A chance to speak about the Unit 4 Facilities (k-8, new high school, middle school configuration, etc)

From the PTA Council:

Our next meeting will be held on April 3rdnext Thursday, at Southside Elementary School.

We will be hearing from Laurie Bonnet, Kristine Chalifoux and Dr. Wiegand to discuss facilities and answer any questions you may have. Please let your school PTA’s know that everyone is welcome.

 

Typically these start at 6:pm 7:pm. For more information:

 

UPDATE: Correction! Meeting starts at 7:pm

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Another perspective of siting the high school north of I-74

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?

Letter to the Board

update: edited for better formatting (curse you WordPress!!)

Good evening,

I know each of you has been extremely busy with many different topics related to Unit 4; I thank you for serving on the board and fulfilling a much needed role.

I would like to take a moment and remind the three board members that were voted in during the April elections what you said you were going to do as a board member. The full list I culled together can be found here:
https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/another-look-at-the-school-board-candidates/

From that list, I would highlight a few things, especially as tensions rise around the topic of the CFT contract negotiations. The questions I ask below I ask out of respect and sincerity – I ask because I truly wish to learn.

Mr. MacAdam: You said you were committed to fiscal responsibility, especially given your background and experience with Busey Bank. One of your goals was to develop strategies so the school district can be financially sound. You also spoke about being transparent and speaking in public. What strategies have you developed in the past 6 months? How do you intend to communicate those strategies out to the community? How have your plans and efforts contributed to teachers feeling appreciated and valued?

Ms. Bonnett: Your campaign spoke significantly of engaging the community, earning trust, being transparent and having quality communications, among other things. I thank you that you have retained your facebook page as an effort to remind us of your goals and also to have an extra open door of communication. As the Board President, you are the voice of the Board. How have you striven to build, earn and keep trust and engender accountability with the community and among your colleagues on the board? How have you encouraged communication and aided community members in gathering and checking facts?

Ms. Stuckey: You have a goal specifically tailor for the CFT negotiations – one of your goals was to attempt to support budget talks with the CFT early in the process and to ease cooperation between the Board and the CFT. How did that go? You also spoke frequently of working to make sure that any budget cuts would have the least negative impact to children (or impacting the least number of children). You also spoke of motivating community members to get involved and (along with the other board members) board transparency. What work have you done to make sure children are impacted as little as possible? How much success has your efforts to increase community participation met with? Read the rest of this entry »

Choice Committee meeting, Friday August 9th

Attendance:
Dr. Susan Zola
Doretha Simmons
Michele Brown
Becky Laws
Charles Schultz
Laurie Bonnett
Stephanie Stuart
Amy Aviram
Maria Alanis

The agenda was initially split up between 9 10-minute segments to cover various things (including the Wait List, RFP, Registration, Transfers, etc); we started off talking about Policy 705.09, which actually covered almost half the agenda items. And we covered that one policy for the entire 90 minutes. 🙂

We had some really great discussion; I wish it was recorded so that more folks could listen and chime in, even if after the fact. (In fact, I just sent an email to Stephanie Stuart and Laurie Bonnett asking this).

Dr. Zola walked us through the policy. The first part is about parents choosing their top five schools and capacity (aiming for 23/classroom at the K-1 level, 24 if they have to really push it, 25 is almost unthinkable). I questioned the “top five schools” – why not open it up and let parents choose as many as they want. While the FIC staff currently allows this, the policies and the software (previously) did not. We did not come to a conclusion. Some did mention that some parents already struggle to fill in three choices (which is saying something in itself – if I really like one school, why do I have to “choose” 4 others?). My point is, just remove the restriction on the number of schools. When I thought about it, if you want to totally remove “unassigned” cases, one of the best ways to guarantee it is to either have everyone rank order all schools or simply just flat out assigned a parent if they don’t make their top n choices. The point is, there are ways to technically deal with “unassigned”, but what is the root problem? I pose that part of the problem is the sheer complexity of the system; another issue is the desire for “fairness”, for which nobody agrees on a universal definition.

We than got into a long chat about SES (the next section in the Policy). We all agreed that the language used in the policy has to be clarified significantly. Some of us also expressed the desire that SES be defined unilaterally across the district – no more where SES means one thing in one context and another thing in another context. We also talke about the need to clarify the precedence of priorities; Sibling has highest priority, but what about SES and Proximity? It’s a sliding scale, which further leads to complexity and confusion. We talked about the need to be as up-front as possible, even to the point of broadcasting the SES ranges (ie, +/- 15% of what?).

We next moved on to Sibling priorities. One thought that came up was allowing parents of siblings to register in February, or really any time. Which lead to the thought – if a parent knows where they want to go to school, why not just allow them to submit their choice anytime, instead of just a one-month period? Even if you still “run” a school selection month, you can pre-process a significant number of sibling applications thus allowing more accurate numbers for capacity.

Next in the policy is Proximity. Dr. Zola had previously submitted to the Board of the time a revision that was hammered out by the Choice Specialists; we revisited that revision this morning and liked it a lot more than the previous wording. Essentially, it removes Proximity B and simplifies the language. We also talked about removing the April 1st cutoff, since those with extenuating circumstances should be able to contact the FIC any time.

Last, we dove into Unassigned Students. A parent in attendance was able to share a specific case whereby the placement of unassigned students on the waiting list was done in a controversial manner. Via discussion, we strove to hammer that out a bit more, shedding light and sharing information on several different levels. For example, about 5 years ago an Assistant Superintendent had proclaimed that all unassigned students would bump up to the top of the wait lists, ahead of any students that were also assigned to any other school. We spent a bit of time talking about this, trying to figure out what is “fair”; in the end, I think it comes down to having integrity and being open about all the practices, instead of providing a kind of Gnostic special knowledge for only certain folks.

During our conversations, we talked about how some folks in the public have developed a negative perception of the school district in general, and maybe even more specificially various staff, because of the School Assignment system. While many of these perceptions may be formed regardless of reality, they in effect become a type of reality for that parent. I feel that this was an important made by certain members of our group this morning.

Personally, I felt it was an excellent way to hash out various perspectives – I only wish more folks could have benefitted from it. We agreed to follow-up in the near future, perhaps at the end of September after registration and school assignment dies down a little.

Bids and RFPs

The Unit 4 webmaster has kindly added an RSS feed for Bids and RFPs (woot!):

http://www.champaignschools.org/bidsrfps.xml

Two current bids are up:

 

I skimmed through the Student Assignment Plan RFP and was not satisfied; I am indeed glad that they removed much of the language about “educational law”, but still the RFP does nothing to outline the project (what does the software actually do??). I am not even sure if I should hope that Unit 4 has reached out to local companies.

 

I heard from several folks that Board President Laurie Bonnett mentioned Controlled Choice at the July 15th board candidate interviews, and that Unit 4 may try to do something in-house. The audio of the July 15th meeting is not yet available, so I cannot confirm this (yet), but I will follow-up with Stephanie Stuart and Ms. Bonnett.

June 24th board retreat

This afternoon, the board held a Special Board Meeting dealing with the goals of/for the Superintendent, Dr. Judy Wiegand. Outside of the Unit 4 employees and the Board Members, I think NG staff writer Meg Dickinson, Chuck Jackson and I were the only others in attendance. There was a NG photographer who swung by, so depending on which pictures are made available, you will see that there were about 32-34 people total.

I appreciated that both Board President Laurie Bonnett and Dr. Wiegand made it very clear that public participation was very much welcome and that there would be a free-flow discussion. I like that format a lot; it probably would be a bit more challenging to adhere to that format if more community members (and more vocal ones *grin*) were in the room.

I was only able to stick around for the first hour. I believe that in that first hour, we only covered the first of the five goals outlined in the one public document made available online. Which reminds me, there were a number of handouts available for the public, but I do not know where they are online (maybe they are not posted? Yet) {updated} Documents now posted on BoardDocs – see the full slide deck for more details on what was covered. In that first goal, the Assistant Superintendents and the Superintendent spent a lot of time covering the “Achievement Framework.” I am still trying to wrap my head around it, and I cannot possibly do it justice here. At least, not yet. There was a lot of talk of utilizing more metrics and constant monitoring, of being very intentional and mindful of key waypoints (ie, Kindergarten, 3rd grade, 5th grade, 8th grade), and implementing Common Core with the idea of ultimately making all kids “college ready”.

Also, in a brief chat with the tech guys before the meeting, I learned that the “screen” (the computer monitor to display the various presentations) would be recorded, and Mr. David Hohman tells me that audio is going to be synchronized after the fact. I do not see either online, yet, but will keep my eyes open. My biggest concern, especially in regards to involving everyone who could not make it, is that the audio might be a bit lacking at times; they had technical difficulties with one microphone and ended up passing another one around which sounded a lot different; many times the mic cut out, and sometimes the speaker (ie, from the audience) was not near a mic. I hope the end result is enough for folks to bite into.

More later. I would love to get feedback from board members as well – we will have to see if anyone wishes to share their thoughts.

 

UPDATE: Vimeo video now available:

http://vimeo.com/69751582

Cliff notes from the June 10th regular board meeting

As with my other cliff notes:

  • all errors are my own; keep in mind these are not authoritative minutes, just my own notes
  • all times are offsets from the video I link
  • if you spot any problems or inaccurate statements, please let me know
  • feel free to fill in areas I did not cover

 

Video link

{note: the video is from TiVo and starts at 5:30; the board meeting starts at 6:00pm so be prepared to fast forward. Also, there is quite a lot of dead space at the end of the video that I have not truncated}

 

Read Meg Dickinson’s NG article for another take on the meeting, and her twitter feed (you have to scroll back to June 10th, I don’t know how to deep link all her tweets as a group for the night).

 

Cliff Notes

00:00 – 09:35
Press conference about gun violence by several prominent members of the African-American community.
33:42 board meeting starts with recognitions and academic spotlight
40:15 Laurie Bonnett asks what credit/remunerance kids get for the summer entrepreneurship program. Marc Changnon says they get nothing, 100% volunteer. Except personal satisfaction. 🙂
41:55 Jamar Brown gives kudos to Marc, thanks Marc for thinking outside the box. Also notes how the adults in the program are growing as well.
45:16 Kristine Chalifoux asks for list of companies that are involved in the program so we can thank them.
45:41 Recognitions
49:23 public comment
Dan Goines (sp??): site director, expressing a concern about why MTD avoids Carrie Busey.