Review of June 21st Board Retreat

It was hard to know what to expect from the Board Retreat; the agenda certainly covered some interesting topics, but what was the format going to be like? Who would be in the audience? Who would be allowed to speak?

The retreat was held at Parkland’s brand-spanking new Applied Technology Center; this place was so cool it almost deserves its own blog post. 🙂 Suffice it to say that I wished I was a young college student taking automotive classes. Aside from the Board, most of the Mellon staff was there as well as a goodly number of school principals (my guess would be about 85% of all the school principals). Meg was there representing the NG and I was there merely being me – no other community members other than those already mentioned.

We started off with public comment, which was funny in some ways. I was tempted to fill out a comment card, but then I thought – we are supposed to be having a discussion, right? So I rolled the dice and skipped the comment card. Probably a good thing. Dr. Wiegand gave a little intro, and while we waited for Board Member Sue Grey to arrive, the Board acted on the two items tabled from the previous Board Meeting. I thought I heard that we have $39,000 in outstanding food fees. Wow, really? Surely I heard that wrong – I need to go back and look at the BoardDocs when I get a chance.

We jumped into the first topic of Discussion – Facilities. Board Member Kristine Chalifoux had a few excel charts to demonstrate growth, which was a big theme of this first section. I personally found the charts very difficult to read, kinda wishing they were made available on BoardDocs ahead of time so I could get a better feel for them. Regardless, the point was made that we are experiencing tremendous growth, much more than anticipated (a few jabs were made in the direction of the 2008 Demographers which basically said “nope, no growth”). At the current projected rates of growth (a lot of numbers being pulled out of the air, but it might be the best we have at the moment given the unforseen factors), we will be needing a new elementary school by 2020, and a new middle school and high school by 2017 just in terms of capacity. I was rather curious why would be maxing out capacity at the high school level by 2017…. the recent bubble of increased students isn’t going to hit high school until (quick math) 2021 or so.  There was a bit of discussion between Board Members as they hashed out their ideas. At one point, Kristine said “we have no planner” in terms of the contract work Unit 4 does with the Champaign City Planner – using the city planner is not the same as having our own. And this point reverberated several times for me, but it was not really brought to the forefront at all. We have all these amazing challenges in terms of growth and how to figure out where and what to build. I was extremely tempted on several occasions to ask why the Board/Admin doesn’t go out and hire a Unit 4 planner. And now I am kicking myself for not doing so. There was also talk of bringing the Kirby Avenue school back online to help ease congestion. “We need to figure out what we are doing”.

At 8:24, the official presentation ended and the floor was opened for general discussion and dialog. Which was good, for many folks (Administration, Board Members, and Principals) had questions, comments and points to make. The point was made that, according to de la Rue’s Literary Review of last Board Meeting, about 600 students is the sweet spot (I think it was 600-900, right?); if that is the case, then trying to build a monster school (whether it be high school or middle school) does not seem to be the best course to pursue. At one point I was thinking that a whole lot of talking was going on, and even talking about talking (egads!), but where were the action steps. Some time later, Board Member Tom Lockman echoed my own sentiments and said it out loud (in a different context, if I recall correctly, but it still applies). I started thinking that a workshop would be awesome (thinking charrette). Need more people at the table if we really want to explore, but also need some skeletal framework (ie, scaffolding) that we need to keep in front of our eyes. There was a lot of talk about Carrie Busey as a case study; here we have a brand new school and we are already talking about making modifications that would disrupt the initial design by adding new classrooms, to the extent that the additions would basically break the collaborative spaces.

[going to focus on a few Board Members here as they made significant comments]

Stig mentioned that we must be careful about turning Carrie Busey into a pseudo-neighborhood school. While that might be attractive to some, it goes against the policy of diversity. This topic came up a few more times throughout, and several folks stated very firmly that we are NOT changing the existing system right now (ie, no neighborhood schools). But I get the impression we can talk about it. 🙂

Tomlinson stated “We gotta be a customer-focused organization”. Which I thought was interesting, especially in light of how “Child Centered Organization” was on the agenda. Our children our customers? =) I think I see his point, but it is hard for me to come to terms with the word “customer” in this context.

Sue Grey made a good point about buying land (for example, out in Sawgrass and Boulder Ridge, which with Section 8 housing has a fair amount of diversity) even if we do not build on it right away; we are suffering now because Unit 4 did not proactively acquire land. Again, I thought to myself “we definitely need a planner”.

Kristine: “Highways are not boundaries”. There seemed to be different takes on sprawl; on the one hand, the school district spans a ton of land to the north and a little to the west that we often forget about. On the other hand, as Barbara Ramsay pointed out, how the heck are we going to kids to those far away places if the Transportation department (and budget) are already stressed? I have my own takes on sprawl (in the general vein of don’t like it). But Kristine does make a good point that highways are not necessarily boundaries.

Sue Grey mentioned that we do not want to put low-SES all in one spot. To me (and I readily disclose that Pattsi has influenced me *grin*), Unit 4 really needs to work with the City in plotting out housing priorities. Several folks mentioned that we have let the City drive our “train” (hat tip Dave Tomlinson), instead of merely being an important but non-driver passenger.

Kristine had a PDF that showed several new possible classrooms for Carrie Busey. And if I heard correctly, we pay about $1.5million for two, and $3million for four more on top of that (total of 6 to make a new strand). $4.5million for 6 classrooms?!?! Seriously?!? Sheesh, I am in the wrong business.

Stig mentioned that we need guiding principles, someone who knows the city plans and the school building status (ie, which rooms are being used and how). Again I thought “Planner”, but then also Great Schools Together (GST) and even the Strategic Plan – do not these projects give us guiding principles? I was a tad confused about that.

And then Sue Grey mentioned that we could go back to the GST and collect all the public comments about what they want in our schools. Again, I was confused – I must have missed something. That was 4 years ago, don’t we already have those public comments in our Strategic plans? Or maybe we are talking about re-aligning ourselves and not getting lost in distractions.

At 9:30 we shifted to Finances. This section took all of 5 minutes. Dr. Wiegand basically said that due to the projected (and egregious, IMO) decrease in state funding, we will most likely have to start talking about cutting programs. What will they be, she asks?

9:35 – Schools of Choice. Dr. Wiegand mentioned how she is considering a “Choice Task Force” and made it quite clear that they are NOT (repeat repeat repeat NOT) changing the existing system to neighborhood schools. I think the point is to explore and see what is best. Both Board Member Jamar Brown and Board Member Tom Lockman talked about the importance of communication and how we must focus on that. I finally spoke up and had to agree, we need to fix communication. Communication and building trust.

9:45 break

After the break, Dr. Wiegand introduced a facilitator, Topper Steinman. I am quite ashamed to admit that I totally forgot his name (help?!). His goal and task was to get us into an extremely open and safe environment to discuss what a child-centered organization really was. He mentioned the topic of bullying, but I didn’t ever hear it pop up again. For the next 1.25 hours or so, we did a pretty good workshop. I didn’t write down any notes because we were busy doing stuff. While I thought the concept of the workshop was good, it seemed like we were dragging our feet much of the time. Maybe that’s just me – I would love to hear other input from those that attended. Also, it was not really clear to me what exactly our workshop was supposed to do – what the final outcome was supposed to be. So that was a tad frustrating to me personally. I think the exercises we did were certainly helpful in getting us mixed up and talking honestly about things we would not normally be talking about, and for that I was appreciative. And I think the facilitator had some great approaches to handling tough topics – I got the impression he could have used more time. He mentioned things like how “this next section usually takes 3 hours but we are going to do it in 10 minutes”. We talked about what are various roles are, the strengths and weaknesses we have, and how we both contribute and detract from the mission of the School District (hand-written up in front of the room).

I had a great time sitting around afterwards and informally chatting with folks. I introduced myself to Dr. Laura Taylor and we talked a bit about social justice stuff and how she was very excited and involved with Ellen Dahlke’s work at Urbana High School. And now my brain is blanking on who else I talked to. I’ll have to reflect more later.

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6 Responses to “Review of June 21st Board Retreat”

  1. pattsi Says:

    Thank you for this summary along with Meg’s. This is a good mix to help those of us who could not attend. By chance was the retreat video taped so the public can view at a later time or be shown on channel 5?
    My bigest take away is how can a 4-year old population projection missed the increase so dramatically? The community population has not increased that much, plus there is out migration to the outlying communities, hence school districts, and increase in private educational venues. So this brings me back around to my now 35-year old argument of the need for the district to have an urban planner on the staff. I note within your summary that Christine mentioned the lack of an in-house planner. I have argued that there is a potential conflict of interest contracting with Champaign department of planning. I have also argued over the years that an in-house planner could be afforded and/or earned the salary in that consultants would not have to be hired to do demographic studies, would know the district well, can do projections, can plan for the district, can work with the city concerning the housing dispersal per economic levels and sprawl and what this costs the district, etc. Yes, Greg Novak and I would go round and round on this topic. Nonetheless, Nathaniel Banks and I are in agreement. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption of positive intent by Unit 4 board and administration to listen to and take heed of what an in-house planner might say/propose/argue for and against, etc.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    There were no video recording devices in the room. Tammy had an MP3 recorder set out and I asked for a copy of the audio – I am going to have low expectations of the audio quality, given the size of the room. Plus, for the first half the monster glass doors to the hallway were open, allowing sound to travel out and in.

    There was some discussion and postulations about the “sudden” increase in U4 student population. Could be economics driving folks away from more expensive private options, mixed with a perception that Unit 4 is a better place without the consent decree and/or previous administration. All in all, there are a lot of factors and we may never know the complete truth without interviewing most of the parents who have made those decisions.

    And yes, I am now more compelled to talk to the Board about an in-house planner. It almost seems like an obvious need.

  3. Sena Cooper Says:

    Likewise, my first thought when reading Meg’s article (and now this recap of the retreat) is how could the 2008 study be off by so much – it was done only 4 years ago!

  4. Advocacy: what comes to mind when you hear/see that? « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] research what advocacy is and how the district can best implement it; this idea came out of the June 21st Board Retreat, along the lines of creating safe environments for discussion and empowering parents to become more […]

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