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.