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.

Pros and Cons, part 2

This weekend I received several items that reminded me of how dysfunctional our current method of “voting” has become. This post is going to focus on a couple positive examples of looking at issues from both angles, plus also exhibit some cases where healthy community deliberation is clearly lacking.

 

On 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 that pretty much sums up the pros and cons of the proposed Unit 4 $149 million referendum. Since then, I have been rather impressed with how the Chamber of Commerce has approached the referendum, providing its members with an opportunity to chew not only on the well-publicized and widely distributed facts that Unit 4 and the “Friends of Champaign Schools” are propagating, but also the somewhat-harder-to-find “other side”, by allowing dissenting voices of other prominent community leaders (as showcased in the thread of emails after the September 30 Chamber meeting). But more impressive is that someone obviously did their homework and sent a rather comprehensive and detailed email to Chamber members on October 17th, including a link to a recent Oct 13 Illinois Policy Institute blog post that claims “Champaign County breaks promise on sales-tax hike“. This reminded me of a June 2010 Promised Made, Promises Kept Committee (great question/answer between Greg Novak and Gene Logas). However my point is that the Chamber is doing a decent job at presenting different angles of the referendum for its members to chew on, and I applaud that.

 

Another example of covering both sides of an issue arrived in my mailbox in the form of a pamphlet from Jesse White, Secretary of State, covering the “proposed amendments and addition to the Illinois Constitution”, as required by Illinois Constitutional Amendment Act (5 ILCS 20). What I appreciated about this pamphlet is that it intentionally and explicitly presents a short-form argument (and explanation) both for and against the relevant proposed changes that you and I will be voting on. In my opinion, this is a great start at educating the public. I wonder why we don’t do that for all ballot questions.

 

From there we turn to two new NG Letters to the Editor (also added to my ever-growing index of Letters to the Editor). The first one talks about how the school district plans to defer much needed maintenance on elementary and middle schools, and questions the viability of a single high school. The second talks about several brochures that have been sent home with students (and if you are a Unit 4 parent, I am sure you have seen them – I counted three so far), and even goes so far as to question the legal ramifications with the State’s Attorney’s office. As you can tell from my index, there have been many letter writers who take issue with the location, the plans (or lack thereof), and various other aspects of the referendum. What bothers me is that some of the same topics come up over and over; why have we had no public forum, no open deliberation, no healthy out-and-out argument on these issues?

 

And here is what also bites me. I have talked to many representatives of the “Friends of Champaign Schools” campaign group (still working on that blog post), and I have been very impressed. They have great hearts, great passion and great intentions. I absolutely love the support that is being pulled together for Unit 4. This stuff is awesome! And such support is not very common for Unit 4, so I don’t want to stand in the way of it. Yet people on both sides of the fence have doubts right along side their convictions. How do we, as a voting public, give voice to our thoughts in such a way as to collectively build on our understanding of the root issues? Most people I talk to are basing their vote on a single, passionate aspect; I wonder what that does to elections? I am not saying that is wrong, for we all have to start somewhere. But here we are 16 days out from November 4th and that is all we have.

 

One final thought. We in Illinois have three “Statewide Advisory Questions”; clearly, these are not referenda items and thus are not actionable, and likewise it is unclear how the results of these binary questions will be used, but at the very least it is interesting that the questions are even being asked in the first place. I wonder, what if all Unit 4 residents had an opportunity to answer similar “school district wide advisory questions” in an official ballot? Not just approving a $149 million bond issue, but other questions. What would that look like? Would it even be helpful?

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, Read the rest of this entry »

Documents from the Sept 12, 2013 PMPK meeting

I received a couple supporting documents that augment the meeting minutes from the September 12, 2013 Promises Made Promises Kept (PMPK) Committee meeting:

 

Both documents are a few years old. 🙂

1% sales tax: how much have we received?

one_percent_sales_tax_distributionsWith all the talk of the high school location, a property tax referendum and references back to the 1% sales tax (and promises made), I got to thinking “How much money has Unit 4 received as a result of the 1% sales tax?” I have asked Matt Foster and am waiting for a response. So in the meantime, I have also asked Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan, who kindly provided a PDF showing all distributions of 1% sales tax money in Champaign (and Ford) County. I have asked that Ms. Quinlan provide an Excel spreasheet of the document, so hopefully I can update this post when that comes in. I have also asked that this information be posted by the ROE’s website. Hopefully annually. 🙂

 

For Champaign schools:

2010: $4,251,859.73
2011: $6,790,436.80
2012: $6,982,475.04
2013: $7,115,047.42
Total: $25,139,818.99

 

It is interesting to note that Unit 4 takes more than a third of the entire pie from two counties. Champaign and Urbana together equal half the pie. Pretty amazing.

 

So now that I have these numbers, I will be leaning on Unit 4 and Matt Foster for where this money went once Unit 4 received it. I know the Promises Made Promises Kept committee talks about this stuff all the time, but the documents shared at those meetings are not online, and thus all we see are the summary meeting minutes. Also, I have been told that the Unit 4 website does have other relevant documents online, but it is hard for me to find them.

NG Editor speaks up about the high school siting issue

First, read Mr. Dey’s article:

http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2013-12-11/central-high-school-issue-takes-center-stage.html

Update: Also ChamabanaMoms is asking the same question:

http://www.chambanamoms.com/2013/12/10/newchampaignhighschool/

And be sure, Unit 4 has already ramped up the “sell”; all the amazing videos coming out, the quotes from current students, reports from current high school officials… I am not saying these are bad things, my point is to acknowledge that work has already started to get people in a favorable mood for passing a tax referrendum. It makes a lot of sense from the school district point of view.

And then we have a number of folks who are giving public comments at board meetings. My hat is off to them for taking the time to attend board meetings and make their voices heard. Tod Satterthwaite has spoken a few times in the past few weeks, members of the Ministerial Alliance and representatives of the NAACP have voice grave concerns, Holly Nelson has spoken against the current direction, as well as other various members of the community that I am not familiar with; all these citizens are saying they do not like the idea of a school north of I-74. I wish the board would react more publicly to all these people. Granted, Jamar has responded directly to a couple points (ie, explaining why Country Fair didn’t work out), but so far, the board has not released a scorecard of all sites, weighing out the various metrics for each site. Even the RPC “analysis” of the various sites that was published late on boarddocs gives only a cursory glance at how schools measure up in travel costs. And why is Centennial used as a baseline? That confuses me to no end – why is not Central used as a baseline if that is the school we are replacing? The lack of trust-building does not bode well. Read the rest of this entry »

lol

In big red bold letters on the School District’s website is now a link to the Sales Tax Referendum Documentation. 🙂

Working Cash Bonds mashup : March 12th

Bonus Meeting with Dr. Judy Wiegand, Gene Logas, Sue Grey, Tom Lockman and Don Kermath

I gave my own sort of “notice” that I was going to be doing this meeting and nobody gave me any questions, so I was content to be a fly on the wall. I don’t remember how I found out about the meeting, but I promptly invited myself for the sole purpose of learning more about working cash bonds. It was a rather informative session; I’ll try to boil down all the finance jargon, and in doing so I hope I do not misstate anything. At the very least, you are getting my perspective on what happened. I am sure there are other perspectives. 🙂

For starters, there is a ton of historical context that I know I often forget about, and I am sure others do as well. Where to start, where to start….

  • Over the past 50 some years, the School District had become negligent in maintaining its facilities. Instead of occasionally raising money to make minor updates/fixes/modifications, the District stalled and deferred what one might call “regular maintenance”. If I have my numbers right, back in about 2002 an out-of-town architecture firm was hired and gave an estimate of $200 million just to bring all the buildings up to modern standards. A few years later, BLDD confirmed the estimate (for free – no charge to the District). In the words of Sue Grey, this was the elephant. “And how does on eat an elephant?”
  • On top of that, the one and only voter-approved bond referendum (aka, property tax increase) was for $26 million in 1998, after which Stratton and Barkstall were built. Keep in mind that old facilities were not touched – only new facilities were built.
  • Another aspect; the amount of money coming in from property taxes consistently went down every single year since 1996 with exception of 2008 (documents from the COO). Pattsi argues (as have others by now) that this only tells part of the story. Yet this is the only story I currently have that has numbers.
  • When Gene was hired, he looked at the budget and nearly passed out (author’s artistic rewrite of what was said *grin*) – he quickly filed a true emergency working cash bonds to get the District back on sound financial ground.
  • And this last one gets to be a bit fun. When Unit 4 put up the referendum for the 1% Sales Tax, what exactly did they promise? The most common answer is probably “they promised not to raise property taxes!!” Which is interesting. Did they? Check out the promises that we the community have been holding the Board accountable to – this is nothing new. Even though we might forget about it from time to time. And especially since the PMPK meetings are sparsely attended. (Please note, I am not assigning blame, just trying state my observations). Greg Novak pointedly questioned Gene Logas about this back in June 2010.

There was probably more said. Don Kermath had some really excellent questions and Read the rest of this entry »