December 2nd board meeting: here comes the referendum

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.

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10 Responses to “December 2nd board meeting: here comes the referendum”

  1. Vav Says:

    In many conversations with my late Father-in-law, Greg Novak, we talked about the need for a long range plan. Put the plan out there. Use it as a tool for communication. Then execute according to the plan. If you have issues, work to change the plan.

    The plan includes facilities and locations and is more. It includes those long term vision items that make our district a “top notch” educational force in the community. It is integrated with other plans and sets a vision. From where I sit, I see no plan, no vision of our future.

    This community has some barriers to getting around, the interstates. Building a high school North of 74 or West of 57, while the desire of the Champaign, should be a last resort.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Found a 2008 WILL radio short with Greg Novak on GST:
      http://will.illinois.edu/news/player/unit4090508

      • Vav Says:

        Here we sit, 4 1/2 years after this interview and the key item of having a facilities plan is still not a reality. GST Infrastructure Recommendation 4.1 States (in bold):

        “The most important next step is the development a ten year Capital Improvement Plan for Unit 4 within 12 months of the adoption of this report.”

        The DeJong-Richter sessions were moving us in that direction. Since that time we have stopped moving toward a plan for the elementary, middle, and high schools and moved toward a search for high school site location. Regarding facilities and infrastructure, it appears that the cart may be before the horse.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    I have been thinking about how the administration and/or the Board might respond, and Vav’s response made me think of something. The administrators (and various Boards) do indeed align to a current long-term plan; almost everything they do aligns to guidelines set forth by “Great Schools, Together” (GST Long-range Strategic Plan). So while you and I might think GST is dead, it is very much alive in the minds of some people. Additionally, there have been a couple other long-range plans put in place from time to time, but I am not able to find them on the U4 website anymore (not even the archived “internals” website). And Unit 4 does have a short- or mid-range technology plan in place.

    So I think the assertion is NOT that there is no plan, but rather, I believe there is no plan that the community is following. I do not recall if the GST plan even addresses the achievement gap in a practical manner or not – I’ll have to reread it. But like Vav says, the plan is not a “tool for communication”. And I think communication is a challenge in our day and age. We overcommunicate on some things (opinions, anyone?), but undercommunicate on some of the more essential items (on a more relational level, the sort of active listening we all have lost the art of).

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    This is kind of funny – from the GST section on Community Engagement:

    ENGAGING COMMUNITY STAKEHOLDERS WORKGROUP
    WORKING PLAN POINTS OF EMPHASIS

    To effectively engage the various community stakeholders, the Board and the
    Administration need to direct their efforts toward:

    Short Term Goals

     creating a clear and concise District vision that can be articulated to all stakeholders

     fostering a trusting working relationship between community, district, administration,
    and School Board

     conduct, analyze, and utilize data received from the District climate survey. Such
    survey to be conducted on a regular interval (i.e. every three years)

     conduct, analyze, and utilize the data from the graduating senior survey developed at
    the University of Illinois. Such survey to be conducted on an annual basis

    Mid Term Goal

     reconstitute and foster ongoing two way communication between community
    stakeholders, the administration, and the School Board making sure that the diversity
    of the community is represented

    Long Term Goal

     establishing and maintaining a consistent District presence in the community

     increasing access for disenfranchised community stakeholders by establishing an
    “ombudsman” position

  4. Craig Walker Says:

    It was so pleasant to read the News Gazette Sunday with all of the positive feedback about the City getting a new high school . 40 years is a long time and the need for a a new facility now is key to the kids future . There are poor communities in the South that have better high schools than Central. A brand new school with the latest technology and ample room for sports programs and other activities will invigorate student learning and achievement .
    As for this diatribe about how you won’t support any school north of I74 … Without addressing the insensitivity of the statement in light of the Unit 4 consent decree and the racial component of the North of University boundary in that agreement ……. There was not one idea of an alternative site offered up by you. Not one . Just a suggestion of more talking which you always claim there has not been enough of. My suggestion is either offer up a specific alternative or just oppose the referendum with empty air.

    Fortunately the Central Alumni weren’t really focused on the specific location but rather preferred the sight that can give us the best facilities. The Drive time from Savoy to North Champaign is 15/20 minutes and everyone else will fall inside that range. That reality works for most people except you of course.

    So lets draw the lines now, the District is likely to choose a site north of I74 and you will be part of the referendum opposition team and most of us will be on the strong supporters team of a new high school that will improve the learning experience exponentially wherever it is built.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I am ok with drawing lines as long as it fosters a productive discussion; arguing over idealogies is not really my thing. By productive I mean figuring out what the non-negotiables are and hopefully agreeing on them. At some point, all of us are going to be asked to support a tax referrendum, and I prefer that we all very much understand the pros and cons of such a request.

      Maybe I am naive, but I find it amusing that you throw the consent decree card at me; I don’t think that is going to do much. I have a response to you in the form of a new blog post, which will also show up here as a “pingback”.

      Your personal attacks are a bit out of place. It will be interesting to see how accurate your blanket statements turn out to be. I have a strong suspicion that the learning experience will improve despite the location, because I am not yet convinced that physical building has that much impact upon performance. To wit, I voted against the sales tax that put a school 7 blocks from my house, and I stand by my statement that I am not yet convinced the new facility is making that much of a difference in my child’s education over the old facility. In my opinion, it comes down to the teachers, and I really like the teachers that I know, no matter what address they put on their stationary.

      As always, I am glad that someone who disagrees with me is willing to put their thoughts here. For that, I sincerely say thank you, with absolutely no sarcasm or disrespect.

  5. Karen Says:

    ‘That reality works for most people except you of course.’

    Where are your polling data? And where are your data that support this statement:
    ‘…a new high school that will improve the learning experience exponentially wherever it is built.’ as well as this one: A brand new school with the latest technology and ample room for sports programs and other activities will invigorate student learning and achievement .’

    Does the building come with a new curriuclum?

    ‘the district built 15 new schools and
    renovated 54 others. Included were nearly five dozen magnet
    schools, which concentrated on such things as computer
    science, foreign languages, environmental science, and
    classical Greek athletics. Those schools featured such
    amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater
    viewing room; a robotics lab; professional quality
    recording, television, and animation studios; theaters; a
    planetarium; an arboretum, a zoo, and a 25-acre wildlife
    sanctuary; a two-floor library, art gallery, and film studio;
    a mock court with a judge’s chamber and jury deliberation
    room; and a model United Nations with simultaneous
    translation capability.’ Bells and whistles aren’t the answer.
    http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa-298.pdf

  6. A challenge: where would I put a new high school? | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] Craig Walker recently observed that I have not offered any alternative sites, while expressing in my “diatribe” a […]

  7. charlesdschultz Says:

    The RPC site analysis was posted after this blog post was published:
    http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/files/9E3JAD4C33D0/$file/Unit4Presentation120213.pdf

    Also, the Vimeo is finally up – I encourage you to watch it; Tod Sadderwaite, Holly Nelson, Minne Pearson, Pat Avery and another gentleman’s name I didn’t catch all make some good points:
    http://vimeo.com/81435488

    Lastly, apparently parents will have 12 schools to choose from during Schools of Choice.


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