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.

Sept 8th board meeting has a number of interesting topics

There are some fascinating things being talked about at the Sept 8th BOE meeting next week. For those that are curious, you can view the agenda on boarddocs (you have to manually drill down, as the interface does not allow to “deep link” the agenda directly):

http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/public

 

Three topics in particular jump out at me:

  • Community Schools Presentation: Dr. Judy Wiegand
  • High School Programming: New Central and Renovated Centennial: Marc Changnon
  • Memorandum of Understanding – School Resource Officer Program: Tom Lockman

 

 

Community Schools Presentation

This is the fruit of Imani Bazzell’s Great Campus labor; it is a reflection of the Coalition for Community Schools attempt to forge partnerships between the schools and the community. There is so much awesome wrapped up here, I hope you have an opportunity to look through the documents and digest this a little. Hats off to SisterNet, Root Causes, “At Promise … of Success” and everyone else involved; you all have done some amazing work.

One of the things that tickles me pink about this effort is that it specifically targets the special needs of at-risk kids, not by forcing them into some kind of standardized or institutional “program”, but rather it encourages the local community to embrace the children (and adults) in a way that is mutually beneficial. They are using the Harlem Children’s Zone as a model. I dearly hope that the larger community, not just the target zones on the north end, will be compelled and inspired to join hands with this effort as well. I know I want to plug in and play a small role in improving the community I live in.

Check out these links available on boarddocs:

 

High School Programming

Mr. Marc Changnon is just a really cool guy. 🙂 His presentation on being “college and career ready” is very similar to what board member Kerris Lee has been saying about the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS). There are a lot of imbedded ideas that really excited me about these initiatives, speaking as one who grew to abhor the traditional delivery of education the “higher” I got. I love the idea of project-based tasks, of students taking control of their educational path and empowering the students to think critically. I love the hands-on nature of these concepts, of not being satisfied with mere theory, but placing an emphasis on doing it, right now. And it really excites me that these experiences are being tied to larger, long-term life goals.

 

Memorandum of Understanding

Otherwise known as a MOU, this legal document is the result of the discussions and dialog surrounding the contentious decision to move forward with the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. It is my understanding that there is also a concerted effort to more frequently evaluate the program and provide a deeper level of accountability.

 

 

Of course, there are other topics on the agenda as well. If something perks your interest, feel free to share.

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.

 

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