Chat with Arlene Blank about the PMPK committee

I had a fantastic talk with Arlene Blank recently. For those who may not be aware, Arlene has been with Unit 4 for several decades, employed in various positions (she reminded me how she hired Greg Novak way back when as the librarian at Edison) both before and after retirement and has served on the board for multiple (different) stints. Arlene also mentioned that she played a role in the 1% Sales Tax referendum; as the Board President of the time, her name was on the document that went to the County Board to be put on the ballot, so she felt some responsibility in being involved in the Promises Made Promises Kept Committee when it was formed in 2009. Although not her intent, she was elected as the board chair and has been so ever since.

 

It quickly became clear to me that there are many different opinions about the PMPK committee (not just between Arlene and I, but with others in the community as well). I hope to do justice to various perspectives and most importantly, keep the door of communication open as the invitation to disagree remains standing.

 

Before going further, I feel obligated to confess that I finally did find the many PMPK reports online. While scrumaging around on my own, I noticed that the Agenda PDFs for each meeting actually include a myriad of detailed reports. For example, the December 12th agenda includes 41 pages of tables, numbers and fund details. So I have mixed feedback for Unit 4 on this; 1) Kudos for putting this very detailed and data-heavy information online, 2) the placement and format is not user-friendly at all. Arlene is aware that finding stuff on the PMPK website is challenging and has asked that it be made easier. I am thinking, all they really need is a separate tab for “related documents”. It would be super nice if they could post documents in the source format instead of this PDF image crap, but small steps first. 🙂

 

One thing I really like about Arlene is that she does not shy away from raw data. For many years, she contacted the county clerk’s office to collect live birth data to be used in the Gardner-Wohler’s Enrollment Projection System. She dives into the reams of financial documents. Arlene is very keen when it comes to needing the finer details of transactions, and is not satisfied with mere summaries. Which is somewhat funny because when I asked about making the information more palatable to the average Joe, she insists that people need to see things at the granular level. And here is where I think we might have the first large gap to bridge; the district is indeed “being transparent” in that they have put the reports (and agendas and meeting minutes, most of them) online, but on the other hand, aside from being hard to find and having to tilt your head, they are for the most part really hard to read and digest. Unless you have a degree or background dealing with numbers. To that end, I think we need both – we need both the 10,000 foot view (with pretty charts and graphs) and the minutiae of line-items. And something that links them together.

 

If you look over various agendas as posted on the PMPK site, and look at the meeting minutes side-by-side, you will see hand-written notations at various points and mentions of how Matt Foster (or someone else) takes some time to explain various aspects of the reports. Arlene reiterated that the PMPK committee meetings are technically open for the public to observe, and usually the presenters are rather good about introducing new members to the jargon and concepts. I found this to be true when I attended my first PMPK meeting in 2009. Arlene lamented that nobody from the media ever attends these meetings; which made me think, why are the meetings not recorded? The audio segment is the most significant aspect of these meetings, why not post a podcast? And this is where I see the second large gap to be bridged; Unit 4 puts out a ton of information and opens the door for participation, but typically this is limited to Unit 4 meetings. You have to actually go to the Mellon Center (or FIC) in order to partake of this goodness. What are the alternatives? Podcasts would be one. What if committee members blogged and/or had discussion forums? I am sure you could come up with some other creative ideas as well.

 

This begs an even bigger question – how do you get the community and the school district to collaborate? I have a meeting scheduled with Dr. Wiegand to discuss “Community Involved Planning” and I hope to learn a lot about the perspective of the district and the superintendent. Pattsi points me the examples of the John Street Watershed Project and the community engagement efforts of the CU Citizens for Justice and Peace. I think it takes folks on both sides of the fence have to be willing to sacrifice a little in order to gain a lot, and fortunately, I see this happening little by little. Much more so than in the previous administration. I think folks like me just get impatient with the slow crawl. But perhaps going slow is more organic and the best way to move forward.

 

The upcoming build-up surrounding the high school referendum will be a good test of how community engagement is progressing. If only we could have a post-vote poll or exit survey asking why people voted the way they did in November – that would be very helpful information to have. 🙂

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Chat with Arlene Blank about the PMPK committee”

  1. pattsi Says:

    If you want a post vote survey, engage folks in the UIUC COE and department of political science to set up a research project to do this.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    To clarify one point I made about the PMPK documents being online….

    The so-called “internal” website (think of it as the archived version) has a historical view of the Committee website, and from there we can see that the supplemental documents were concatenated with the agenda starting in 2013. And just recently, I noticed this pattern being “back-filled” on the “live” website in 2012 (not replicated on the “internal” site), whereas not to long ago 2012 was completely bare of details.

    So it looks like the district is retroactively providing the supplementary documents and for that I am thankful. I still wish it was easier to find, but at least they are getting out there now.


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