Another email discussion thread about HS siting and the #unit4ref

I sent an initial email to the “Friends of Champaign Schools” and “Keep Central Central” committees, asking that they set up a panel/debate/forum between their two groups. The thread kind of took on a life of its own, and I feel that enough of it is relevant and contains important considerations for the wider audience to chew on, if you feel so inclined to read a little bit. I wish these email tennis matches were in a completely different medium, since email tends to be very tediuous to piece together and make into a nice page.

 

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/misc/emails-to-askchallenge-yes-vs-no-committees-on-unit-4-referendum/

 

I also hope that the folks engaged in this email exchange take it to the next level and actually have a public forum of some sort.

Collaboration and compromise

Recently, Kathy Richards presented her petition to the Board (Nov 10 BOE meeting). I have been waiting for it to pop up on Vimeo, but I might just try to record it off CGTV 5 at some point. Maggie Hockenberry of WCIA caught up with Kathy and interviewed her yesterday:

http://www.illinoishomepage.net/story/d/story/support-for-district-if-location-changes/42339/8oXxaq0_E0S1BKl9TAWIgQ

 

I think one thing Ms. Hockenberry perhaps missed is that a vast majority of us support the school district regardless of the referendum, there are just details about the referendum that we disagree about. For some it is location, others it is Dr. Howard, and a whole bunch of other reasons are thrown in the cart.

 

A recent twitter thread evolved into a sort of a challenge, calling folks to get together and hammer this thing out; Park district, city council, MTD, CCRPC, the YES Committee, those who voted “no”, UIUC students urban planning, LA, ARCH, NRES…. I am sure we could pile on more. Obviously, we should have done this two years ago. But here we are.

 

I don’t know how else to say this, but perhaps we should in a sense just shut up about it and start “doing”. For those that support the referendum but are willing to look at other options, can we open up the box and think about sites that are smaller than 47 acres? For those that opposed the referendum, find a site that works and meets all the needs of the district (sans 47 acres). Pattsi has one idea that we need to flesh out a bit more. Others have re-suggested Spalding/Judah. It is not enough to say that Interstate Drive is bad for this and that reason; we need to go beyond that and come up with a real, practical solution. And we will have to compromise – it has been said a bajillion times “there is no perfect site.” So we need to prioritize and figure out what we really need. What are the non-negotiables? We have to be willing to give up some things, on both sides of the fence, to focus on what is really important.

 

From my point of view, the biggest driver is sheer capacity. If we reduce the number of children that are jammed-packed into the current buildings, we solve a lot of problems just with that alone. I agree, there are still other ramifications that need to be addressed. So let us stop talking and start addressing. Pattsi, when is our first charrette scheduled for? 🙂

“a fair shake”

Over the past couple of months, I have had several email conversations with Denise Martin (co-chair of the “Friends of Champaign Schools” campaign), board members, teachers, a student, Dennis Bane (architect for DLR), Stephanie Stuart, Dan Ditchfield (the other co-chair for “Friends of Champaign Schools”) and the Unit 4 Executive Leadership Team (Dr. Wiegand, Dr. Taylor, Dr. Zola, Mr. Foster). A couple Saturdays ago Mark Nolan knocked on my door as part of the “Friends of Champaign School” campaign effort to encourage people to vote for the Nov 4th Unit 4 property tax referendum, which is quickly approaching.

The title of this blog post is “a fair shake” because those are the words Dan Ditchfield used when I met with him in the context of me “covering” the campaign he is involved in. In writing this blog post, I will be pulling in observations from all the above conversations I have had.

You might ask, if I am opposed to the referendum, why am I spending so much time talking to people who obviously support the referendum? For me, especially on this particular issue, it is important to be informed. Better yet, I have learned so much about the people who support the referendum and I have been encouraged by a lot of commonalities between myself and those I talk with.

Both Denise and Dan asked a key question, and I have a sneaky feeling they conspired. *grin* “Do you trust Unit 4?” That is basically what this vote will boil down to. It is however a deceptively simple question – for instance, I cannot say “yes” or “no” because I trust certain individuals involved with Unit 4, but not all.

Yet the main impetus which drives me to write this post in the first place is because I absolutely love the public display of support by so many people involved with the “Friends of Champaign Schools”. As I have told Denise, Dan, board members and others, I do not want to hinder those who rally around our public schools, because I myself am a public school fan, and it is awesome to see so many people put forth the effort to help the schools succeed. I appreciate and value that many folks have volunteered to go knocking on doors, to meet with various groups (ie, churches) and project a very positive image of Unit 4. These passionate folks will need to continue building support regardless if the referendum passes or not because there is still a lot of work to be done.

On top of that, folks like Denise and Dan are not one-trick ponies; they are involved in many other ways. For example, Denise is helping to spearhead the Champaign Urbana Cradle to Career initiative, an awesome project in an of itself. Among other things, Dan is also a Unit 4 One-to-One Mentor and working with CTRL-SHIFT. As I talked with them, we all agreed that the referendum is not perfect, and that many years of neglect, bad decisions and “kicking the can down the road” has led us to where we are. We differ on some points, but we also agree on a number of points.

What points do we agree on? Capacity is a very real issue right now. I have been to Central on several occasions, and the classrooms simply are not designed for the number of students that curretly get stuffed inside. The science labs on the third floor might have been designed for half the number of students, not to mention the band room and other rooms. On top of that, I believe the general gist of the Dejong-Richter projections that things are only going to get worse for the next 8 years.

Next but not any less important are the deferred maintenance items that have been lingering for years. As a district (not just the decision-makers, but all of us) it is utterly irresponsible to let those items go unattended. Based on what I have read in the 10-year CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) and HLS (Health-Life-Safety) report, and from my own obsevations from being inside both high schools, I am aware that there are a number of conditions that have only worsened.

I think it is fair to say that the three of us also agree some form of property tax increase is imminent simply due to the neglect and poor planning of previous administrations and boards. At this point, we agree to disagree on the exact implementation and scope of that work. 🙂 And I believe we all agree that this referendum isn’t “the end” (pass or fail), because of the middle schools and Dr. Howard.

The Unit 4 Executive Team also invited me to a morning meeting to address my question of “What size high school is ideal for Unit 4?” To my pleasant surprise, Dr. Laura Taylor mentioned that her doctoral thesis indirectly addressed that very question; not to be cliché, but size doesn’t matter. Rather, it is the quality and quantity of “teacher care” that has the most impact. I find it quite inspiring that someone who has dwelled deeply and broadly on a contentious topic like the academic achievement of African American students (and the surrounding perceptions) is helping to shape the future of our schools.

One thing I have really appreciated about the folks at the Mellon Center, the administration, the student I spoke with, the board members and the “Friends of Champaign Schools” is the passion and energetic excitement they exhibit in regards to the future of our schools. It is rather intoxicating actually. To reiterate, this is something I want to see grow. When I spoke with Stephanie Stuart and Dennis Bane (before “Friends of Champaign Schools” kicked into high gear), I mentioned that all this awesome charisma almost seems locked within the four walls of the Mellon Center, and that the general public is not yet on the same page. I cannot help but think to myself “what if all this positivity and synergy spilled out into the media and around dinner tables two years ago?”

There is a lot to love about Champaign Schools. Denise Martin and Dan Ditchfield are only two examples of hard-working folks trying to share that love with others. I very much admire what they are doing.

So Dan, is that the “fair shake” you were expecting? 🙂

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?