I had the opportunity to have a really great conversation with Jamar Brown Wednesday morning; I am thankful that he opened the door and allowed me to gain a different perspective. So just to qualify – Jamar speaks for himself. He doesn’t speak for the Board, but for his own person. And he didn’t ask me to say that, I am just getting that formality out of the way up front. 🙂
We hit on a number of different aspects of how the board is going about siting the new location for Central. I’ll bounce around a little bit and re-arrange how our conversation actually went to give you an overall picture.
Again, we have to go back to the bigger picture. Jamar reminded me of the urgency to get something going; due to the lack of chutzpah (not lack of foresight, per se, just lack of acting on any foresight) from previous administrations and previous boards, we are kind of in a bit of a pickle since the student populations are notably growing and the high schools are already at capacity (bursting). So even if we completely remove the need for athletic fields, band fields, parking, etc, we still need more raw seats. At least that is what the current trends and demographic data are telling us. To this, I would agree. The timeline does get a little tricky. If a referendum does not pass in November, what happens? Will there be enough time to go hunting for yet another site and then build a new high school. I get the impression that the current board is not willing to take that risk. Another sense of urgency was the clear message from the Town Hall meeting that we need to stop talking and start doing. This has been echoed elsewhere, and in general, it can be a good idea. I know I am often told that myself. 🙂 Granted, all around there is some question about how the Town Hall was conducted in the first place.
The issue of transparency and accountability is sticky one. I think this is partially because, on the one hand, community members (myself included) have a super high expectation of how open and communicative the board should be. For instance, in regards to the discussion of potential sites, the public does not have any access whatsoever to the great discussions that are going on behind closed doors. We were told that the Board would not publish the list of candidate sites (and then they did list the four sites), and then we are told the Board will not publish the final site due to “negotiations”. On the other hand, Jamar feels that the current board and current administration is a totally different ballgame than what we have had in the past, and that the board is slowly rising to those expectations that we have. I heartily acknowledge his point that the current situation is much different, and I acknowledge that there has been more openness. Jamar reiterated the point about how the board was all set to make a high school siting decision last year and instead, because of feedback from the community, made the conscious decision to put it off and gather more community input. Another case to look at; both Holly Nelson and Minnie Pearson shared stern warnings and thoughts at the December 2nd BOE meeting, and both publicly apologized at the December 9th meeting, acknowledging the hard work of the Board and wanting to collaborate and keep each other accountable. Perhaps one thing that is happening is that folks are hypersensitive to buzzwords like “transparency”, and when we start tossing those terms around and painting with a huge brush, we gloss over the finer details both of the good that is happening and the challenge areas where we need to improve.
We also discussed the desire to “remove the emotion” and deliberate on numbers. While I think this can be a good exercise, we have a couple obstacles before us. One, it is impossible to remove the emotion. Two, we don’t have the numbers. Jamar acknowledges this is a problem – even the board members do not have all the numbers. For instance, the MTD has not been able to disclose how much it will cost to route busses up to any of the new sites. We do not know how traffic patterns will escalate the already crowded north Prospect route – what will a big football game do? Since the sites of I-74 will have extremely limited “Safe Routes” to nearby homes on the other side of the highway, busing will have to increase as well. How much? We don’t really know. I also mentioned to Jamar that the community does not have any access to the metrics and weights the board has been developing for each site. I believe he is going to ask around about that (I hope! *grin*).
We got to talking about serving the needs of the demographics that are on the “north end”. Jamar mentioned that he has personally talked to a number of groups north of University, and the predominant message he has received is that the residents and parents are more concerned about what goes on inside the school rather than where the school is located. For me, this shifts the priorities a bit; if we assume that the location of the school is not the most important variable, then what are we doing to address that which is most important?
As I told Jamar, I do not envy the position of the Board at all. People are clearly fed up with hiring consultants and holding community discussions with no follow-through. If the Board decides to stick with a minimum of 45 acres (which, Jamar is quick to point out, has come down since the 80-acre recommendation from earlier), the number of sites that are “central” are exceptionally limited and hard to work with. If I were on the Board and was told that I had to choose land to buy RIGHT NOW, it would be hard for me to look at the areas south of I-74 right now and find something that would work for 45 acres. I did mention to Jamar that there are other options – there is some support for 3 high schools and multiple campuses (and smaller schools). Jamar observed that perhaps one of the prevailing factors in the Board’s current direction (again, Jamar speaks for Jamar) is that most of the people from the DeJong-Richter “engagements” want what we already have. Some of us cringe at that, for various reasons, but if we go straight off the numbers that we do have (as opposed to numbers we do not have), I have to agree, yes, most of the people who voiced their opinion indicated they wanted two high schools of roughly the same size (number of students) we have now.
We did not talk much about athletics and other programs that need additional land. I’ll leave it at that.
Finally, we did talk a little bit about the lack of a planner on the paid staff. We are in this pickle because we didn’t buy land earlier on when land was available, and there has not been a serious long-term look at how demographics change year by year. I think Jamar understands the importance of having a dedicated person for that role, instead of multitasking and/or sharing a planner with the City (which is no longer happening). As to how to tie new facilities into the goal of addressing the achievement gap? From my perspecitve, even though the District has been working on their “Achievement Framework”, the community has not been brougth up to the same page. Jamar tells me that the Board (and administration) has been inundated with various studies and research papers, and I get the impression that the Board believes a strong extra-curricular program will boost academics. This message came across very strongly from the December 9th board meeting.
In conclusion, I think we have to accept that no matter what the Board does, not everyone will be happy. We may even disagree with what is most important. I very much dislike how, not only with the school district but also at the State and Federal levels, we are getting screwed over because of poor decisions from past leaders. For me, complaining is unsatisfactory – I want to be a part of the solution. I believe this is what Board President Laurie Bonnett was trying to convey at the December 9th BOE meeting; given all our differences, how do we work together?