Great Schools Together: Stewardship and Accountability (part 2 of 6)

Stewardship and Accountability cotinues the Great Schools Together series:

  1. Student Achievement and Well-being
  2. Stewardship and Accountability
  3. Faculty and Staff Excellence
  4. Engagement of Parents and the Community
  5. Diversity
  6. Facilities

 

As a reminder, these are taken from the Strategic Plan developed through the “Great Schools, Together” initiative back in 2007-2008. Page 10 of that plan covers one of the shortest strategic goals (the other being Diversity).

Goal: Align the District’s priorities and resources through a community-involved planning process implemented through focused action plans with regular progress reports

 

I think this is where the term “community-involved planning” originated, at least in the context of Unit 4. Another thing that I found interesting about this particular goal is that there are no mid-term (2011-2016) or long-term (2016-2013) actions – they are all short-term actions, and thus should have been accomplished already:

Short-term actions
A. Continue to engage in a long-term strategic planning and visioning process
B. Build an annual reporting process to the School Board that includes public input
C. Hold bi-annual open forums for the community to participate in upcoming school year plans and assess the previous school year.
D. Improve the District’s efforts to identify and pursue grant proposals
E. Continue to institute principles of fiscal responsibility
F. Actively seek private donations to build/maintain facilities

 

It is safe to say that many of the financial stewardship aims have continued on past 2011; Gene Logas and later Matt Foster have prepared many reports for several committees, including the Finance Committee and Promises Made Promises Kept, not to mention the many individual efforts of staff and administrators to seek out grants and donations.

 

I am not so sure about the “community-involved planning” pieces. I think the Board Retreats are counted as “open forums” in which the community is expected to participate in the planning process, but the number of community members that show up at those forums can be counted on one hand. There are tons of “reporting processes”, but which ones “includes public input”? I do not know the answer to that. Prior to September of 2011, how was the public involved in the planning process outside the small handful of folks that made committments to various committees? Mark Aber’s Climate Surveys? The Dejong-Richter experiment? The one and only avenue of “input” as part of a planning process (that I know of) that the community regularly provides is done at the Mellon Center, either at board meetings in a 3-minute window or during committee meetings.

 

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Wiegand and Stephanie Stuart to discuss “community-involved planning”. At the outset, we all agreed that it is difficult to see what good “community-involved planning” looks like because 1) we are sorely out of practice as a community, and 2) there are so few well-known examples to follow. Stephanie even boldly mentioned the need for accountability, which I was very much quick to support her in. To me, Accountability is one side of the coin, community-involved planning is the other. And here is the crux of the matter – why are these so important? Because the local community bears a majority of the financial burden of public eduation via property tax dollars, the community entrusts their children to the educational system, and the community elects board members. In short, as the Unit 4 Policy 105 so succintly and so powerfully says, “(t)he public schools belong to the people.” Or as Article X of the Constitution of the State of Illinois says:

SECTION 1.  GOAL - FREE SCHOOLS
    A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

 

In general, our society has fallen into the bad habit of letting “someone else” do the work of staying informed, going to meetings, deliberating ideas and holding elected officials accountable; we feel we do our “duty” when (or if) we complain, maybe on facebook or as some anonymous online troller.

 

We need a huge paradigm shift; and the really bad news is that it has to come from the people. The people have to want to own the schools. We have to take seriously our obligation to provide for “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” If you are unwilling to do so, then you forfeit your “right” to complain.

 

April 14th BOE meeting agenda has been posted

As I was typing up this post, it occurred to me that perhaps my tone is critical and even negative towards the school district. Know that I very much support Unit 4, and I love many of the things that are going on. Yes, I am critical – but I aim to be constructively critical. The main goal of this post is to raise awareness in the community on various issues and developments, to make people aware and maybe even to generate discussion. I am of the belief that the more we involve ourselves, the more we care and the better we can work together. Yes, we will always have differences of opinion. That is a good thing. 🙂

 

A number of items are on the agenda for Monday’s regular board meeting. One of the first things is a continuation of the future facilities discussion (aka, strategic planning):

We have spent time learning about several potential scenarios regarding our facility strategic plan.  The administrative team would like to recommend that the Board narrow the scenarios for consideration to Scenarios One, Eight, and Nine.    We believe that these three options have many positive elements to consider as we continue to work towards one comprehensive facility strategic plan. 

The three scenarios have been posted as well if anyone wants to compare them:

The meeting minutes from the last few meetings will be “approved” at Monday’s meeting, so we can’t see them, yet. For those that want to get “caught up” in this ongoing discussion, you will have to go back and watch the videos (Vimeo). The News-Gazette also has a bevy of relevant articles and “letters to the editor”. Several of those have a long list of comments from a small group of readers that make for interesting reading in their own right. If I had to summarize, I would say it like this.

The school district feels pressure to get a high school built because 1) previous administrations and boards didn’t do diddly squat to help plan or prepare for growth, and 2) the current projections for growth warn us that within the next eight years, we will be exceeding capacity at all schools. Right now, the school district is concerned that the high schools are already at 103% capacity. There also seems to be a huge amount of pressure to have schools ready for the “21st century”, but it is not clear to me where this comes from. On the other hand, the predominant voice I read/hear from those who are not Unit 4 employees orbit around feelings of frustration, anger and consternation. Especially about plans for land-hungry athletic fields, building out on the edge of town, contributing to sprawl and how much worse the traffic on north Prospect will be.

In the middle of all this, I reflect upon the district’s desire for “community involved planning.” There have been some token efforts in the past to engage and involve the community; much of the current planning and directives come from goals set forth in the 2008 “Great Schools, Together” project. Some of the decisions have been shaped a little by the 2012 DeJong-Richter work. And right now, the Facilities Committee is pretty much carrying the torch (the genesis of the “three scenarios” above). The deadline for the district to submit  a referendum for the November ballot is August, which leaves us with about four months. As expected, the Unit 4 PR machine is in full swing, with a lot of help from the sharp Shatterglass videos (more are in the works). What I long to see is an effort to build unity. How are we addressing some of the deeper issues in our community? What are the deeper issues of our community?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really awesome things going on in Unit 4 – there is a ton of positive energy and excitement all around. Stephanie Stuart has been a “veritable cornucopia” of many of those things; there are also lots of really cool things going on with the Magnet programs, STEM at various schools (not just BTW), cultural understanding and appreciation via efforts of a group out of NYU and also local activist Imani Bazzell. The list goes on.

Back to the agenda.

This next one really concerns me, and I have to get my ducks lined up to make sure I am reading this right.

Agreement for Consulting Services Approval: Tom Lockman

Administration is recommending the approval of the Agreement for Consulting Services with the team of Gorski Reifsteck and DLR Group.

Architectural and professional services would be provided under this Agreement for a fee of $120,000.

 

There is a lot going on here. First off, Gorski Reifsteck was hired to the tune of some $60,000 last year to help the district narrow down the list of 16 different potential high school sites around Champaign down to one. So the fact that they are now being hired to consult on and design the school on a site where they acted as primary consultants in choosing seems a bit controversial to me. Second, this isn’t just about consulting on the architectural designs – this is also about promoting and building support for the November referendum; Gorski Reifsteck is going to be tasked with making sure at least half of the Champaign community votes in favor of a $100+ million referendum.

These raise my eyebrows quite a bit. Like I said, I need to chew on this some more and read up to make sure that I understand this correctly.

 

And to round it off, that previous RFP for 180 second generation iPads was upgraded to fourth generation because nobody wants to sell 180 IPAD 2 units:

Administration recommends the award of the RFP for iPad 4’s to Apple Computer for $68,220.00.

 

I am concerned about the push for “21st century” technology, and all these cool little gadgets (not to mention all the other computer equipment being purchased). I did follow up and talk to a few folks about the World Language program and how these iPads will be used. Again, there is a lot of positive energy and even synergy at various levels. However, there are some downsides as well. One employee I talked to said that they do not even want the iPads because they do not support Flash, and many of their programs require Flash. If the district is pushing these devices, what input from field staff did they take? How are the people who are actually using these things playing a role in the decision and planning of the utilization of technology in the curriculum? Also, in my own experience, using tools like eToys is a bit of a challenge on the netbooks; the trackpads are not that great for general navigation, and some of the finer details are really hard to appreciate. However, in the end what amazes me the most is how kids adapt! You give them a challenge and you watch them figure it out. It is so cool when that happens. Yet we have to figure out how to work with those children for whom these technological approaches are not a good fit.

Live/Work and “Community Involved Planning” video

Unit 4 recently posted a couple items:

Community Involved Planning” : video shown at the March 10th BOE meeting

Live/Work Central “re-use”: Presentation from the March 17th BOE meeting

money and the state budget

There is a syndicated article in the NG today talking about how the state intends to chop ONE BILLION DOLLARS out from Education. Doing the math, right now the unbalanced budget has $13.2B set aside for Education, but we have to subtract out a massive $5B for pensions which brings it down to $8.2B for everything else in schools. Divided by 3862 public schools in the state of Illinois, that averages to roughly $2M per school or about $3993 per student. Unit 4 receives a little over $15M from the state (FY2014 state budget form) for the Educational Fund(*), which comes out to $1623 per student (9383 total students). Ironically, according to ISBE Superintendent Christopher Koch, the “statutory amount set for general state aid” per child is $6119. Which is obviously meaningless and a sad joke. There is a ton of talk about “pension reform” and I have not figured out how the proposed “balanced budget” of chopping $1B will affect pensions. If we assume the worst-case scenario where pensions are left alone, that brings the money for Education down to $7.2B, or $1.86M average per school ($3505 per student); for Unit 4, an oversimplified guess would put the cut at $2.1M (total down to $13.3M), or $1421.6 per student.

Unit 4 has a $103M budget(*), and Gene Logas and the rest of the Finance team has placed us in a really well-padded financial position. Except we are cutting into that buffer space with additional raises for both teachers and administrators over the next three years due to the contract negotiations last year.

* UPDATE NOTE: The total Unit 4 budget is $138,853,108 – I am focusing on the Educational portion of the budget from which teachers are paid (among other things).

It is quite unclear how Gov. Quinn’s promise to protect Early Childhood Learning will play into this picture. I am not smart enough to figure that out. *grin* If you are, or if you know of someone who is, please pitch in.

All this to say that I am quite confident Unit 4 will be fine for the next few years, but we have to be diligent and very careful with how we plan our future. My sincere hope is that all stakeholders can come to the table to exercise “community involved planning” to dream up ways we can maximize our dollars.

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Planning for the future

On Monday, March 10th, the BOE will hold a regular board meeting. According to the Agenda that is posted on boarddocs, it looks like a very short meeting (depending on how long people talk *grin*).

One of the items that caught my attention is the Spotlight Video titled “Community Involved Planning*”. I have asked if this video is available prior to the meeting and at the time of this writing, I have not heard back. Community Involved Planning is crucial for the stakeholders to take ownership of their school district. However, I think the tricky part is 1) we do not have a good sense of what this actually entails, and 2) those that do have a good sense of the work involved might just disagree on how to implement it. My perspective is that community involved planning is tedious, inefficient and downright messy. I say this not to slam such planning, but rather to be realistic and say we need to embrace planning as a whole community despite the challenges before us. I firmly believe the “bang for the buck” is well worth the cost.

*NOTE: “Community Involved Planning” comes straight out of Goal #2 of the District’s Goals. In fact, a number of the recent Spotlight Videos have been highlighting various goals from this page.

Speaking of “bang for the buck”, the sole item under “New Business” is a Quality Learning Environment Outcomes (QLEO) analysis report done by BLDD and the Facilities Committee. Most of the report deals with measuring the “Cost Benefit Ratio” (aka, CBR or “bang for the buck”) of various future school scenarios. For instance, 3 middle schools versus 4 with some variation of one or more K-8 schools. Or how to repurpose the building that currently houses Central once Central moves. I give props for folks thinking a little outside the box to come up with “Live/Work” ideas for the building – it sounds like crazy stuff! 🙂 Essentially, the Facilities Committee has whittled down a list of about 20 scenario options down to their favorite three; two involving three middle schools and a K-8, one with four middle schools. The high school options all pretty much stay the same. The “Lifecycle costs” of these options are going to blow your mind.

Also, as of this moment, the BLDD presentation shows that the high schools will have a capacity for 1500 students, but we really need a total of 3207 by 2022, and DeJong-Richter originally called for 1600 students at each high school. Odd. Matt Foster says he is looking into it.

And now we circle back to “community involved planning”. Recently, the one big push for “community involvement” was via DeJong-Richter. Prior to that, Great Schools Together. Both efforts had various levels of success (which varies widely depending on whom you talk to). It makes me very curious what this video is going to say. What is hard for me to determine is what our community really needs. I have my own thoughts (ie, we need a TON more involvement), and I have talked with a number of folks, some who agree and some who disagree (saying the district has tried, and in fact will continue to try, to get community involvement). On that note, Pattsi sent me a link about the “informed city” (which took place on March 4th) as a build-up to United Nations Habitat World Urban Forum; fascinating ideas, but I am left with “so what are the action steps?” What comes out of all this awesome dialogue and interaction?

For those interested, the only two documents available at the Facility Committee website are two meeting minutes, which give a little bit of an idea how the Committee debated various options over the last few months in 2013: