“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.
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.
- The match that lit the fire: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2012-01-23/champaign-school-board-consider-high-school-possibiities-issuing-cash-bond. Meg Dickinson starts to convey why the District needs money and how the District is figuring out how to prioritize and pay for things.
- Meg provides an update on that list: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2012-02-27/school-board-approves-145-million-bonds-petition-could-force-vote.html#comment-412581 (note that this can be found in the BoardDocs Agenda for Feb 27th as well)
- Speaking of meeting minutes, one could crawl through the past Board Meetings and find more mentions of this (Feb 13, Jan 23, Jan 9th). How did we miss it? Well…. that is a topic for another blog, but in short, hardly anybody goes to a Board Meeting these days and even if they do, most people do not talk on the same level that the CFO does. Meg mentioned it on Jan 23rd.
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.
- The community does not play a role in deciding what is important to the District
- 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.
- Imani Bazzell made a herculean effort with “Great Campus”. She and others like Pattsi have been saying these things for how many decades?
- Dr. Judy Wiegand is already reaching out to the community and listening. She is already building trust.
- Lynn Peisker has made a huge impact in telling us the good news happening all the time in our schools.
- 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. 🙂