Who is this John Bambenek guy?

I had a great chat with the new Board member, John Bambenek, on Friday. My interaction with Mr. Bambenek on Friday reinforced my previous interactions with him, and I had two take-aways; 1) he is very open to talking, just drop him a note and work out a good time, 2) he is passionate about bringing a deeper level of transparency and financial accountability to the school board.

As an alumni of the University’s Computer Science department, I was somewhat compelled to start our conversation on the topic of computers, a topic that came up frequently. John teaches a 400-level course at the University dealing with operating system and network security. If I recall correctly, their latest task is to reverse-engineer a computer virus. I asked about special projects, and he mentioned one I was fascinated with, a quadracopter carrying a raspberry pi to accomplish specific tasks. Computers bled into other aspects of our dialog as well.

For instance, Bambenek has a tie into Adam Andrzejewski’s Open the Books project (I believe he said he either sat on one of the boards or consulted for them). For those not familiar with Open the Books, I encourage you check out the website and/or go read Jim Dey’s Editorial on it (11/02/2013). The basic idea is to track where and how all the money flows, or as their motto says “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” For me personally, I find this to be a fundamental part of modern democracy, giving normal taxpayers the tools and authority to see what their tax dollars are accomplishing. I believe it has the potential to bring the voice back to the voter, so that we can ask intelligent questions, but more importantly, give critical feedback to our elected officials so that they have concrete guidance on how to perform their duties. “Transparency” is something that becomes a bit of a buzzword when folks are campaigning, but it makes me wonder how many people really “get it.” I believe Mr. Andrzejewski gets it – and if Bambenek is following in the same path, I am happy with that. To bring the conversation to Unit 4 in particular, there are several things going on. First, we recognize and acknowledge that Unit 4 has gotten better about transparency. For instance, they have been posting check registers online for quite a while now, and even better, Matt Foster agreed to host and organize check registers on the Finance page instead of having folks hunt for them in boarddocs (which was a bit of a pain). Having said that, the downside is that the check registers are basic PDF documents; it is tricky to convert PDF information into a format that is friendly for spreadsheets and/or databases, and since there is one PDF per month, it is also tricky to do searches (ie, try finding all the money sent to Dr. Alves). John mentioned a “Transparency Audit”, and I believe the district has conducted one or two (something we are going to look into).

On this topic in particular, I think it is important to note that the intention is NOT to go around pointing fingers and tell Unit 4 people how horrible they are. No, not at all. Rather, from my point of view, the point is to help the district realize what is most important by allowing the community to collaborate and participate in decisions that effect how and where money is spent. Pattsi has talked about Participatory Budgeting, and in my opinion this is exactly aligned to the same goals. It is a way for of all of us to get on the same page. Yes, it is horribly inefficient! 🙂 But I would take inefficient if the results include a community that is aware and concerned. In my opinion, I believe much of the community is NOT really aware of what their money is doing and nor keeping elected officials truly accountable to their promises. I could be horribly wrong (I hope to be).

I believe this slight tangent is important because I am convinced that this is something that Bambenek also agrees with. John mentioned that in reality, probably only 3 people in the entire community are ever going to go look in the little nitty-gritty details, and I agreed and went further saying that the act itself of opening the doors and truly embracing a real transparency and showing people how they can make a difference is what engenders trust.

I realize Bambenek has attracted a lot of flak for many things. Most of the gossip-mongering and rumor-mill stuff I am ready to dismiss, but I was curious about his “kids” going to private school. Turns out, he has one child in a private elementary school at the moment; the others may or may not go to private school when they are old enough. I tried to make it clear that I was curious about what attracted the Bambeneks to private school over and above public school because I find it fascinating how people make choices, and I always find stories when I talk to parents about this topic. As a slight diversion, I talked to the director of the University Primary School (keep in mind, she is the director and has a PhD), and she has kids at just about every different kind of school in Champaign, including UPS and Unit 4. And having talked to other parents who have switched from unit 4 to go private, I heard Bambenek echo many of the very same reasons. There are some things you just cannot do in a public classroom setting these days; for instance, the level of differentiation, religious focus or pursuing a tailored curriculum. I told John that another reason I like to ask is because I always wonder, what if public school could do these some of those things, what would that look like? Would more parents choose public school over private school? I know, some of you are shouting “Charter Schools!!”, but that is a hybrid solution that research has shown to have minimal, if any, net positive effect. (Right, Karen, you have those links ready I bet?)

How do I feel about a board member that chooses not to enroll his children in Unit 4? This is a tricky one, so I’ll say this carefully. 🙂 The job of the board is to govern the school district administrators. It is not their job to teach the children, nor to tell the educators how to do their job. Furthermore, the board is implicitly obligated (via the IASB) to build consensus in the community and make sure high quality dialog is happening between the community and the school district. John has stated “[a]s 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.” (Board application per the NG) He has said he is going to do what board members are supposed to do. And I believe him. Our job is to make sure this happens; just as how we are supposed to make sure all board members are doing their job. Ideally, this is a mutually beneficial and well anticipated transaction. I think it is unfortunate that most people view this kind of accountability as a negative thing.

We did not get around to talking about funding formulas for public education, as well as many other “hot topics.” We did laugh a little how it would probably blow the CFO’s mind to consider rejecting any Federal or State dollars as a means to getting out from under the overly burdensome and onerous mandates that end up directly being responsible for so much administrative overhead. I have a feeling we might disagree on how to balance that budget, or where the money should come from (property taxes? Income taxes? Sales taxes?); but like I said, we didn’t really talk about it, so that will have to be a conversation for another day.

What about my conjecture of why he was chosen in the first place? We laughed a little at that as well; in an earlier email John told me is not a tool, and his record should show that pretty clearly. The November referendum would be an excellent opportunity for the Board to build trust with the community by being extremely transparent and listening to what the community says. In some ways, this will be a test to see what the Board does, whether it will succeed in bringing more of the community together or driving the wedge deeper.

But that’s the beauty; we will always be able to find something to disagree about because we are all so different. And that’s a good thing. The question is whether we can agree on the Really Big Things. Our community is rife with division; if by some miracle we can overcome that significant Achilles heel, I think we would be totally rockin’ it!

In terms of our new board member, he wrote down a few things he was going to check into as a result of our meeting. One thing I have asked is that he publicizes his “to do” list; while he has not committed to doing so, yet, he indicated it was a good idea and something he will consider. Look for more mentions of OpenTheBooks and Adam Andrzejewski in the near future. Along those lines, I am going to jump the gun and put out a call for data analysts and those that have a talent for turning data into stories. If this strikes a chord with you, please let me know. Or if you know someone who might fit this description, drop me a line.

Don’t take my word for it – contact John Bambenek yourself and see what happens.

8 Responses to “Who is this John Bambenek guy?”

  1. Political observer Says:

    This is a nice puff piece that overlooks the real problems that many people in the community have brought up?

    Why did the board members vote for him? No one has answered that question.

    Did they know he was a notorious racist when they did? How is that not anything but an extreme setback for the Consent Decree? Its know he organized KKK events here.

    Did they know he was extremely antiwoman? What are the doing to protect the physical and emotional safety of our young girls in Unit 4?

    An open checkbook is nice but its not as important as protecting our children from a predator.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I have not seen “real problems” – I have seen a ton of rumors and unsubstantiated opinions. If there are real problems, let us go looking for facts. When is the last time you sat down with Bambenek and had a conversation? 🙂

      Why did board members vote for him? When I asked, I did not get many responses. One response said it was because John had the best presentation during the interviews and had a strong background in finance. Another said a republican white guy was needed to “balance out” the board. I have my own opinions about the reasons given, but that is all I got.

      The term “racist” is bandied about with so much heated brouhaha I don’t think any audience has a clear idea what that means. Having just watched “The Butler” (great movie, by the way), the visual impact of the KKK and derogatory terms used throughout history to refer to other people certainly is “notorious” and a clear setback to progress. Just because I watched a movie I do not claim to be an expert. In fact, I will go the opposite direction, I claim to be stupid in this area. What exactly makes one person racist? What makes John racist? What would I have to do to be labeled racist? Facts, please.

      Antiwoman? This is an interesting charge. He is married and has several kids. All the evidence that I have before me suggests that each of those children were born into a healthy, loving family. Since you so blithely drop these accusations, I have to assume you are merely posing these questions for flame bait and to stir the pot. Really?

      You use the moniker “Political observer”, which may or may not be related to the same pseudonym used under the News-Gazette. So far, in your comment I have not seen any “observations”, only rumors. What are your observations? What verifiable facts do you have to present before us?

      Please note, I do not consider myself a John Bambenek fanboy. I am merely sharing my own personal experiences via several emails and two face-to-face conversations. What are your direct interactions like? What does John say when you pose these questions to him? What has the board members said to you when you asked them?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I have also noticed on BigDebsHouse this many times:

      Political observer on February 23, 2014 at 10:15 am said:

      Just observing…..

      Troll (internet) definition

      • Cjwincu Says:

        Good information piece on the new board member. What I have found about the anonymous posters like Political Observer is that they spew venom and opinions full of vitriol but they have no guts or courage to do it openly which to me goes to the credibility they have . None !

    • ntagn Says:

      Hi Po,
      I just landed here after reading a 4/16 press release http://1.usa.gov/20NCrIZ that made it sound like Gov “Disaster” Rauner directly appointed Bambenek to the IBHE. Please school me if that’s wrong. Illinois is so complicated.

      Also, I’m a reference hound so any links or references on his predatory stance against women and people of color are much appreciated.


  2. Mincer Ray Says:

    Here’s some “transparency” for you:

    “We can remedy our educations ills by letting parents choose their children’s schools with vouchers, teaching the fundamentals, and making schools accountable. It’s the work of the average citizen that should be trusted over the intellectual defecation of career bureaucrats.”



    “Being free from the Friday-night quests to the local syphilis buffet for Mr. Right Now means that women are free to pursue being doctors, lawyers, and being all-around great women. You know… all those opportunities that feminism was supposed to create.”


    Does Bambenek still standby these views? I would be interested to hear his answer, rather than read this wet kiss of an article.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      May I politely ask then that you report back what you learn from Bambenek after you talk to him personally, since you do not want to hear what anyone else has to say. I am not John Bambenek and I certainly do not speak for him.

      I would turn the table back on your, Mincer, and ask you what your own thoughts and views are? What do you have to add to the discussion?

      For others who are reading this, I’ll go on.

      As to the relevant DI article, I do not agree with everything John says, but I most heartily agree that we need to hold schools accountable – since that was the main topic of his entire article (not taken out of context – you snipped off the rest of the paragraph from which you grabbed the quote), I would think the answer to your question would be quite obvious. Based on what I read from online comments and hearing other parents talk, it is my sad observation that far too many people think bitching about the schools is on par with holding them accountable. I know I am guilty of the former, and I strive for the latter by talking to board members one-on-one and en masse, meeting with and talking to administrators at all levels (district and buildings), participating in board meetings (in the past, in person, but lately via the recordings) and committees (I am on two, but have attended other committee meetings).

      The Unit 4 School Board Policy 105 reads:

      The public schools belong to the people. The people govern the schools under rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and statutes of the state of Illinois. The people exercise their proprietorship through the elective process. They elect state and federal representatives, who establish through the Illinois General Assembly and the United States Congress the framework of law within which the schools operate. The people elect a board of education to represent them and to determine local educational plans and policies and to establish publicly endorsed educational goals and objectives. The board of education functions as an agent of the public within this framework.

      The people are the ultimate governors of public education, and the Board of Education is directly accountable to the people. Accountability is a shared responsibility involving students, staff, the Superintendent of Schools, and the general public.”

      • charlesdschultz Says:

        Just to be fair, I’ll share my own opinion on vouchers. (Again, ask John for John’s opinion, not me *grin*).

        It is my perception that vouchers dangle the carrot of “school choice” in front of parents, but only certain kinds of parents. In general, I am opposed to vouchers. I do not know how they do (or would) work here in Champaign – if they help address the achievement gap and make things more equitable for the low-income crowd, I would be in favor of vouchers.

        What exactly is the “achievement gap”? What is “more equitable”? I started to write a response here, but I think a stand-alone post might be more appropriate. Essentially, some kids are not served well by our public schools. Some of those kids have parents who have the mobility and resources to relocate the student to a different learning environment, but others do not – it is this second group that concerns me. How we (by “we” I mean every single one of us in the community) raise our children (all of them) will determine what our future society will be like. The bottom line is that we need to think about other people’s children and how to place our own desires as a lesser priority. And that is stinking hard!

        If vouchers can be a tool to help reach that end, sign me up. If not, then I will work against them.

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