The new referendum

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-01-09/updated-dr-howard-now-mix-champaign-ballot-proposal.html

 

At a reduction of about 3.36%, the overall price-tag of the proposed bond issue is not much different at all. The big element of change is what exactly that money is going towards: totally rebuilt Dr. Howard, needed upgrades and work at the current Central, at the cost of significantly reduced work at Centennial and no “turf” at the new Central. In my talks with Kerris, board members had also discussed a different version that weighed in at $139 million – still, not much but at least a token gesture. 🙂

 

I’ll say it up front – as I told Denise Martin and Dan Ditchfield (chairs of the 2014 “YES” committee), right now I am leaning towards a “yes” on this vote. But I still have big hangups (six, in fact) that I fear never will be addressed.

 

Hangup #1

Why can’t we vote on pieces of the referendum? Why is it all or nothing? I think it is outstanding that the board and district administration FINALLY put Dr. Howard in the spotlight, and FINALLY decided to put HVAC at Central (tired of the trolls about holding Central students hostage?). I am still dumbfounded why those were left off the table in 2014. But we still have a $94.5 million high school being planned for Interstate Drive (I am not even going to get into Dodds Park thing now). That’s a lot of money, and still at a site that a large number of people do not support. From my point of view, it totally sucks that we have to vote for all of it or none of it.

 

Hangup #2

All the focus is on location, capacity and addressing the issues of aging physical plants. Show me the correlation between $1 spent and an increase in academic achievement. In 8+ years of talking, why do we still have unanswered questions in regards to how a referendum will boost the “output” of our school district? We have some excellent educational initiatives, including CTRL-Shift, CU Cradle to Career, and At Promise of Success, but these are not rolled into the language of the referendum at all.

 

Hangup #3

While I appreciate that board members met with each other, and someone met with some “no” voters (who talked to whom?), I don’t like that so much is happening behind closed doors. I appreciate that board member Kerris Lee has been filling me in on a number of details (like the $139M alternative that we still have not seen), but why is so much hidden from public view? I don’t get it that “we have been talking about this for 8 years” but then in a last ditch effort to “tweak” a failed referendum, some very important items are put on the table. There is something very wrong with this picture.

 

Hangup #4

I still very much want to see a super-majority vote. Counter to what the article says about the expected results for the 2014 referendum, I expected things to be close. I actually thought it might be a little closer. I expect this tweak is going to win over a few more votes; it is hard to say what the expectation will be given how voters in Champaign vote quite differently in a Spring Consolidated Election. But personally I want to see a vote that is 75% united. How do we get that? See my previous post about a successful school board and community engagement. There is a lack of ownership and concensus that is going to continue to make public support challenging.

 

Hangup #5

I still don’t see a big overall plan. Yes, we have the 20-year facility plan (which will now have to be updated to account for changes at Centenial, the current Central and Dr. Howard); yes, I understand that took a lot of work to compile, and yes, I realize it signifies that someone is trying to do some planning. But more importantly, how are we going to keep ourselves from winding up in this stupid place again? Tom Kacich had a good response in today’s “Tom’s Mailbag” about why we are where we are:

“As to how Champaign got into the predicament, my take is that school administrators and board members for decades were preoccupied with other issues and ignored their aging buildings and growing enrollments. Now that those issues have finally been addressed school leaders have taken note.”

Yes, decades!! That should be a little scary.

Here is the problem with the current referendum and 20-year facility plan – nobody is painting the big picture that we are going to have to go out for YET ANOTHER referendum to fix up all the still existing problems. My understanding is that we have a number of “Health/Life/Safety” (HLS) issues that are supposed to be paid out of a HLS fund, but my understanding is also that we have no such fund. I am still trying to seek out the facts about that. Beyond HLS, what about the expansion work at Centennial that is supposed to help us prepare for future enrollment? Who is going to pay for that? We have a number of things that are stacking up that might get paid when 1% sales tax money becomes available again (2024?). We seem to be spending money we do not have, hence our current annual $8 million debt service and the need to go out and get a $144 million bond issue. Ouch.

 

Hangup #6

We are getting a minimum of 3 new board members in April; in other words, at a bare minimum, three people who worked on crafting the current referendum will not even be on the board after the vote. The number of new faces could potentially be as high as 5 (out of a total of 7). And if Board President Laurie Bonnett should happen to win Frerich’s old seat and choose to resign from the board (my understanding is that this is her choice, it is not required), that will be a maximum of 6 or a minimum of 4 new faces. That’s got to be a little rough.

 

Conclusion

So with these hangups, am I stupid crazy to be leaning towards a “yes”? We have been totally screwed over by previous boards and administrative officials. As the general rule in Illinois now, we have for too long borrowed against the future, and now our debts are due. In fact, for me personally, it is more imporant who we vote in as board members than how we vote on the referendum. That is the reason why I wrote my previous post, and why I intend to follow-up with another post about characteristics I am looking for in board members (and the board president). If we want better results, we must change the very process itself. Unfortunately, it is easier to address the “surface” issues of a school site or whether we put in HVAC at an old building. I hope we begin to wake up to the fact that we will forever have disagreements about many of the details, but at some point we must work, and even collaborate, on the bigger issues.

 

A framework for a successful school board

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through the IASB’s (Illinois Association of School Boards) website, and reading through two of John and Miriam Carvers’ books on Policy Governance (“Boards the Make a Difference“, “Reinventing Your Board“). While the IASB uses the Carvers’ work as a backdrop, they have clearly shaped it into something much more practical (it seems) and relevant for school boards, especially boards here in Illinois. This post will be my attempt to bring this framework even closer to home, outlining what I would like to see in Unit 4. Having said that, I readily acknowledge that there is a lot of work involved, and that these things do not just happen overnight. As the IASB is prone to say, the entire thing is a process, not a project. I also acknowledge that the IASB borrows a lot from Diane Ravitch, whom some of you may not hold in high regard.

 

The IASB has listed six “Foundational Principles” (<- please read!) that comprise this framework:

  1. The Board Clarifies the District Purpose
  2. The Board Connects With the Community
  3. The Board Employs a Superintendent
  4. The Board Delegates Authority
  5. The Board Monitors Performance
  6. The Board Takes Responsibility For Itself

I especially appreciate the opening salvo under number 1:

“As its primary task, the Board continually defines, articulates and re-defines district ends to answer the recurring question — who gets what benefits for how much? Effective ends development requires attention to at least two key concerns: student learning and organizational effectiveness.”

Basically, the board, having “connected with the community”, establishes a primary goal for the school district and then sets the wheels in motion to make sure that 1) the district stays aligned and on path towards the goal, 2) continually communicates with the “owners” to clarify said goal. In some ways, it might seem overly simplistic; the board tells the Superintendent to do a certain job, and that’s it. The board does not micromanage, the board does not necessarily care about report after report after report, the board does not have to bless every single decision the district staff makes. The board’s main purpose is making sure that the “ends” decided upon by the “owners” are being met. And I believe the IASB framework provides the steps to make sure that happens.

So even though clarifying the district purpose is listed as number 1, and I believe that indeed is the primary purpose of the school board, the second item, true “community engagement”, is the means by which the purpose is defined in the first place.

The IASB has published a paper called “Connecting with the Community: the Purpose and Process of Community Engagement as part of Effective School Board Governance“. It is 46 pages, and makes a strong argument for a better way of allowing the “owners” to have ownership. What does that mean? Who are these “owners”? From page 10:

Community engagement addresses “owner” concerns. It is not designed to address “customer” concerns. Customer concerns, such as dissatisfaction with a particular teacher or textbook, or questions about day-to-day operations, are best addressed by professional educators. For school boards, owner concerns are long-term, big picture issues about values and beliefs, mission, vision and goals — the community’s core values. School boards are uniquely qualified to address these owner concerns because they are elected, volunteer citizens who can engage their neighbors in these important conversations about the community’s purposes for its schools and the resources the community is willing to provide for its schools.

 

I believe Unit 4 has slowly been improving the way it addresses owner concerns, starting with the creation of a Community Relations Coordinator position. Here is a roadmap of sorts presented on page 22:

4_stages_of_community_engagement

Clearly, Unit 4’s Community Relations Coordinator has embraced the first stage very well and has done much to better INFORM the community. The focus groups, surveys and meetings done with DeJong-Richter were an example of the CONSULT stage. The district will say they have also done a number of workshops under the INVOLVE stage, such as planning Carrie Busey before it was built, the current programming going on for the new Central, and a number of other cases. These latter examples (from the INVOLVE stage) are typically not well published or well-known, but they do happen. To truly give ownership to the voters and tax-payers, I firmly believe we need to fortify what the board does for the last two stages, INVOLVE and COLLABORATE. I will reiterate that the responsibility for this work falls under the board; whether they set out to achieve all four stages directly or delegate, it should be clear that the board’s fingerprints are all over the efforts involved.

 

From page 23:

“It is important to keep in mind that as the board builds these partnerships with the community the ultimate end goal of community engagement is to enable school boards and public schools to work effectively as truly democratic institutions that provide a collective benefit. The benefit is public education.”

After going through all these materials, I started to wonder, if the IASB provides a bulk of the training for school boards, why do we not see this framework behind the work of the board? I think I might have an explanation – it is my hope that once we realize what we have been doing, we can set about a new direction.

The IASB provides two “classes” as part of the “mandatory*” board member training (* mandatory as in required by Illinois State Law). One is the Open Meetings Act (OMA), which can be done either through IASB, or even online through the Attorney General’s office. The other is “A minimum of 4 hours of Professional Development Leadership training, including Education and labor law, Financial oversight and accountability, and Fiduciary responsibilities”. Isn’t it odd that the “Foundational Principles” are not even part of the training? When talking to representatives of IASB, I learned that they view themselves as an advisory group – they do not audit, police or monitor boards to ensure that they are actually following the IASB stated “best practices”. I will also note that the training events hosted by the IASB tend to be a little expensive, which is really a shame. Maybe we sponsor a single passionate board member (or candidate?) to attend one significant training event with the expectation that they will then be able to train others. Any other ideas?

 

Bottom line

So here is my challenge for current and future board members:

  1. Commit to reading, researching, and practicing the “Foundational Principles” as espoused by the IASB
  2. Commit to reading, understanding, and implementing the “Connecting with the Community” paper
  3. Sign this promise

 

Next post: I plan to follow-up with a post about what characteristics I am looking for in a board president and board members. My goal is to vote on April 7th (Consolidated Election) for those that are willing to sign the promise, or at least give me a very good explanation of why they cannot. *grin*