At the Nov 18th BOE meeting, we were told that the Board would meet on December 2nd to narrow the list of six potential sites down to three, and then possibly on December 7th to narrow it even further. Looking at the agenda for the December 2nd board meeting, it’s all about setting into motion things for the future, specifically the new high school site, funding (via a property tax referendum) and increasing the number of kindergarten classrooms.
I have several grave issues with way the Unit 4 future is being planned. I will grant, right up front, that probably most of my concerns center around the fact that there has been little to no realistic planning for the past 40 years, and the current cast of players have inherited both that fact and the mindset that goes along with it. I choose the word “inherited” very intentionally – I think there are a lot of good intentions at many different levels, yet we still have many really big obstacles to work through.
Where to start…..
It would be easy to cast a generic, blanket accusation upon the entire district, saying something cliche like they haven’t engaged the public, that there is no real buy-in or collaboration with the tax-payer base. But that would not be in entirely accurate statement. There have been many initiatives to attempt to build rapport with the community, through big, media-blasted events like “Great Schools, Together” and the various DeJong-Richter “Community Dialogs”, through smaller, lesser-known efforts like meetings with various University of Illinois departments, local business partners and a myriad of community groups. I would also grant that many individuals in the new administration and the new board are talking more about the need to connect with the community, and I have been impressed that the superintendent has done a LOT more to interact with the community (radio spots, WDWS, Supper with the Superintendent, etc). Yet there is still something missing, something out of whack that is hard to put my finger on. But let us think about this – from a list of 15 potential high school sites, scattered all over the district map, we now have six sites all focused north of I-74. How did that happen? To me, this is the most blatant evidence of disconnect somewhere. Who stands to gain the most from this direction? Is it not those who wish to develop the land north of I-74? I mean, think about it from the City of Champaign’s point of view; if (taken with some salt) the City wished to expand, bring in more businesses and homes, from their point of view growing into the relatively open (but quite fertile) farmland to the north is the biggest bang for the buck; cheap and easy to acquire the land and build it up, with the potential to pull in some serious money via sales and property taxes.
By the same token, it is relatively “easy” to pop up a brand spanking new high school north of I-74. It will cost you and me another couple hundred million dollars, but we have taxes to toss around and “invest”, right? What I don’t get is how this (buying land and building a new high school to the north) will positively impact the “achievement gap.” So far, I have not seen, nor read nor heard, any plan that shows how the desire to expand (both the City and the schools) will help out those who are already struggling. Will the parents that already not attend parent-teacher conferences and after-school events suddenly have an incentive to cross I-74? Will students who struggle academically and/or with discipline issues suddenly find themselves in such an environment that they are able to develop and grow into responsible, successful adults?
Another big issue weighing on my mind. The district talks about transparency, and I am convinced that my definition of transparency differs quite a bit from the districts. Yes, they are being transparent in the sense that they are doing a little more in open session now than in the past. Yes, they are being transparent in that they are “presenting to the public” more openly than in the past. Granted. But even with this, I find it very hard to follow the details; even though I follow board meetings quite closely (reading agendas, minutes, watching the videos, interacting with board members, etc), I am still challenged to learn what the board is thinking, to find documents and reference materials online. Take for instance, the December 2nd board meeting – even though they are talking about a number of significant items, there are ZERO supplemental documents on boarddocs. In my experience, a majority of otherwise helpful and informative materials that are not initially on boarddocs never ever become available online. You wouldn’t even know about them unless you just happened to be watching or attending the board meeting when it was referenced. But it goes way beyond just putting stuff on the WWW – true transparency that leads to trust and mutually beneficial accountability must also embrace the concept of total understanding; the public must not only have access to, but must also grasp and “get” what the information is trying to convey. I don’t see that happening.
I don’t like sprawl. I do not like the pattern established over three-quarters of a century of “well to do” folks moving further and further out from the core of the city, which becomes more and more problematic as the ratio of not-so-well-to-do skyrockets (disclosure: I confess I am part of that problem). Given an oppressive taxation system and lackluster low-skill labor market that pushes more middle-class folks down to the lower classes, a criminal justice system with huge racial disparities, and more and more people finding themselves at the mercy of the state (one way or another), I fail to see how the promises of more income via sprawl (aka “growth”) actually benefits everyone in the community. Clearly, it benefits a few. But that isn’t good enough. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is just plain horrible when it only benefits a lucky few.
It is not my intent to point fingers at people and call them evil. Rather, I wish to point out that we have some bad habits we need to correct. If we want a true democracy (a worthwhile argument in and of itself), we have to find a way to show others the power they have, to make sure everyone is empowered to participate.
I get that the district has been talking about a new high school for 40 years and now they are at a point where they just want to pull the trigger on it. I can imagine how that feels. And I also get that it is impossible to please everyone – we will never find a perfect site that makes everyone happy. What concerns me is that John Q. Public does not yet share the same overall vision as the school district. What concerns me is that we still have kids getting expelled, suspended, held back a grade (a number of 5-year high schoolers), and some students needing a fair amount of remedial education when they get to college. If a new high school south of St. Thomas Moore is shown to positively effect those things, then sign me up. As it stands today, it is really hard to throw my support behind any referendum that would target a school north of I-74.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what one person thinks. It really is up to you (in the plural sense) – all of us. We either work together, or those with the strongest voices get their way, whether you like it or not.