Pros and cons of the November 4 school tax referendum

I’ll start with the short and sweet, a brief list of some of the advantages and disadvantages of the $148.95 million tax referendum that is up for a vote on November 4th. However this post will run a little long with a number of observations, anecdotes and elaboration on both sides of the issue – the faint of heart need not read the whole thing.

 

 

Pros

  • Addresses capacity issues by building a new school capable of holding 1700 students and renovates an existing school to allow for 1700 total students.
  • Sidesteps the many maintenance issues at the current Central building by building a brand new structure.
  • Addresses the issue of co-located athletic fields for Central (currently lacking).
  • Increases morale and continues the kinetic synergy that has slowly built up among staff and students; the increased excitement gives some an extra dose of energy and optimism.
  • The district administration and board has committed to bringing in a “21st Century Education” with the passage of this referendum, a grand vision with lots of interesting and fascinating ramifications.
  • At the September 8th Board Meeting, a number of innovative and long overdue community partnerships will be announced.
  • The district has a comprehensive and growing list of “Frequently Asked Questions” (aka, FAQ) on the futurefacilities website.
  • The board has finally made a decision to move forward; this has catalyzed a thorough and necessarily critical discussion of the direction we are heading in.
  • With the addition of co-located athletics, allows for more folks to participate who might not have otherwise.

Cons

  • Fails to address any of the maintenance issues at the current Central building that will be required once the building is repurposed.
  • Fails to address any of the other deferred maintenance (at other schools) that has been known for at least a decade.
  • The tax referendum, if it should pass, presents a relatively much larger burden to those on fixed incomes and those who are already struggling to make ends meet.
  • Allows too many “wants” to take a higher priority over the “needs” of the district.
  • We do not know what we are buying – what exactly are we getting for $98 million and $52 million?
  • A detailed list of deferred maintenance (aka, “needs”) is not published as of this writing. Let alone a prioritized list.
  • The district has no viable “Plan B” if the referendum should not pass – the only alternative is to go for the referendum again in 2015 for at least $153 million.
  • The district has yet to present a balanced set of facts; they have not acknowledged the downsides of the referendum very well.
  • Division and burned bridges in the community; instead of working together for the greater good, politics and personal agendas are distracting us from the true, root issues.
  • The 10-year and 20-year plans are not very clear, nor does the community understand them if they are even aware of their existence.
  • Commits the district to building larger schools, which was not chosen as an option during Dejong-Richter.

 

Over the past few weeks, I have visited Central during an early dismissal day due to the heat advisory, talked with board members, teachers and a student, talked to authors of various “letters to the editor” (both for and against the referendum), talked to Executive Director of the Champaign Park District, held an email conversation with Professor Brian Deal, author of the Cost-Benefit Analysis mentioned in the News-Gazette, and communicated with members of the “Friends of Unit 4” campaign encouraging citizens to vote for the Nov 4 referendum. I still have a few teachers and board members that I am hoping to speak with, and I hope to wrap their perspectives into this ongoing story as well. I have received anonymous tips of one type or another, and I have been informed of some upcoming plans that were disclosed on condition of remaining private until publicized by the said party.

 

What strikes me are the various levels of passion (both negative and positive), that whether someone is in favor of or opposed to the referendum, they have some really good points. I think too often people are labeled as being either “for” or “not”, without an appreciation of the greater story, the reasoning behind that decision. So let us dive into that story a little bit.

 

PROS

Let us first go to the perspective that favors the referendum. Based on what I have harvested from those that I have spoken with, there are two major thrusts of the referendum. The first is the most obvious, that of enhancing the high school buildings (and grounds) and bringing them into some kind of compliance (at various levels). The second is a little more subtle, but no less talked about – this fabled “21st Century Education”.

As to the state of the existing buildings, the school district has recently made a very public offer inviting anyone to come in and tour either Central or Centennial in the wake of the November 4th tax referendum announcement. The reasoning is pretty simple here. You walk in on a hot summer-like day into an air-conditioned Seely Hall and your first thought is “This isn’t so bad.” But then you go to the stairs and you immediately notice the humidity and rising temperatures, especially as you head towards the third floor. Each classroom has at least two fans running, many have four or more. Doors and windows are wide open. Water bottles are making frequent trips to recently renovated water fountains that have a new adapter specifically for water bottles (water comes from above). After 15 minutes you are sweating.

But it’s not just the utter lack of an AC unit. The third floor science classrooms, with their 9-foot ceilings, low hanging fluorescent lights, and those famous science lab stations with the black, impenetrable tabletops and accompanying gas and water spigots, are jammed packed with too many students. These classrooms were not designed for 23 students – actually, they might have been designed for 15 at most. Lab equipment that looks to be 30-40 years old are stashed away in glassed-in cabinets, a smart board crowds a white board, and fans are competing for floor space with students.

This is what Unit 4 wants you to see – the building is simply not optimal for teaching today’s curriculum with today’s student population. In short, it sucks. I haven’t even seen the band room yet (our schedules did not work out last week), but I believe that situation sucks as well.

There are other factors that fallout when Central has an early-release day. On one hand, all other schools have AC, including Centennial. Take into account the fact that students are allowed to take class at the other campus if it is not offered at their “home” campus. When Central lets out early, they oscillate between having shortened periods so as to fit all eight into a single day, or cutting out the last two altogether. When the periods are shortened, students cannot travel between Centennial and Central because the whole schedule goes out the window. On a day with only 6 periods, teachers’ plans for those last two periods are thrown out the window. Also when Central lets out early, there are busses to take them home. But no busses to bring them back for athletic events that typically retain the regular schedule. Thankfully, the number of days that Central releases early due to heat is a very small number.

These are just some of the more pressing problems posed by those at Central right now. Let’s talk about this “21st Century Education” thing a little bit. I want to be up front and say that I really love what people are saying when they describe what they think a “new education” looks like. Kerris Lee used words like “project-based learning” and fleshed that out for me. This idea enthralls me – I would really like to see more project-based learning in our schools. Kerris also talked about providing career-track opportunities that bring in partnerships from local businesses and provide professional mentors to aspiring students as a way to motivate and guide students towards a career of their choice; this was covered at the August 11th board meeting as CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies). The student I chatted with mentioned an opportunity to have a student-led group discussion among peers in the context of a class that led to a deeper level of engagement and ownership by the students. This student’s dream is that a new high school will throw open the doors that allow this kind of creative, dynamic and agile approach to education and become more of the norm; on the current condition of Central, the student mentioned that the environment stifles and chokes any such approach due to the physical limits and many obstacles of the building. A teacher I talked to also mentioned something along this line – just by having more space, it allows the classroom to flex its creativity and ingenuity a bit more. The cramped spaces and the (almost) century-old design of the current building seem to be a direct barrier in allowing the staff and students to go to the next level.

There will be more uncovered at the September 8th board meeting. Keep your eyes open.

I have not talked to anyone specifically about athletics. I understand that logistically, it is a nightmare all around, and that having athletic fields in your backyard makes it a ton easier. That’s a no-brainer, and for me, a low-priority item.

 

CONS

And now the other side of the coin. If you have read up to this point, don’t stop now. 🙂

I feel strongly that it is most fiscally responsible (and prudent) to first address the high priority needs of the district. While I agree that we have to do something about Central, I also see a need to address issues at Dr. Howard, Edison and other schools. However, despite many requests (and even a FOIA filed August 24th), the district has yet to provide an accounting of all deferred maintenance items, let alone a prioritized list. Yes, the district has provided a 10-year CIP/HLS that comprehensively details tasks that must be met, by law, in the next 1 and 5 years (with the lowest priority, C, as “eventually”). Ironically, with so much attention on the lack of AC at Central, AC doesn’t even rate a medium-priority item on that list. And the 20-year plan tells us that Dr. Howard needs $30 million worth of work, but we are not told what that $30 million will cover, nor how the items are prioritized. In short, how many of the low-priority items and “wants” are being fast-tracked into a $98 million high school, when there are other deferred maintenance items around the school district that seem like they should have a higher priority? The 10-year HLS identifies $50 million worth of work – where will that money come from? We are not told. When will it be done? We are not told. How can I support a $150 million referendum when I do not understand, or even see, a long-range plan that addresses building issues that have existed for decades? Or what about a long-range plan the corrects the mindset of deferring maintenance? As many have pointed out both here and in other forums like Smile Politey and the News-Gazette online, we need to get better at taking care of what we already have.

If the referendum should in fact not pass, the one and only plan the district has talked about is to try again next year. According to the district’s own “Frequently Asked Questions”, the estimate for the current plan will rise from $148.95 million to $153.45 million next year (going up $4.5 million). That and renting more trailers is their Plan B. That is unsatisfactory. If the voters say “no”, we need to figure out what the voters want. But over and above that, we need to figure out what is best for our community. Have we sufficiently weighed the costs of catching up with the Jones and the impact that has on taxes, the incurred debt we carry and the lack of cohesion in the body politic?

Capacity is probably the bull in the china shop at the moment. As mentioned in the “Pros” section and the two new artciles in the News-Gazette today (Monday, Sept 1), I totally get that the current rooms at Central are woefully overcrowded. Where did we put the 9390 students of 2001? Was overcrowding not an issue then? To address capacity, you have to either increase the size of the building or decrease the number of people in the building. Much of the school district’s argument for a two-high-school model hangs on the results of the Dejong-Richter report, yet the report shows that the people surveyed (a bulk majority being high school students while in class) pretty much want what we already have; what we have is two overcrowded high schools with an average of 1383 students. Dejong-Richter did us a disservice by not plotting out a course that the community embraces, a fact made apparent by the many open comments at board meetings and in online forums.

I have referred to Lisa de la Rue’s literature review many times on this blog. In talking with Ms. de la Rue and observing the public reactions from the board since that report in 2012, it does not seem that the board nor the district stated a position on her conclusion. We are told that we are planning for a capacity of 1700 students, but we are not told the justification for why we are painting a target on that special number. Has the district decided that 1700 students is the optimal size to enhance and deliver the best possible educational opportunities? Perhaps they have, but the community was not in on that discussion at all.

Overall, the biggest problem with the referendum is that we are not aiming at an end-game, but rather we are responding to issues that have become hypercritical due to the negligence of previous decision-makers. Again, I applaud the board for putting their foot down and ending the era of “doing nothing”. Bravo! But we need better planning. It baffles me that with all the years of “talk”, we have no viable long-term plan. The recent High School Vision project is a great start, and I hope it continues and involves thousands (literally) of more people in the near future.

 

Conclusion

I cannot responsibly vote “yes” for this referendum. We have very real issues in our schools right now that very much need to be addressed right now; those need to be prioritized and I would further submit that the public should be allowed to participate in that prioritization and/or vote on a more granular level.  But in the end, you have to make this decision for yourself. Read what the school district says on their futurefacilities website, take advantage of the school tours, talk to teachers, students and board members. Chew on all this. The worst you can do is make an uninformed vote.

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13 Responses to “Pros and cons of the November 4 school tax referendum”

  1. Karen Says:

    ‘The cramped spaces and the (almost) century-old design of the current building seem to be a direct barrier in allowing the staff and students to go to the next level.’
    More space, I agree. But, the design of the building does not have to be a barrier to interaction. The interaction can happen anywhere. Break-out spaces are not some magical thing.
    Project-based learning… 🙂 .

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Karen,

      As was mentioned by Rebecca Patterson I believe “break-out spaces” are not only not magical, but just a recycled idea.

      Let’s go back to the science classroom up on the third floor. If we were to “modernize” it, even after vastly reducing the number of students, some work would still have to go into physically altering it. For starters, the lab stations on the perimeter of the room only seat one student – there are a bevy of unused and cumbersome drawers. I would rip out the drawers and make room for more students to sit at the stations. Also, the gutter running down the middle of the table is problematic and unnecessary, it seems it would be better to cover that up. The smart board overlaps the white board so much that the white board is next to useless. Might be better to line the walls with more whiteboards, or some sort of interactive surface that you put stuff on. I would rip out the lights and put in newer, friendly lights, possibly recessed and put in ceiling fans.

      But whom am I? Let’s have a “project-based learning” workshop to see what students can come up with. Further, it seems to me that many folks have a “build it and they will come” mindset. Kenwood, even before remodeling, was already entering into the 21st Century. How about “build it when they come”? We could go totally radical and expand our idea of “school” to happen in many different places; churches, libraries, online, etc. The days of the one-room school house are long gone, but yet we have a hard time getting past a school model that we have lived with for many decades. We have new tools and we need to use them.

  2. Karen Says:

    What is the ‘next level?’
    With all the next-best-thing claims over the past several decades our schools should be turning out geniuses by now. But, they’re not.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Karen, based on my interactions with a few folks, some clearly have no concrete, feet-on-the-ground idea what the “next level” is, while others actually do have actionable goals and are not just repeating rhetoric. So from that latter group, here is what I am hearing.

      – higher levels of student engagement; this means that students have more control over their education and potential career path, and also that students are more involved in critical thinking exercises. CAPS probably sums this up pretty well.
      – teachers and students are given more flexibility and room for creativity in the curriculum; instead of specific micro-management from above, ideas of how to reach academic rigor can blossom from below. This takes extra work on all involved, but it is believed the rewards pay for themselves many times over. What does it look like? Look at Kenwood – using eToys and Scratch as tools to cover many aspects of Common Core. What if schools can choose any tool?

      Your last point is a good one, but over generalized. We do have geniuses coming out of our schools, but folks like Ken Robinson and others say that is despite our current school system in America. I adhere to the belief that the curent school model is stifling creativity, and the more we break that mold, the more explosive growth we see. The way we do eduation must be dynamic and agile; there are no silver bullets, no pancea that will endure for the next century. “Always in motion is the future.”

  3. pattsi Says:

    A question that I have not heard publicly put before the board is why have you all allowed decision fatigue be the driving force rather than clear cut data driven logic. Maybe the first step would have been to have taken a down time from pushing the HS and put forth a much more reasonable referendum to do the work on Dr. Howard. This would have passed no questions asked. During this time go back to the drawing board and community to have non faux community input conversations to find out what is absolutely needed and the community can afford. This would have been a win-win and begun the process to rebuild trust and openness with the community. The community is in spent out fatigue and this will get worse with the other potential referenda on the horizon.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Pattsi, I think this aligns to what I was trying to say about prioritizing our needs. Whether it be Dr. Howard, Edison, Central or some combination, it makes more sense to address those clear and present needs first. It is interesting to note that in the past 40 years, voters in the Unit 4 School District have only approved one referendum that addresses Operation & Maintenance (1997), and that was by a very fair margin. Why did that one pass when the referenda (for Capital Improvement purposes) of 1983, 1993, 1994 and 2006 fail? Also, what happens when we finish paying those loans back, will property tax go down? Of course not.

      $150 million is a huge chunk of change. I believe it when I hear that the district has somewhere in the ballpark of $200 million in deferred maintenance. It boggles my mind that after decades of talking about these problems we have no clear-cut plan on how to deal with them.

  4. pattsi Says:

    Just to put into perspective for the taxpayers–the county debt level does not go to zero until 2029, if the county borrows no more money. Supposedly the referendum amount debt level will not go to zero until way past that of the county. Up to those dates both entities continue to pay off other bonds. Bottom line is that the tax payer is carrying the debt water for a number of entities for at least a decade and a half. One must remember to add into the amount borrowed as part of the debt the interest being paid. Ouch–does not leave the low income citizens much if any discretionary income to work with and what are these individuals getting in return?

  5. charlesdschultz Says:

    Patrick Wade put out a good article that shows the numbers behind the $150 million referendum in terms of real, long term debt. This is the kind of information I have been looking for.

    http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-08-31/district-taking-conservative-debt-approach.html

    • pattsi Says:

      Indeed, but this is just a small slice of the total picture for the taxpayers and where their monies are going. It is the big picture that is important not more silos.

  6. Rebecca Patterson Says:

    Another con- no idea about operating costs and how to pay them. When the reasons given for replacing a pool are the maintenance costs of the old one and instead of fixing it for a few $100,000 they want to spend over $7 million, what will it cost to take care of the new pool? Plus the buses. We don’t have enough to know about everyday expenses there. Maintaining the fields. We can’t just build a school, we have to take care of it.
    And it’s not just the money, there’s this idea that “if only we had a new building we could teach a different way”. Schools can’t get enough people to mentor as it is. A new program will not change that. Is the gym used every class period? The cafeteria? Are any of the teachers taking their students to the park to work in groups? They don’t have to wait for a new building to try new things. Back in the 70’s, we did this thing were we had classes half the day and the other half we had jobs. Now it’s a program. I feel so old.

  7. charlesdschultz Says:

    I am waiting for those that strongly favor the referendum to pipe up. I know you are out there……

  8. Pros and Cons, part 2 | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] September 1st I published a post about the pros and cons of the upcoming referendum. Even though a couple minor things have been added or changed, overall […]

  9. pattsi Says:

    I still have virtually heard no discussion or news article about the externality costs to the community via other taxing bodies, such as MTD, park district, city of Champaign to cover infrastructure that does not now exist out there, snow plowing, new street construction, more street maintenance, and another FIRE HOUSE plus additional staff for this facility, removal of farm land to contribute economically to the tax base, additional transportation costs, additional time to get to an fro, to name just a few. The conversation is siloed to the amount stated in the referendum, but that is just the beginning of costs not mentioned.


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