The changing face of the school board (but what changes on the inside?)

There was quite a splash, for those that follow news about the school district and/or politics, when the school board appointed John Bambenek to be the next school board member, serving until the April 2015 elections. Just from reading several pages of commentary on BigDebbiesHouse, and even the online reel via the News-Gazette, it is obvious to me that some folks are entirely upset, flabbergasted and just a tad pissed off. But what does it all mean? At the end of the day, who really cares? Or rather, what are the real ramifications and consequences? So many times I have heard “time will tell”, but that is not good enough for me.

First, I am obligated to disclose my own perspective, to help you understand the framework from which I write this post. I have corresponded with Mr. John Bambenek (infrequently) since 2006; at the time, I was just coming up to speed on Unit 4 and the Consent Decree, and I had asked John what he thought some of the issues were surrounding the district and the board. In a January 2007 email, he pointed out the issue of a lack of trust:

“The biggest problem, and I think everything feeds into this, is that the current Board and Superintendent have lost the trust of the community. That’s ultimately why there is a consent decree and the problems that are there now.  I don’t want to come right out and say Culver has to go, but he certainly would have to come up with a real plan to win back that trust.” (quoted with Bambenek’s permission)

His second comment was about how much the district spends per child; not so much in the dollar amount, but the “bang” of each dollar – what are we getting out of the investment? At the time, he was worried that Unit 4 was spending way over the state average (per child), yet our results were not anything to write home about.

“The next budget is projected to spend about $10,700 per student.  I have heard both the statewide average being $7,000 and $8,500.  I need to review more, but if that holds, I’d be going over the finacials with a fine tooth comb.  Spending that money is fine, but we ought to be getting more results for our dollar.”

That was seven years ago. On a more recent occasion, I had a chance to chat with Craig Walker and John Bambenek after a April 9th, 2012 BOE meeting during which the infamous Working Cash Bonds was a hot topic (part 1, part 2). The Working Cash Bonds was another trust issue; again, it is not so much that people don’t want to support the ongoing education of our children, but rather, how exactly the money is used and where it goes is a big deal, one which some community members feel like is an area that needs more sunshine.

These kinds of concerns are repeated in Mr. Bambenek’s candidate application, and again during the interview session last Thursday. In the relative (online) onslaught of mud-slinging and chagrin over Thursday’s decision, I decided to contact Mr. Bambenek directly to get his take, and again he assures me he is wanting to bring the area of financial accountability into more sunlight:

“I think the easiest quick gain in transparency and fiscal responsibility is that bond deal.  The district has some true needs (103% capacity at high schools and looking for trailed for overflow classes speaks for itself) and there are some wants that aren’t unjustified.  If they want to pass a bond referendum, my stand will be they need to make the details fully known of what they are going to spend it on.  Not just the standard 15 powerpoint slide deck, but everything.”

All that I offer up as background. For me, it helps to answer the question of “why the Board chose John Bambenek.” Some of you may be raising your eyebrows, and after a pause are thinking, “But wait, if what John is saying is true, this level of transparency is going to require a lot of changes – does the board really want that level of openness?” Please note, I readily admit that the new Board and new administration has made some significant advances in being more transparent and seeking out the community; I suspect the community needs a whole heck of a lot more, though. I know I do.

So here are some other thoughts. It seems obvious to me that John supports the idea of a future tax referendum (with the above-noted caveats), and Craig Walker obviously supports the location of the new high school, and Craig Walker openly supports and embraces John’s appointment to the board. I am not saying any of this is bad – I am attempting to avoid any subjective attachment at this point, and merely just trying to observe. And here is my conjecture – what if the board chose John Bambenek mostly (only?) for the strength he brings to get a November referendum passed?

That may be a smart political move, but revisiting the area of trust, I think it might have been a detrimental move at the same time. At this point, most people throw up their hands and say “time will tell”. But why do we have to wait for a few months just to see what happens? Everyone who ran for the board last year freely tossed around buzzwords like “transparency”. So let’s hold them to that. John is saying he wants to usher in a new level of transparency, let’s hold him to that. He is a board member now, afterall. 🙂

“As someone who also has a commitment to transparency, I would help ensure the community has the confidence that decisions are made in the most fiscally responsible and upright manner to ensure an outstanding education for the students of Unit 4.”

“I would like to champion some reform in the area of transparency to ensure that school district funds are used in the most fiscally responsible way to ensure we get the most value for the property tax dollar in the area of educational achievement.”

source: Bambenek’s board application

One particular area that sticks out like a sore thumb is Promises Made Promises Kept. To be clear, for me the issue is not about the district promising to lower our property taxes and then, Oops, property taxes didn’t go down. Greg Novak made that point in 2010, and so have many many others since that time. What I wish to focus on is the lack of visibility and understanding of where money is going (specifically, 1% Sales tax money). To that end, for the past several years, I and a couple others have asked that PMPK documents be shared online. I have seen the documents when attending a PMPK meeting in the past, and I know first-hand that they contain a ton of figures, facts and raw data; they help to paint a realistic picture of what is really happening. Yes, they are still exceptionally difficult (for me) to read, but at least they have been generated for the PMPK audience. Why not made available to the public at large? I don’t understand why information like this is not automatically on display as a measure of trust-building. And all the unfulfilled promises to make these documents available just makes the situation worse, in my opinion. My plan is to see what kind of response my renewed request from Feb 10th generates, and if it is still unsatisfactory, to just go ahead with a FOIA. I do confess that Gene Logas worked hard to generate a few “taxes for dummies”-style documents, and several others which do not shy away from financial jargon, and the district administration has posted those in the Finance section of the district website. They are a good read, and a great first effort by Logas to educate the community.

Am I grinding an ax? Perhaps. My goal is for a strong relationship between the community and the school district. In any relationship where bad habits have set in, “change” is going to be disruptive and probably unpleasant at first, but the aim is to make things better in the long run.

So the school board has gained a new face, one that comes with a lot of friction from certain members of the community. That in and of itself tells me something. Bambenek wants to “champion reform in the area of transparency”, and I think his goal is to build up trust which has been sorely lacking between the district and the community. Yet I have a really hard time believing the board chose Bambenek as a trust-building vehicle – I think Chuck Jackson might have performed that role better. If I read between the lines, this is “all about politics”; in my opinion, the board comes across as strategizing and calculating how to get a November property tax referendum passed. Period.

We cannot wait for “time to tell.” In my opinion, it would be best if we taxpayers took our civic responsibilities a bit more seriously and demand that our school board fulfill the mission set forth by the Illinois Association of School Boards* for all boards of education in Illinois:

1.1 Boards of Education will focus their leadership on student achievement.

1.2 Boards of Education will build a community-based vision for their district and will make decisions, address problems and concerns, and communicate a district culture consistent with that vision.

1.3 Board members will demonstrate the qualities and skills of leadership including the following:

  • understanding the role of the board and the role of the superintendent.

  • consensus building.

  • interpreting and using data to monitor progress toward vision and compliance with policy.

  • communication skills (listening, public speaking, etc.)

Don’t get me wrong – now that John Bambenek is a board member, I will support him and as any community member should. Personally, I don’t really care about all the other political gaffes, the prolific writings on a myriad of topics (wayward, how in the WORLD did you dig that stuff up?!?) or where his kids go to school (by the way, the current School Board Policies have nothing to say about the requirements for where BOE members’ kids go to school). And as an element of my support, I will hold Mr. Bambenek accountable to his promises of ushering in a new era of transparency and ensuring an outstanding education for our kids. This is my civic responsibility.

* footnote 1: Call it coincidence, call it a conspiracy theory or call it “that’s the way it’s done”, but I happened to read the original mission statement before the IASB revised it in July of 2012 and completely removed all the extra explanations. Which is a damn shame if you ask me. Today, if you navigate the IASB webpage and look for a mission statement, all you get is a lousy one-sentence little thing with absolutely not fortification whatsoever.

* footnote 2: In Unit 4, among many other goals and objectives, several policies specify the work of the board in relation to the community:

200.01 BOARD OF EDUCATION LEGAL STATUS – Powers and Duties of the Board
“16. Communicating the schools’ activities and operations to the community and representing the needs and desires of the community in educational matters.”
120 EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY
“3. To effectively communicate and have a mutual understanding among staff, students, parents, and community so that all may work in concert to achieve an outstanding educational program;”

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11 Responses to “The changing face of the school board (but what changes on the inside?)”

  1. An afterthought: politics and civic responsibilities | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] I was working on my previous post, in the back of my mind is the question “Why am I spending so much of my time and energy on […]

  2. Citizen4 Blog on Bambenek and the school board. | Big Debbie's House Says:

    […] Citizen4 Blog covers the Champaign school district from an apolitical perspective and I’ve been waiting for him to weigh in on the school board’s pick of John Bambenek. He has today. Here are some highlights, but go read the whole thing: […]

  3. Cjwincu Says:

    What the heck am I doing in this blog ? I support the new high school site? Well I would support any site because where the school is located is of little consequence in a town where it takes 15 minutes or less to go anywhere. You on the other hand clearly demonstrated your cultural/racial bias declaring any site north of I 74 as unacceptable. Lets keep it real. You certainly didn’t rule out sites west of I 57 which have an overpass at Kirby and Windsor and neither one has existing sidewalks and only one lane each way. You didn rule out a sites south of Champaign. No… Only those to the North which carries significant racial overtones especially since the consent decree specifically labels University avenue as a border line of racial inequity.
    You say I support the new site when you have no clue that I spoke to many leaders in the African American community and they support the new site. Have you talked to any ? Doubtful. And let me be clear I don’t care where they build the new high school.. Only small minded cant see the forest through the trees type of people do.
    The need is a new school that can have modern high tech facilities and yes room for athletic fields. High school sports are an integral part of education. I played for Charlie Due and Lee Cabuttie and they taught many young men life skills that go way beyond a basketball court.young men and women get scholarships to colleges that they might not be able to attend otherwise so count me in the high school sports programs are very important category . It doesn’t matter in a town as small as Champaign where the new high school goes. This type of petty thinking is why it has taken this long to get to this point.

    I embrace John Bambenek ?! Lol. You cite a political blog run by people who have no kids in the district, likely have no clue what’s going on at Unit 4, and are mad at John because he rightfully so pointed out that the utilization of taxpayer facilities for political purposes is a violation of ethics law and it was their favorite candidate that he exposed. I watched people on that blog and the NG in one swoop smear a women of color over her choice for college while calling JB racist. Having worked with JB, while we have substantive policy differences I always admired his independance from the powers to be of Champaign, his committment to transperancy, ability to talk with all points of view, and have never experienced any type of racial bias from him . So yes I defended him against these unfair attacks from people who themselves are acting in a racist manner against a woman of coler candidate because her college degree doesn’t meet their uppity standards . And that’s your source for issues with the JB appointment. Did it ever occur to you that Scott McAdam was a conservative Republican who was elected by the people and the Board took into consideration that fact and maintained a diversity of thought with the JB appointment. I personally haven’t spoken to a board member in a long while but from 650 miles away (where I live now) I could see that logic. But since you want your good buddie Chuck Jackson on the Board you decide to try and taint JB citing overt political blogs in the middle of what the NG has termed a “civil war” in the local Democratic Party .

    Next time you decide to throw my name around trying to lamely insinuate who knows what, undertand I have earned my right to have an opinion on Unit 4. I bleed Unit 4. I rode the bus in the late 60’s from Carrie Busey early every morning to attend Washington grade school in North Champaign and thus played a part in the integration of the Unit 4 school system . I attended Edison and Central the 70’s and served on committees and groups that promoted racial harmony and inclusion. I played sports , marching, concert and jazz band . What’s your history as a student in Unit 4?

    When I returned to this community in 2004 I worked the front lines for the referendum that was defeated. Where were you ? I again worked many voluntary hours with people like Phil Vann Ess an Laurie Bonnett on the sales tax referendum that was passed after two elections. Funny I don’t remember seeing you anywhere on that effort.
    I served on the promises made promises kept committe for two years attending quarterly meetings to monitor how the money was spent. Never saw you at a single meeting.

    I walked in Garden Hills with Superintendant Wiegand and othe staff in the Walk as One program last year promoting student safety .. Again you were no where to be found

    So before you go patting yourself on the back for writing a blog which by the way participated in the big Lie to the public by posting the CFT charts on teachers pay which was clearly misleading only to correct them AFTER the issue was settled, do some real work for the District.
    You criticize the high school sight but offer no alternative. I gues in your head its better for the kids to stay in an old, decrepit, overcrowded, hot, stanky high school then travel through North Champaign to a brand new modern expansive high tech high school. How pitiful indeed.

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Wow… defensive much?

    I’ll let others answer your questions, if they so desire. You have your opinions and I have mine.

  5. Cjwincu Says:

    Not defensive, just tired of the bs, innuendo and the regurgitation of the sickening hatred by people in the Champaign community.

  6. Cjwincu Says:

    I thought you were better than that

  7. Karen Says:

    Being north of University Avenue does not make it automatically ‘accessible.’ The concern about the site WRT potential inequity, is, as I understand it, not for the more ‘privileged’ who have greater transportation options. The concern is for the less ‘privileged’ who have fewer transportation options. Is this site really within the spirit of the consent decree? It’s north, alright. Waaay north. I remember Dr. Taylor, at a Social Justice meeting some time ago, talking about a school-related activity that was to be done on a weekend and how suggesting that it be done at a home in a non-central subdivision was out of the question because of allged accessibility issues. Doing the activity there would have potentially excluded participation of some students because they had no way of getting there.

    ‘I spoke to many leaders in the African American community and they support the new site.’ Will they later support it if the achievement gap persists and issues of ‘access’ are plugged into as a contributing factor? [Less ‘privileged’ kids can’t participate in sports, music, clubs, etc. like their more ‘privileged’ counterparts can because of transportation issues; parents are less involved with the school because it’s just not that easy to get to, etc.–These are issues I heard raised at the minimal Unit 4 Social Justice meetings I went to–I stopped going because I found them very ‘othering,’ divisive, and overflowing with stereotypes (from soft bigotry to racism) when it came to race-related topics.] You seem to think the site has no accessibility issues and I honestly don’t see how that is. Wouldn’t the Bradley site have been more accessible to more people living north of University? I will admit, though, that my sense of geography isn’t great.

  8. Karen Says:

    Where does democrat ‘tolerance’ go when it comes to conservatives who hold opinions different than their own? I glanced over BigDebbiesHouse blog. I guess Mr. Bambenek is going to commandeer the school board and rule by executive fiat or something. Like that ever happens… 🙂
    ‘There have been so many cases around the country of right-wingers taking over school boards in order to implement “creationist” curriculum, wage war against teachers’ unions, and ect.’

    Even though Mr. Bambenek seems to have been chosen for ‘political’ reasons, maybe there’s hope that he will be more than a yes-man on the board.

    • Karen Says:

      Meant to ask where are all the cases of ‘right-wingers’ (fiscal conservatives? who want to represent their tax-paying constituents in the stewarship of the money they fork over to public schools–how dare they be able to have a voice, right?!) taking over school boards in this country? Is this some kind of ‘crisis’?

  9. Who is this John Bambenek guy? | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] about my conjecture of why he was chosen in the first place? We laughed a little at that as well; in an earlier email […]

  10. Governance and civic responsibility, take 2 | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] recently talked to representatives of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). As mentioned previously, I really like their mission statement and the ideals they lay out for board members of all school […]


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