on,’ I think that contributes to history repeating itself.

    To attempt to hold people accountable is not a ‘witch hunt.’ It’s can be a significant catalyst for change.

    People DO get FED UP. If the back-door route is the preferred method in this matter, when you are well aware of transparency and trust issues with the community, then don’t cry foul when members of the community in return prefer not to exercise (good faith) trust in you and your methods.

    Principles. They still matter to some. And, I don’t think it’s counterproductive to the long-term good of the school district and the tax payers supporting it to demand ‘better.’ It’s not being mean to the admin or the board and it’s not being apathetic to the needs of Unit 4 students/buildings.

  6. The wrong question « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] have been bothered by this whole thing (“torn“), and I think I finally put my finger on it; we are asking the wrong question. In my […]

  7. G. David Frye Says:

    I’m not torn.

    The state will be sending our district less money this year than last, and will continue the practice of cutting everything related to education that appears to have less than universal support. The real (as opposed to perceived) cuts in the district’s funding over the past 10 years are obvious to anyone who has been actively involved long enough in our schools – for me that would be 14 years.

    The cap was devastating. The sales tax increase was at least a way to get some capital projects moving. The working cash bond mechanism isn’t pretty and doesn’t raise a huge amount of money but it at least makes it possible to deal with some of the “deferred maintenance” (read: broken-down infrastructure that is too expensive to fix) that has accumulated in the district.

    Stop your waffling, people. The important principle here is that the district has to do what it can to counteract cutbacks everywhere else.

    P.S. If it’s the case that my property taxes will increase as a result of this, it’s still worth noting that my overall tax bill goes DOWN this year because the assessed valuation of my house dropped by several thousand dollars. That fact, multiplied by all the properties in the district, is a significant cause of the funding problem.

  8. charlesdschultz Says:

    G. David,

    As you say, I think most of us are quite aware that the District is cash-strapped. But instead of talking about generalities, allow me to use a very practical example. During a talk with the COO (I mistakenly called him the CFO earlier) and the Superintendent, I was challenged to get my substitute teacher’s certificate and then sub in one of the 3rd rooms at the high school in September. So today I started that process. I have absolutely no doubt that the classrooms are horrendous at the end of summer. I have absolutely no doubt that we need to address deferred maintenance. I have no doubt we have to start thinking about “what if the state kills of funding for pensions?” These are very real and very ominous concerns that the previous administration somehow did not see on the horizon (or maybe they did, but I’ll not get into that). And for that matter, I do not have a problem, personally, paying $25+/year for taxes that go straight into Unit 4 to address those concerns. Heck, I see your $25 and raise you $25. I don’t have a problem with the money, nor the realization that we need to spend it.

    I have a problem with the lack of community input. I cannot help but wonder, what if the community were tasked with the challenge of resolving the District’s issues? Or at least working as a community (wiki).

    PS – My assessed valuation has not gone down, that I know of – I am pretty sure it has remained steady. In fact with a brand-new school nearby, our valuation will most likely go up.

  9. G. David Frye Says:

    I have just as much of a problem with the notion that somehow the community is not engaged with the district. The district has worked very hard to get community input into lots of things, from superintendent selection to redistricting the high schools to money for elementary band programs to building new schools to adapting to the end of the consent decree. I know several people on the school board; heck, their kids go to school with my kids. They’re earnest, well-meaning people who are trying to do the best they can with the resources they are entitled to, which happens to include working cash bonds.

    The community is far from homogeneous on the issue of schools. News Flash: a lot of people want support for something specific that their kids are involved in, like sports, at the expense of everything else. There’s a lot of disagreement about priorities that comes down to the me-first principle. In my opinion the board has done an outstanding job of walking this tightrope the past few years.

    I think the ultimate end result of this campaign will be to further polarize the community with respect to the true cost of educating our children, and the unhappiness that is being stimulated by it will likely damage the chances of passing a referendum for a new high school, which we desperately need. The process could well be driving a wedge between certain parts of the community. My biggest hope is that the petition drive fails due to lack of legitimate signatures, thereby indicating that maybe the community isn’t as fired up about this as certain people think.

    As for being a substitute teacher – that’s weird. There are many other ways you can check out the conditions in the schools – that’s why they make visitor’s badges. The most useful visit you could make would be to Bloomington High School or either of the two Normal Community high schools, for comparison purposes. Our kids are being educated in squalor while the “community” argues about nickels and dimes.

  10. charlesdschultz Says:

    G. David,

    Now that I think about it, you may be on to something. More often than not, the media reports on sensationalistic items, most often stirring up controversy and painting colorful pictures with big brushes. But as you say, there is a lot of positive work going on; the Board is working hard to talk to people, I know for a fact that Judy Wiegand is meeting and talking with tons of different folks, and I know various elements of the community are indeed involved and engaged. I am learning that there is tons of positive energy going on all around that I never knew before – how much more is out there that I do not know about?

    So I have this strong desire to start talking about action steps, of walking the walk. What can I do to help dissolve wedges, to unpolarize the community? I confess to be awfully naive, but I was under the impression that if we got people together to talk it out, we could reach some kind of consensus. Maybe that is too unrealistic. So what i>is realistic?

    I have another post planned about “Community as Curriculum”. Unit 4 has a pilot program going where they incorporate technology and social justice in Youth Community Informatics (taken from the University of Illinois by the same name, YCI). It struck a chord with me because of the reading in Freire, Horton, and McKnight that I have been doing lately (and I see that Ann Bishop and Bertrand Bruce even quote these authors in their own work).

    I am curious, can we seek truth? I am not asking if we are capable, I am asking if we will commit to doing that. If “people” say there is something wrong with Unit 4, might we not find out where the truth lies in the sentiment? If “people” are saying Unit 4 works, we can also find the truth in that. I think what I am after is a way to encourage an atmosphere of listening to one another, of not assuming that I have already arrived at the answer and I can always learn more. Maybe I can also teach. Maybe.

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
    — Philippians 4:8

  11. charlesdschultz Says:

    In terms of “polarizing”, “damaging” and “unhappiness”, it is obvious that the NG is all in favor of feeding the fire:
    “For a man who just declared war on the local school board….”

    Don’s site has a number of other similar examples. Dontchya just feel the love now?

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