Feb 13th BOE meeting: more on community involvement

The agenda posted for the Feb 13th BOE meeting has a couple community engagement pieces you might want to learn more about: “My Family’s Promise Plan Pilot” and a draft of a new policy to support Community Schools “Policy 831 – Community Schools“.

 

I had an excellent chat with Orlando Thomas and Angela Smith last week. I had asked a few questions about discipline, and came away from the meeting being very much encouraged about the work going on in Unit 4. One of my take-aways is that the school district yearns for more collaboration with the community. And it seems that the two agenda items listed above is very much in line with the need for more partnerships.

 

Another take-away was that our public schools could really use more mentors (eg the one-to-one mentoring program and also TALKS mentoring). So much so that when I asked Orlando how the community can help right now, that was his number one request. In fact, Orlando has been asking for more mentors for many years now. As a one-to-one mentor myself, I would be happy to talk to anyone else if you are interested.

Questions about finances

I don’t know about you, but every time the topic of money (levies, tax abatement, fund transfers or anything else to do with finances) comes up in board meetings, I feel like a secret language is being used which I do not fully understand (is it Elvish? Klingon?). I mean, I can look up the terms and understand the words that are used, and by doing so, I can slowly chip away at the information that is presented. But by no means would I say that I have a clear picture. Having asked several questions and finding myself still perplexed, a friend suggested I just put the questions in a blog post and see if anyone else can provide some clarity. Or at least commiserate. *grin*

 

This first question I have asked many times over the past few years; can a Unit 4 5th grader present the finance information to the community? Whether it be in the context of a public hearing of a new budget or abatement, I want to know if a 5th grader can not only understand the information, but then also communicate it back out to the community in a language and style that is easy to digest. A few years ago I chatted with Matt Foster and developed a sample Sankey chart of the FY14 budget – for me, visualization helps a lot. This is just one step towards better understanding. I have also asked that jargon like “levy” and “abatement” not be used to explain “levy” and “abatement”.

 

On the topic of levies, I have queried board members about how the district settles on a tax levy amount (the “ask”). From what I gather, the district attempts to make an informed, educated guess about how much money is coming in via the tax rolls, and sets a levy amount that they know to be slightly over the amount they think they can take in an effort to “capture” any new taxes. The reason they submit a guess is that the Champaign County Clerk ultimately decides what the tax levy will be (based on the EVA, or “economic value added”), and due to an unfortunate timing of events, entities that levy taxes, by law, must submit their levy amounts even though the amount of money collected by taxes is not known until several months later. So in essence, levying entities in a “home-rule government” (Unit 4, MTD, Forest Preserve, etc – Parkland is not constrained by “tax caps” or PTEL, as a counter example) either declare some artificial maximum tax rate that will later be tuned down by the County Clerk, or if they set an amount that is less than the maximum, they “lose” the difference when taxes are actually collected. It’s all pretty stupid – I don’t know who wrote the laws that muck things up like that. But this brings me to my second question: why not just always levy for one billion percent? (Yes, 1,000,000,000%) Or choose some other completely arbitrary number that will always be “maximum”. Because in the end, no matter what number the district settles on, they always want it to be some (at the time) unknown “maximum”. It seems to me that this would at least make things a bit less confusing – you just basically skip all the nonsense and tell the County Clerk to assign the highest number possible. Until the laws change. (I settled on 1B% because it is absolutely ludicrous – it reflects the silly dance we do every year)

 

And finally my last question for today. What role do the various funds (ie, Fund 60, Fund 61) have, and when money is moved from one fund to another, exactly what is the intended purpose? I believe there is a document on the Unit 4 website that describes some of the funds, but at this time I cannot find it. More importantly, when there is a public hearing, currently all the documentation is presented in “State Form”, a format that is sent directly to the State for legal purposes. It is exceptionally hard to make sense of, and I have no idea why monies are moved from one fund to another.

 

I had the privilege of speaking with Gene Logas several times when he was the CFO at Unit 4; after one of those chats, Mr. Logas published several informative and helpful documents that are still listed on the “Finance department” section of the Unit 4 website, in particular, “Where Does All the Money Go?” and “Property Tax Lesson“. I applaud the district for going through the trouble of putting check registers, yearly budgets and many other pieces of information on their website. This is an excellent step towards transparency! The next step is helping taxpayers understand the information.

Finding the good: awesome teachers and excellent opportunities

Today I was watching the most recent Board Meeting (Jan 23), and I was reminded that I wanted to write a post (several posts, actually). Aside from the important-but-dry communications about legal issues, bonds, finances, “construction management at risk” (it sounds worse than it is, lol), etc etc, I have been very impressed by the Staff Spotlights, not to mention the occasional report about some really cool things at various schools, like what was hinted by the Kenwood presentation.

 

At this last board meeting, there was a double dose of Staff Spotlights, honoring three outstanding individuals – from the Jan 23rd 8A agenda item:

Ms. [Lindsay] Green sees her students as people. She wants them to be successful both academically and personally. She was recently touched by the tragedy of a student suicide. She has since looked at her curriculum and how she can wrap around students as people and as students. She uses literature to help students be successful and active members of our society. She creates a space where students are heard, valued, and helped. Her students know and recognize her as a person who can be easily identified for support and advocacy. She is a teacher that I frequently use as a model to emulate. She is a teacher that all of us hope to be. She is a life changer. She is a safe space. She is an excellent teacher.

Every day, regardless of any outside factors or variables, both Tami [Fisher] and Iyana [Jones] show up to work with an attitude that puts what is best for our students first. They are experienced, confident, and understand how to work with students at baseline as well as those in crisis. The most amazing thing about these two is the work they put in outside of school hours to benefit our students. Be it service projects, going to see student sporting events, helping gather donations for students whose families are in need, or just always keeping their eyes open for rewards/prizes/snacks that students have stated they like, their devotion to our students never seems to diminish.

 

We are blessed to have people like this serving in our schools. Likewise, a shout out to Nicole Lafond for having a weekly teacher highlight in the News-Gazette; I would encourage you to check those out as well. Nicole seems to range all over looking for stand-out teachers.

 

In addition to the Staff Spotlight this past Monday, the Board was also treated to a presentation, via four students, about the computational work going on at Kenwood. These kids are being exposed to some really fantastic opportunities at such a young age, not to mention the enviable partnership with the University MTSE via CTRL-Shift. On top of that, while it is not in the limelight, for several years students have been able to attend the renowned Students Involved with Technology (SIT) conference; just as one other example of how doors are being opened. There is obviously a synergy happening, especially when you have folks like Wendy Maa, Kära Tanaka and Trevor Nadrozny, all of whom were supporting the students at the board meeting (there are of course many others, Kenwood has quite an impressive cast).

 

At one point during the meeting, Board President Chris Kloeppel praised the Choice program – and I believe he was very much right in that Unit 4 has a lot of exciting schools to choose from.

 

I don’t know about you, but these things warm my heart. Yes, there are still many challenges to address. But I believe we can and we will address them. If Unit 4 is full of such amazing people, how can we not? 🙂

A Call to Action – safe schools post Nov 8, 2016

Due to the increased acts of harassment, bullying and downright meanness across the nation as of November 8th, a grassroots group has begun organizing to urge for a welcoming and safe environment in our local schools. Another reader has also mentioned a statement from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC):

http://nepc.colorado.edu/newsletter/2016/11/nepc-statement

 

The local grassroots group has put together a petition (google form – UPDATED), and are asking that people sign it. They will be presenting this to the school board tonight at the Mellon Center.

 

Several Champaign Unit 4 parents have been organizing around an issue that we plan to present at tomorrow’s board meeting and we are looking for additional Champaign parents and community members who can help.

 

Tomorrow we will send a letter to the board and Superintendent Wiegand that outlines our concerns regarding the recent increase in hate speech and harassment of vulnerable groups in schools across the nation. The letter also proposes plans to prevent and address these issues in our district.

 

Would you be willing to sign such a letter and/or help connect us to other parents and community members who would be willing to sign it? In addition, we hope to pack the house tomorrow night with concerned citizens and parents and would love to have any support we can get that way.

 

Thank you so much!

 

Sharlene Denos
sharlene.denos@gmail.com

p.s. The school board meeting is tomorrow, November 14th at 5:30pm at the Mellon Administration Building, 703 South New Street in Champaign.

And so the real work begins

Congratulations to the school district, administration and board – a very large facility referendum passed last night with solid support from the voting community. After many decades of deferred maintenance projects and shifting priorities, we will finally be able to address the many issues surrounding the buildings where the students and teachers interact.

 

And now we put shovels in the ground.

 

The district administration and previous boards have shown that they are willing to be quite open about finances, especially in regards to the “Promises Made, Promises Kept” committee; I have no doubt we will get PMPK v2 to help hold the district accountable for the promises of the 2016 facilities tax referendum. And this is important – accountability is good (very healthy), but it only works if you are involved and engaged. It’s not a one-way street.

Starting now, the school district is going to put many plans into motion – projects for each of the six schools listed in the ballot question, in addition to other facilities and fields; at least one intergovernmental agreement to work with Park District for cooperative use of resources, and probably another with the City of Champaign for street closures and/or one-way alterations; a high school redistricting effort in the near future; committees and design meetings with stakeholders to go over plans for new facilities. That’s just scratching the surface. And it will take quite a few years for some of the projects to even start.

 

But there is other work involved. While those who voted “Yes” celebrate, I believe it is incumbent upon us, as a community, to find ways around our differences and work together. We had an amazing 68.58% voter turnout in Champaign County, and of the voters within the Unit 4 school district, 14,325 people voted against the referendum (Source: Champaign County Clerk election summary). Why? A number of folks, including the editors at the News-Gazette, simply think the ask is too high. Others don’t want their taxes to go up (and they voted for Trump?!?). You also have a number of folks aligned with the Preservation group, who with good intentions want to preserve some of the historicity of Champaign. We still have to talk with and listen to those we disagree with. (Interesting to note that the “Build Programs Not Jails” group seemed to influence 70% of the voters to turn down the County sales tax referendum – how will the County Board work with those folks going forward to address many of the County issues?)

 

While the facility referendum has been like a snowball rolling downhill, growing in size and momentum, it has finally been given the green light. Now we can focus on other issues within the school district that have deep impacts. For example, the current Superintendent search – the school board is uniquely situated to hire one and only one person, the Superintendent. We the community need to continue to be actively involved in that process to get a superintendent that drives the school district in such a way as to promote the characteristics we value the most. Personally, I fully applaud the trend towards a more student-centered approach, and I would love to help speed it up if possible. 🙂 Additionally, earlier this week State Superintendent Dr. Tony Smith issued a letter that highlights something called “Democracy Schools”, talking about the importance of our civic responsibilities and being educated, informed civic servants. 54 high schools are listed. I have asked our school board what it would take to get Champaign on that list; we already have amazing teachers like Christine Adrian and Zachary Caine (and I am sure there are others) who are holding mock elections in our middle schools (among many other excellent tactics they use in their classrooms). This past election cycle was a pitiful joke, and I am further convinced that people don’t know how to demand higher standards from their elected officials.

 

The fun has just begun.

Referendum Fact Sheets

Stephanie Stuart just released some fact sheets in regards to the Nov 8 facility referendum:

What projects are included in the referendum and how much do they cost? How do I calculate my tax impact if the referendum passes?

Find the answers to these questions and more by reviewing the attached fact sheets.

Find these fact sheets, the long-range facilities plan, and more at the District’s website: http://facilityplanning.champaignschools.org/


Referendum Fact Sheet

Tax Impact Fact Sheet

 

UPDATE:

Post at the U4BoardCorner – Kathy Richards explains a little more about where the district is at with presentation information and answers in regards to the referendum.

 

UPDATE 2:

The facilityplanning website has been updated with a lot of information (blog-style) – this is a good place to start reading:

http://facilityplanning.champaignschools.org

#EdCampCU at The Pyg – September 16-17

EdCampCU Sept 17 FINAL

 

EdCampCU is excited to announce a screening of the award-winning film, Most Likely to Succeed, to take place in conjunction with the Pygmalion Music Festival.  The screening will occur at the Art Theater at 5:30 PM on Friday, 9/16 to be followed by discussion.  Our goal is to use this screening as a way to bring people from all parts of our community together to engage in honest and productive discussions about the current and future direction of education and how it can best meet the needs of all students.”

Join us and weigh in with your opinions; Friday’s discussion will spill over to the main EdCampCU event on Saturday. And don’t forget to enjoy the rest of the Pygmalion festival.

 

http://edcampcu.weebly.com

Register for the Friday screening of MLTS

Register for the Saturday EdCampCU un-conference