The wrong question

“Shall the Board of Education of Champaign Community Unit School District Number 4, Champaign County, Illinois, be authorized to issue $14,500,000 bonds for a working cash fund as provided for by Article 20 of the School Code?”

— Unit 4 March 2012 Petition

I 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 opinion, the real question is “How shall the Board direct the Superintendent to provide the best learning environments for all our citizens?” Allow me to deconstruct the current question that we have before us, and then build up the question I think we should be asking.

What the heck is a working cash bond?

Few people know what a “working cash bond” is. Perhaps the same handful of taxpayers also are familiar with “tax caps”, “levies”, “abatements”, are familiar with all the other taxing issues going around and know how these things all play together. But most of us have no frickin’ idea.

Higher taxes?

Once you start to explain what a working cash bond is and does and how it works, the bottom-line finally comes out; if Unit 4 takes out a working cash bond, your property taxes go up. Most people who hear that automatically put on these invisible, highly sensitive filters, circle the wagons, pull up the drawbridge and let the dragons out in the moat. “No more taxes!” It is an emotional tug that yanks pretty hard on the heart strings. And once you engage the lymbic system, game over man. Anyone that wants to get people fired up to sign a petition, it becomes an easy sell, just sprinkle words like “higher taxes” and bingo! Instant magnet. Everything else is occluded.


I realize that referenda questions have to be asked in a binary way, either “yes” or “no”. There is so much information packed into the simple question that unless you have done your homework, it is exceptionally easy to get sucked into a subjective answer. The ultimate irony is that even if you don’t vote, you do.

So if we shouldn’t ask about higher taxes, what do we ask about?

What is the working cash bond really attempting to address? Unfortuantely, this information is not included in the petition. So let us go elsewhere.

Because the District has been deferring much needed maintenance, we are now quickly approaching a time when we are going to have to eat a big whopping bill. Or do we?

What is the real issue?

I contend that there are two issues. Well, two faces of one issue.

  1. The community does not play a role in deciding what is important to the District
  2. The District has developed a trust issue with the community over the years and there is a definite communication problem

Someone recently reminded me about the new construction (Garden Hills, BTW, Carrie Busey). Now I ask you, as objectively as you can, were those projects really necessary over and above all other deferred maintenance in the District’s queue? Yes, sure, go ahead and play the “Consent Decree” card – I realize how the District had to make a pass at satisfying the “seats north of University”. Even if those projects were absolutely necessary, did the community have a voice in their prioritization? I am not talking about Board Meetings – let’s just stop talking about Board Meetings as a consensus building apparatus; even as an information dissemination service, it is lacking.

Call me crazy, but what if the District said “Hey, all you parents who want to have a voice, we are coming to a church/library/coffee house/school/call-in radio station near you – show up and talk to us”. What if the District went to the University and to Parkland and said “We have 18 or so buildings mostly clustered inside a ring of population expansion and most of which are badly in need of repair. What creative alternatives can you come up with that taxpayers would be willing to discuss?” What if Board members went to the City meetings and worked together to combat the negative side-effects of sprawl? That’s just crazy talk!

Lastly, I would want the Board (not just the current Members, but future Members as well) to come to a place where they are able to hear critique from caring concerned citizens without taking it personally. I realize that sometimes elected officials have to put up with crap, and for that I say shame on vocal citizens who only divide and vilify. But believe it or not, there are actually people in Champaign who do care a lot about Unit 4, the children and Education and want to see great things happen. And they will have hard things to say.


I think that if the Board were able to go to the community and ask “How shall the Board direct the Superintendent to provide the best learning environments for all our citizens?”, we would not be worried about these strange things called “working cash bonds”, “tax caps”, “levies” and “abatements”. We wouldn’t be worried because after chewing on these questions and slowly developing a dynamic process to continually address this question, we would have a clear goal towards which we are all marching.

Credit where credit is due

As I step off my little soap box, let me remind you that these ideas are hardly my own.

  1. Imani Bazzell made a herculean effort with “Great Campus”. She and others like Pattsi have been saying these things for how many decades?
  2. Dr. Judy Wiegand is already reaching out to the community and listening. She is already building trust.
  3. Lynn Peisker has made a huge impact in telling us the good news happening all the time in our schools.
  4. Individual Board Members are already meeting with individuals, businesses and small groups.

Perhaps we finally have the right Administration that is willing to take the decades-old message and do something with it.

As an aside, I have a number of petitions if you want to sign one. 🙂

8 Responses to “The wrong question”

  1. pattsi Says:

    Interesting soapbox. Maybe you ought to share with the public just how much discretionary decision making comes with the monies from cash bonds. Maybe you ought to explain that the state put in a provision in the statute giving authority to school boards to get cash bonds that the community in which the district resides can gather petition signatures to put a referendum on a ballot. Maybe you ought to add up the growing costs to the citizens that is putting extreme economic pressure on fixed income and low income residents. $65–utility fee/year + $30 or more/year cash bonds + 35% increase in water rater and another 40% request with the ICC right now + increases in utility rates + hovering threat of $4.50-5.00/gallon gas plus the new 4 cent gas tax increase + 1% sales tax increase to support schools + increase of food costs + state income tax increase + property tax rate increases from other taxing districts + very little increase in social security payments + increase in health costs as copays increase and state threatens decreases in medicaid + whatever else I have forgotten or am too depressed to list. Elected decision makers with fiscal responsibilities have to reflect on the gestalt, not just a single taxing district.

  2. Diane Jones Says:

    Were are these petitions to sign?

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    Diane, visit the Voices link to see a list of locations or to download it yourself:

    Pattsi, those are rhetorical questions, right? =) I have no idea how much discretionary decision making comes with the monies from cash bonds (all of it?). It is indeed a depressing picture – but we need to allow ourselves to spiral downwards.

  4. pattsi Says:

    The answer to the rhetorical question is that monies generated by cash bonds can be spent on anything connected with Unit 4. There are no restrictions. These monies are not dedicated..

  5. charlesdschultz Says:

    I just read “People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say“. On top of Hugh’s “The Dilemma of Enquiry and Learning” (of which I had read just a few pages so far), this paints a pretty grim picture. I am reminded of Myles Horton and Paulo, who encourage us to be more like children, ever soaking, always learning, always experimenting.

    As I dwell upon this problem, I think we have to be willing to admit we don’t have it perfect, and may never have it perfect, but at least we should try our best. And I think, as a goal, attempt to help those who struggle the most.

  6. Papaathome Says:

    Yes, and Thank you!
    We absolutely need to ask the first questions first and then allow our answers to those questions to drive everything else we do. It only makes sense. If we are clear about our priorities, everything else comes falls in line. Well done.

  7. G. David Frye Says:

    Pattsi: do you have any indication that the board plans to spend the money on something other than what they claim it is for? Do you think that it’s fair to redefine the discussion by implying that they won’t? OK, technically you have not said so directly, but what’s the point of this line of questioning? Assuming the board actually diverted the money to some other use, seems like all these sharp-eyed “community” activists would jump on it and there would be a bloodbath at the next school board election. But that hasn’t happened in the time I’ve been involved with the school system, and even suggesting it puts the question squarely into the “find something to generate fear” category.

  8. It takes a village, part 2 | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] few years ago I suggested that perhaps we are asking the wrong question when we ask about money – we should be asking about how we can provide optimal learning […]

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