Why I voted “no” to the $149 million bond referendum

The question on the ballot reads:

Proposition to Issue $149,000,000 School Building Bonds
Shall the Board of Education of Champaign Community Unit School District Number 4, Champaign County, Illinois, build and equip a new high school building to replace the Central High School Building, build and equip an addition to and alter, repair, and equip the Centennial High School Building, improve school sites, and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $149,000,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?

I also noticed that folks are searching for “champaign school district 4 proposition to issue $149,000,000 school building bonds”

 

After talking to folks on both sides of the issue, reading what materials were available, considering the historical context, I was definitely torn on this issue, but in the end I was compelled to vote “no” on this proposition.

 

In talking to others who also plan to vote “no” (or who already have voted), their reasons are many and varied. Some think the location is horrible, some think the price tag is too high, some just outright do not trust the school district nor the board. In talking to those that support the referendum, they are full of energy and excitement, and full of conviction to give our children “the best.” This made me chew a lot – if anything, I fall in the middle. I found it interesting that when I talked with those who generally did not feel good about the referendum, they often expressed that they felt they were being labeled as being “anti-student” or “anti-public-school”. I have also heard a rumor that teachers are being told that anyone who votes against the referendum also votes against teachers; so far, this remains unsubstantiated (I asked several teachers). Is it possible to oppose the referendum and yet still show teachers and students that you support them? I believe so.

 

Back in April, I mentioned several things that I personally was looking for that would catapult me into a “yes” vote. There are still a few outstanding items on that list. Having said that, there are three factors that have persuaded me the most:

  1. The school district has not had a dedicated planner on staff, and as such, there is no consistent long-term plan, let alone one that has fully engaged the community. To my knowledge, the “living document” of projections and demographic statistics has not been updated, nor was the district left with the necessary tools to do so. The current 20-year strategic plan calls for addressing Garden Hills in 10 years and Edison in 20 years. “Our children deserve world-class educational facilities”
  2. We hear a lot about a “21st Century Education”. However, the precepts of a 21st Century Education are already taking hold in our schools. The vast and ambitious plans to build hi-tech modern high schools are definitely a way for the school district to jump in with both feet in a very public fashion, but I firmly believe a 21st Century Education does not depend on a $98 million high school. I do believe new construction and new renovation would certainly help in a big way. Additionally, it is obvious that many on the board and in district administration want to open the doors of the future by ushering in new facilities. I applaud the forward-looking vision; yet I maintain that the future does not need bright shiny new buildings.
  3. I am very much disturbed by the trend of hiring consultants that do a bare minimum of community engagement, and then turn around a very expensive plan which evolves into a big ticket referendum. Looking at the historical context of referenda (past ballot issues, consent decree and enrollment), we have seen that the school district has a long-standing penchant of seeking new money for new construction as a way to address old problems. When the 1% Sales Tax was passed, the district placed a higher priority on building new schools, renovating several others and paying off previous debt than focusing on the looming problems of Central, Centennial, Dr. Howard and Edison. It is odd that the August heat at Central was not even on the list for mitigation.

 

I wish to reiterate that there are many good reasons to vote in favor the referendum; I want to give credit to those who passionately stand behind Unit 4 no matter what. People like that are much needed. I also note that many stalwart organizations and groups are casting their support behind the referendum, including CUC2C, CFT and possibly “At Promise of Success”. Like I said, I have not arrived at my own personal decision easily, and I am still torn even now.

 

So as not to merely vote “no” and call it a day, I suggest an alternative. In the past I have referenced a “Plan B“. That plan continues to morph and change as I learn more from those I talk with. For instance, Dr. Laura Taylor has convinced me that high school size does not matter (at least, not as much as other more weighted factors in terms of total student achievement). I have also learned that the current building that houses Judah Christian School will not be up for sale in the next two years, probably even further out. It seems to me that one of the most significant priorities of any plan going forward must revolve around what makes an awesome educational environment. I truly believe that the administration and the board believe with their heart that they are pursuing this goal, and I give them all kudos for the bold plans they have laid down, and the taking the initiative in buying a huge swath of land to get the ball rolling.

 

Having said that, here is what I propose:

  • Fully embed and incorporate CUC2C and “At Promise of Success” into the Strategic Plan
  • Retain Central as a high school but cap the enrollment between 900-1000 students to reduce the number of students in each classroom
  • Build a third high school (personally, I don’t really care about the location anymore)
  • Continue to pursue CAPS, Computational Thinking and investing in preparing for the Trades
  • Provide a way for community members to help teachers create awesome learning environments
  • Hire a full-time planner
  • Come up with a new Capital Improvement Plan that prioritizes maintenance projects (including renovations) so as to lengthen the life of all physical structures
  • Pursue and implement distance learning options, with the intent to eliminate busing between schools for classes at one physical location
  • Don’t hire any more consultants; moderators that facilitate discussion panels and deliberations are ok
  • Always invite disagreement and healthy, public debate

 

Of course, I could be completely and utterly wrong. You are welcome to comment either way, but I especially value your constructive criticism and ideas for how you would improve the future. Regardless of how we vote, I do think it is very important for each of us to be involved with students, teachers and/or schools. I urge you to volunteer, whether it be over lunch, as a tutor, or just giving up an hour whenever needed, or sign up to be a mentor. The mission of the Unit 4 School District says it works “in partnership with the community”. We all need to work together to make that happen, and I am convinced that getting involved is one of the best investments you can possibly make.

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15 Responses to “Why I voted “no” to the $149 million bond referendum”

  1. Rebecca Patterson Says:

    I have a question. Both high schools have shop space. Convert it to classroom space at both, and do other remodeling they both need but probably not to the extent they are thinking now. Or make it band space at Central. Build a single well equipped trades school for both schools to use, so they would have hands-on at the facility and math, etc. at their home school. Why duplicate it? It would pull kids out of the schools part of the day and ease congestion, much less money short-term and long-term. Pay off more debt first, get more done first on critical needs, have longer range plans put in place. We may see the community grow more north, when there’s less debt.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Rebecca, not a bad idea. I would still want to reduce busing between schools during the day – how would we put shop class and all trade-associated classes at one school and not have students go back and forth? I can’t think of a good way to combine “distance learning” and shop class. 🙂 It just isn’t the same. But yes, why dupcliate? Great question.

      What do you think? How would you implement your idea if you were superintendent?

      • Rebecca Patterson Says:

        One idea, Central kids use it in the morning, Centennial in the afternoon. Switch at lunch. But that doesn’t help with overcrowding and I really want kids to mix it up, network. Improve the parking at Central, make sure the Tech school has good parking to work for those who drive, and have the school bus passes work for those trips, maybe with a sticker like the semester ones. Even if there was a slight jump in that cost it would be cheaper than what we are looking at. If classes were scheduled right there could be a shuttle from one school to the tech school, pick up, on to the other school in a loop.

  2. pattsi Says:

    As shown in this reply post, there probably hundreds of great ideas as how increasing high school student population can be accommodated and move toward including curriculum once again that was put to rest by previous administrations but is needed now as job training skills.
    I do not agree in any way, shape, or form that where another school building is placed is not important. To throw in the towel on that type of decision making process that will effect the community for half a century makes no sense.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Pattsi, I stand corrected; yes, it is important to consider location. So let me turn the table a little. You would like to put a third high school at Neil and Bradley, or Bristol Park, correct? What would happen to Stratton and Columbia Center/FIC/ACTIONS? How much would it cost?

  3. pattsi Says:

    If the school was sited spanning the 4 corners at Bradley and Neil, connected by pedwalks, which is done all the time, this becomes the perfect situation to integrate high school students into responsible educational roles with elementary students and potential student work experiences at Columbia. We talk and talk and talk about providing environments for teenagers to have growing experiences. What better way to lay the ground work to accomplish this rather than isolate the HS students north of the freeway.

    With all due respect, size of HS does make a difference unless the model is EvanstonTwnshp HS. As I have previously mentioned I graduated from East HS in Denver. My class had a 1000 students. The HS had 4000. Denver that this was not a good configuration and not many years later began adding HS. My HS graduating class was larger than some colleges and certainly larger than many college graduating classes. It is a bit hard for a teenager to find and define an identity under these circumstances.

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    I am unable to attend the Sunday evening discussion at the Rose & Taylor, but I am very curious how that goes. it is my belief that the folks at Rose & Taylor represent a lot of what the north end thinks. I look forward to hearing from anyone that is able to participate in that excellent discussion.

    • Rebecca Patterson Says:

      When is that scheduled for? At BTW they weren’t interested in answering questions. Most staff were leaving during the program with plates full of fish.

      • charlesdschultz Says:

        Rebecca, sorry for the late response:
        6:00 – 8:00 pm at the Rose & Taylor Barber and Beauty Shop

  5. Jess Says:

    I’m sorry to see that you have voted no on the referendum, it is going to be difficult to pass and each vote is needed. Though it appears that you are trying to educate yourself and the community at large, I believe that some of your opinions and those that share some of your views are incorrect. To respond to a few ideas expressed here and throughout this debate.

    First, hiring a planner, I’m not sure what that is but I believe it is a staff person that would develop some plans for the district on renovations and upgrades. Assuming I’m correct, I think that you would most likely need at least 2 professional positions and some support staff. Those salaries, benefits, retirement (which appears likely to be headed to local districts to pay) is going to amount to sizeable administrative cost that will continue ad infinitum. I do not believe that we need more administration taking money from other staff/faculty, etc. The consultants have drawbacks but they are not on-going expense forever.

    The three HS option just also doesn’t seem to work in a community our size. This option requires three complete sets of basic educational faculty/staff at the cost of millions of dollars, over even short amount of time, again, salaries, benefits, retirement, etc. As mandated by state/fed statute you are going to have to offer basic curriculum at each location and then plans will need to be devised to educate or account for ‘gifted/advanced placement courses’ ‘industrial arts’, developmentally disabled, special education, remedial students, social workers etc., etc. Again, in a general sense these faculty/programs are mandated by state/federal statute and each school will need to have most/all of these staff available.

    The location at least mentioned a time or two of having a HS located on 4 corners at Bradley/Neil seems untenable. Students in cold winter time are going to need to walk from building-to-building and what happens when someone falls on the street or gets run over by a car on icy roads that cannot stop. As much as I don’t believe we need to coddle these little darlings at all cost, this option just seems unworkable. If the thought is to build cross-walk like Carle has over University, then construction cost will skyrocket. To assure these types of cross-walks are safe to truck traffic, they would need to be built at 3-4 stories high. If you are doing this on all 4 corners then you are looking at an equivalent of a 12-16 story building with the added expense of foundation multiplied by 4. This along with heating/cooling cost. Will there be 4 separate systems or will you want to spend exorbitant amounts to run ‘steam tunnels’ similar but on smaller scale to that at the U of I. Additionally, this option doesn’t account for faculty let alone student parking, traffic congestion, athletic/PE fields and general traffic pattern at what is already one of the busiest intersection in CU. Also are thee two separate schools as designated by IHSA or one co-op school.

    Our city continues to grow; we need to provide exceptional educational opportunities that include moderate facilities. There is no good or easy solution for us or the growing communities throughout the country. As much as I hate to admit it, we in Champaign as well as Illinois in general are getting pushed aside in the educational landscape by neighboring states/communities that are investing in both facilities as well as upgrades in curriculum. I do not want to pay additional taxes, but building a new HS and remolding another every 50 years does not seem outrageous to me.

    • pattsi Says:

      Jess, just a coupe of clarification points as an urban planner, which is the position often spoken about that is missing within the Unit 4 administration. An urban planner, on the assumption that the district would have used the individual to full benefit, would have laid out a 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 year plans for the district taking into account changing demographics, community growth, advances in the delivery of education, building space needs, land space needs, etc. that would be updated every 5 years. Had this individual been in place several decades ago, this community would not be in the squeeze plan that is now playing out. Past boards sold many school, one of which right now is part of a conversation related to the Spaulding area.

      As to the intersection of Bradley and Neil–I have written about this ad nauseam. Each time I have written about this possibility, I have mentioned ped walks connecting the buildings, aka the Carle complex, let alone how this is done in many places around the country. Putting a building on the four corners would not be the height you mention. I have no idea where you come up with this description. The stated goal right now spread all over land is 300,000 sq feet. Divide this by 4 = 70,000 per building section. Now divide this by 4 stories and each is about 18,000 = the size of a grocery store. Actually when one breaks it down in this manner, one might wonder about 300,000 sq. ft. need with the fast changes in the delivery of education. On top of this when Spaulding was being discussed, the building height was 4 stories.

      As to parking needs, this is the whole point of wanting to keep the HS south of I-74. The plan for the purchased site is parking area for 2500 cars. This is 80 acres of highly productive park land that is now covered by a 300,000 sq. ft school along with the square footage to accommodate 2500 cars. All of this covering of permeable, valuable, productive farmland add extensively to the flooding issues of this community.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Jess, I very much appreciate your perspective – for a long time I have wanted those who disagree with me to join in the conversation.

      In responding to your questions and comments, I want to make it clear that there is still a lot I do not know myself. I am not an expert in any of these matters, I am merely a concerned citizen.

      I think what concerns me the most is the unbounded and unplanned growth that occurs at all levels. The federal government is surely responsible for some excellent conveniences in our country, like national transportation in the form of planes, trains and automobiles (sorry, I had to), but not so well known for the runaway lack of accountability in how trillions of dollars are spent, and the massive financial inequities our so-called capitalistic society has created. Like so, the City of Champaign (as with Savoy and probably many others) has no “end game” in mind at all, just pure, unadulerated growth for sake of growth itself. It is labeled as “economic growth” but it is very unclear to me how everyone benefits from this growth; it is abundantly clear that some do indeed benefit, but not all.

      The school district is in a unique position within these other entities; the superintendent cannot really say “ok, we are going to aim for 12,000 total students and then after that we close the doors.” No, we try to take in as many as possible. Apparently at the high school level, we can take in 3% more people than we have capacity for. Coupled with this, there has been an utter lack of long-term planning, a dastardly and devious problem handed down by previous admnistrations and previous boards. I fully understand that the current decision-makers inherited this mess, and again I understand they are not just twiddling their thumbs but are taking decisive action. There is a certain value in that action which I do very much appreciate.

      But there is an element of “growing without bounds” that occurs in the school district as well. Part of it is in the mindset that we have been locked into for several decades. Why do we need so many administrative positions? You mentioned the need to scale the existing staff in a linear fashion if we go with a third high school – why? With a roughly $130 million budget, we spend roughly $66 million on “instruction”. I realize the state mandates so many things which accounts for a vast majority of the other expenses; as you mentioned below, ADA accomodations, special ed, etc etc. Yet why do we put up with the state telling us what to do, when it consistently fails to meets its own constitutional obligation to properly fund education? There are just so many thing wrong with this picture and we are not yet pissed off enough to do anything about it.

      You closed your statement with your inevitable acceptance of building and remodeling every 50 years, if that is what it takes. I agree in the sense that public education should command a huge chunk of our attention, but I disagree in that to me this seems like an irresponsible maintenance plan for our resources. The analogy I use is that it is like buying a car every 5 years because the oil is not changed on a regular basis. Why is it acceptable that a building should only last for 50 years, or even 100 years? Why not have higher expectations?

      I agree, having a third high school (or even a consolidated high school as some favor), and/or building at Neil & Bradley do present their own problems. As you said yourself, there are no perfect solutions. For me personally, I arrived at my decision because I do not buy a Cadillac to replace my Honda if I have not brought it in for routine maintenacne. I believe we are obligated to take a careful look at what we truly need, and then, as a community, decide on how which path best takes us to the destination. We will never all agree, but it is important (in my opinion) that we all partcipate. And maybe in the end, my way is actually not the best way. Maybe, in the end, the $149 bond issue is actually the best thing in the long run. If only I could foresee the future.

      I look forward to continuing this conversation with you. I apologize for the length of this response.

      • Jess Says:

        Again, thank you for this forum.

        In response to your note above, I can assure you that it would be difficult to find someone much more fiscally conservative than I am. However, at some point we need some expenditure for govt. services, in this case schools. If I was king I would assure you that I would eliminate about 90% of the regulations at state/fed level and let individual entities control their fate. This is what the Founders set-up. However the reality is that we will not any time soon repeal ADA and the rest of the ‘alphabet soup’ in relation to the current school issues for Champaign. So we must work with the hand we are dealt. Thus, had there not been such an on-going difficult, stubborn recession we would not be looking at the current proposed site for Central as it would have been developed in some fashion and we would therefore be dissecting some other site that would also have major drawbacks.

        Though an apples to oranges comparison, I have relatives in the Dallas TX. Metroplex and in their area alone (not the whole metroplex) they are building their 11th HS in 15 years with academic/athletic amenities that would make Donald Trump blush. What they are building almost every year dwarfs our community trying to build just one HS in the past 50 years and remodel another. Again, the area is certainly different than CU, but so is the scale. (Sorry I digress.)

        I don’t think we are trying to trade a Honda for a Cadillac as you state and yes we can always have additional maintenance on current structures but all of our schools are used by 1,000’s of students each year and at some point no amount of general upkeep is going to save us from a massive remodel and/or new buildings.

        I hope the referendum passes, there is no good/easy solution there never is with projects of this size and scope. I hope everyone educates themselves on this topic. Any proposal that I have heard of has major obstacles, I do hope we are least past the question of needing a new school and a major remodel of the other HS.

        Champaign’s plan is to grow north and west. Can’t go east or too much south as you quickly run into Urbana and Savoy. A HS north (current proposal) one that is central, (it just so happens to currently be called Centennial, but it is located in what is almost the geographical center of Champaign) and maybe in the future 30-40 years a south-west HS seems to make the most sense at this point, at least to me. I hope the current Central can be repurposed for educational/administrative use though construction and asbestos concerns is going to make any change/remodel and expensive proposition.

        With the U of I, Carle, Kraft, and countless of small/large tech companies our community is one of the most educated areas in all of Illinois, we need to promote these entities with educated students that progress from K-12 and have academic programs, faculty/staff and yes physical structures that facilitate these learning endeavors.

        Thanks again for the forum.

  6. Unit 4 on the radio | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] with Jess’s comment last night, I feel these are great conversations to be having, if only a year ago. 🙂 There was a […]

  7. Jess Says:

    Patsi
    The idea of the HS at the corners of Bradley/Neil is intriguing, I just still am not sure it could ever work. Again, having three HS and thus three sets of faculty seems cost probative at this point in our town size, etc. However, I’m still not sure that I understand the concept per paragraph 2 of your reply. Am I correct that you would have a total of four buildings one on each corner of the intersection with four (aka, Carle) crosswalks between each building. Would you propose that each building be approximately 3-4 stories in height? I believe each building must be at least three stories high so that the crosswalk would be high enough to not restrict truck/delivery traffic.

    So if I am correct in my assumptions then on the SW corner, Columbia could be repurposed for building A. The NW corner would have an entity (government body) declare eminent domain and repurpose the park for building B. (Maybe the Park District would sell the park, I don’t know.) On the NE corner again you would obtain the houses that are there through eminent domain or again maybe the owners would be willing to sell the property for building C, then lastly on the SE corner I believe there is a daycare we would again declare eminent domain and put building D.
    Again, I thought that was your idea and again please clarify.

    If I’m correct in my assumptions, big if, then we would need some type of heating/cooling for each building and we would need elevators and other ADA accommodations for each building. Again, I think these ‘facts’ start to make this an expensive proposition that only resolves about 1/2 of the issues we face for a HS.

    Also, whether a school is built or not on the proposed site, that land is not going to stay farm/park land for long. The city plan is to have commercial or similar use and I think it is inconceivable that within the next 5 years that there will not be a HS, apartment complex, strip mall or similar at the proposed location. The city will continue to grow in that area, with or without a HS.

    I’m a fan of the current plan/location as the best solution at this time. There is no perfect place. Again, thanks to the moderator for this forum.


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