National Blue Ribbon

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-09-17/st-thomas-more-finalist-national-blue-ribbon.html

 

This post is about Central. According to the article: “Champaign Central was a two-time winner (1989, ’94)”

 

This is fascinating. Some think that Central is an “outdated piece of garbage school”, and while I agree that Central does indeed need major repairs and overhaul work, I think it is pretty clear that there is much to be proud of despite the conditions of the facility.

 

It would be very helpful to see a study that calculates the correlation between the average age of a building versus the notorious “standardized” measuring sticks we use to gauge academic excellence. I would be surprised if there were any strong correlation; is it not the people inside who make all the difference in the world? Which makes me very thankful for the totally awesome teachers we have at Unit 4.

 

Let us assume that the “National Blue Ribbon” is something every school should strive for. We could then look at every school that has won this prestigious award and find out what makes them tick, what makes them successful. Those elements should be our bread and butter, whatever they are. According to the Dept of Ed, there are two paths to achieving eligibility, “High Performing” and “Achievement Gap Closing”. Also, note that other Champaign alumni of this award include Carrie Busey, Dr. Howard, Garden Hills, Middle school at Columbia and Jefferson. Not too shabby, more so that they won before any of them were remodeled or built new.

Next round of numbers

It looks like DLR prepared a document that Unit 4 has started to use in talking about the Nov. 4th referendum. My FOIA request specifically asked about the low-level, granular details – what I received is still very high-level. And I still have questions about it.

 

NOTE: All Costs below are estimates

nov4_referendum_costs

 

  • What are “Indirect Costs”?
  • What are “Development Costs” such that they are listed separately?
  • Why is furniture, fixtures and equipment exactly the same for the old school and the new?
  • What is “Site Construction” over and above “Building Construction”?
  • Where do athletic fields figure into this?

 

The school attorney, Mr. Lockman, has indicated that these details will be released after the referendum passes and after the design process begins; my take-away is that the exact costs are not yet known until things are fully fleshed out. A few folks that I have chatted with (a school administrator, a “Friends of Unit 4” member, a parent) have asked me why I need to know the granular details.  While I understand these costs are purely estimates, my main concern continues to center on the high-priority items needed at other schools. We have built three new schools in the past 15 years while recently renovating several others, but leaving some behind. For me personally, I want to make sure my vote is towards the most fiscally responsible decision. I ask myself, is building a brand new high school and renovating the other worth $150 million, given all the benefits and costs?

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.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

The way you say it makes a difference

I recently read an article that had a very timely and interesting heading:

States with faster Internet speeds have smarter people

 

The article is a good read in and of itself, especially if you look at the charts. But the author even suggests that this might be a “chicken-and-egg” situation – it would be just as accurate, but would convey a slightly different meaning, if the article was titled instead:

“States with smarter people have faster Internet speeds”

 

Of course, in my opinion, the really smart people know better than to take these silly tests in the first place. 🙂

 

This got me thinking of the recent campaign to get citizens to favor the November referendum, “Vote Yes for Students”. Think about that for a little bit. Then consider, is there a “Vote No for Students” campaign? The way we use words conveys quite a lot of meaning over and above the mere dictionary definitions. I find the whole thing quite fascinating.

 

Vote Yes for Students. Vote Yes for AC at Central. Vote Yes for fixing problems at Edison and Dr. Howard. Vote Yes for innovation in educational technology and awesome business partnerships. But you will have to decide for yourself if voting for or against $150 million in new taxes on November 4th will achieve these results. It is paramount that all voters understand exactly what the November 4th vote is all about. “Vote Yes for Students” is an emotional non-argument.

 

Here is another observation. There is a big issue made of the sweltering heat and humidity at Central. Why?

 

Quick, what is the fist thing that goes through your head when you hear “Why?”

 

The heat and humidity at Central totally sucks. They have no central air, extremely poor air circulation, and 3 levels (heat rises). The students bring hand fans, the teachers attempt to put as many box fans as possible in the room and provide water, and everyone sweats. It really sucks.

 

So why do I ask why people make a big deal of it? The reason I ask is that if this is truly is a big deal, why have we waited so long to remedy it? Words are one thing, but our actions are showing something else. AC has been a deferred maintenance item for at least a decade now, yet we haven’t attempted to fix it. Even the strong banner cries of those who support the November referendum point out that they need the referendum put AC in. Yet, even if the referendum passes, how many years will it be before Central students actually have cooler classrooms? The class of 2016 will still be sweating. Probably the class of 2017 as well. If they are lucky, the class of 2018 might spend one year in a high school with AC after the referendum of 2014 passes.

I do not question the many needs we have and the critical nature of finding solutions. I question why have we waited so long, and how much longer must we wait to fix up everything else. Don’t tell me Dr. Howard will have to wait until 2025.

Fact finding: Prioritized, itemized list of deferred maintenance

While browsing the Unit 4 Facility Committee website, I stumbled upon a 10-year HLS report. It is interesting to note that the one presented at the BOE meeting is just the summary, with no reference (that I know of) to the more complete version:

http://www.champaignschools.org/sites/default/files/Ten-Year%20Safety%20Survey%20Report%20for%20Champaign%20Unit%204%20School%20District.pdf

 

This is a huge report and will take some time to digest, but it does give some very useful information. For a gander, I focused on Central since that seems to be the focus of some much discussion these days. There are some interesting tidbits here.

 

According to the report, the total amount for work needed is $12,598,371 (page 10). Looking at the number closer, the bulk majority of it is to “(r)eplace existing system with a new system whose characteristics would be determined by a life cycle cost analysis” at $7,053,000 (page 65). I will have more to say about this later, but I wanted to get the factual part out first.

Pages 3-4 explain each of the three priority levels; A means they must be corrected in 1 year, B means they must be corrected in 5 years, and C means corrected whenever possible.

 

Let me know when you have looked at all 126 pages.

Plan B Guest Commentary published

Mr. Dan Corkery kindly cleaned up my guest commentary and published it in the Aug 17th News-Gazette:

Plan B much cheaper than proposed tax hike

 

For those that are new here, I have an earlier post where I give a little more background:

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/plan-b/

 

There are a couple recent letters to the editor that support the November Tax Referrendum. It is interesting that one letter encourages community folks to visit Central. I have done so myself, but will pass along the encouragement to everyone else. In my opinion, that particular letter was a little bit sensationalistic, but hey, it’s his opinion. 🙂 What I found particularly interesting is hearing from a teacher about his/her own needs – to me, this is crucial as we discuss a new Central:

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/what-one-central-teacher-needs/

 

My Plan B is actually in a rough draft right now. I propose going with smaller schools, and starting with perhaps buying Judah to offload overcapacity issues (currently, right now) at the two high schools. This immediately reduces the issues that come along with overcapacity, like number of students in each classroom, and the frenetic work done by teachers to prepare for class as they bounce around. Many of the real concerns I hear about our aging schools are actually not heat related (there are some, yes) – all these issues are known to the school district, but they are not documented nor prioritized well for the public to see. Currently I am on a mission to gather such information. I want to see all the issues the district is aware of, and a comprehensive, full priotization of those issues. I fear that the November tax referendum is distracting us from the real issues.

 

The third (or fourth or fifth) highschool idea

In regards to a couple of recent “letters to the editor”:

http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/letters-editor/2014-07-23/more-questions-about-central-site.html

http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/letters-editor/2014-07-23/judah-site-could-become-3rd-school.html

 

Again, I will go back to a presentation by Lisa De La Rue who suggested that, after doing an extensive literature review, the optimal size for a school is 600-900 students. Currently, Unit 4 is planning for two 1700-hundred-student high schools. According to the FAQ, allegedly this is “what the community wants”. I personally disagree with this general statement, based on the way the original Dejong-Richter questions were asked, and the fact that even Dejong-Richter mentioned that a third high school is worth discussing. It was never discussed.

 

To this date, Unit 4 has had a narrow focus of looking for 1700-hundred-student high school on a plot of land whose size requirements seem to bounce around a lot, from 35 acres to 80 acres to 47 acres. I have not heard Unit 4 talk about possibly doing a third high school altogether. And for that matter, what about 4 or 5 total high schools? You think I am crazy – the administrative and logistical overhead for that many high schools would make them cost inefficient. A very interesting thought, considering that the primary purpose of a public school system is to teach kids, not cut corners. If the focus is truly to make kids successful at life, we should be asking how does that best happen. And yes, I realize that there are many different theories, opinions and passionate arguments about how best to “do” education. Most likely, there is no one single answer, no silver bullet – our society, our technology and our understanding of the universe around us continues to change every second. Our approach to education and pedagogy must be equally agile. But since it has not been, we are stuck where we are today, arguing and complaining about where to put a so-called “21st century” high school.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on the “more than 2 high schools” scenario:

  • More flexible and dexterous in the long-run; a building can house a set number of students, but can be re-purposed as either a high school or a middle school or even a PreK building in the future.
  • Most immediately address physical space needs at the lowest cost – you don’t need to spend mega millions on brand new facilities that house a large population of students.
  • Infinitely more options open up where you can put that smaller building. Judah site? Bradley and Neil? Bristol Park? West of I-57? North of I-74? South of Windsor Road?
  • Yes, under the current model there would be more administrative staff. But do we really need all those positions at smaller schools? I question why we have so much overhead – is it purely because of all these myriad unfunded mandates from lawyers, the Koch brothers, DC and Redmond?

 

Lest we forget, this whole dilemma is much more than just a high school. This effects how we plan for the future, how we “do” education, and what we prioritize as a community.