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.
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;”