Let the forums begin

Chambanamoms posted an article about the school board candidate forum marathon that starts this Wednesday, 7:00 – 9:00 pm at the Mellon Center:

http://www.chambanamoms.com/events/unit-4-school-board-candidate-forum/

This first one is put on by the PTA Council and moderated by Brian Minsker. Better yet, it will be televised on CGTV 5 for those who still have cable – not sure if it will go up on Vimeo for the rest of us, but I will ask.

 

Champaign School Board Forum Flyer 3-9-2015The marathon continues Thursday morning (March 12) at the Hilton Garden Inn ($10 if you want breakfast) from 7:30 – 9:00 am, put on by the Chamber of Commerce. That evening, the LWV, NG and NAACP will host a forum at the City Building from 7:30 – 9:00 pm. There is a bit of a breather until the last one I know of, March 19th from 7:30 – 9:30 at Mount Olive Baptist Church (meet & greet starts at 7:00 pm).

 

If you know of others, I am happy to post them. However I am thinking the candidates are already hard pressed just with these four events. In fact, some candidates have already mentioned they will be missing at certain forums (pre-existing conflicts).

 

What I have found from my own interactions with candidates is that we have a very strong pool of good people. I am hard pressed just to choose four of the eight 4-year candidates. Take your civic responsibilities seriously and take the time to at least read about each candidate; you can start on the candidate page I have been putting together:

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/misc/2015-board-candidates/

 

UPDATE: The time for the forum at the Mount Olive Baptist Church was changed (from 6:30 to 7:30), and I also received a flyer which I attached to this post.

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The new referendum

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-01-09/updated-dr-howard-now-mix-champaign-ballot-proposal.html

 

At a reduction of about 3.36%, the overall price-tag of the proposed bond issue is not much different at all. The big element of change is what exactly that money is going towards: totally rebuilt Dr. Howard, needed upgrades and work at the current Central, at the cost of significantly reduced work at Centennial and no “turf” at the new Central. In my talks with Kerris, board members had also discussed a different version that weighed in at $139 million – still, not much but at least a token gesture. 🙂

 

I’ll say it up front – as I told Denise Martin and Dan Ditchfield (chairs of the 2014 “YES” committee), right now I am leaning towards a “yes” on this vote. But I still have big hangups (six, in fact) that I fear never will be addressed.

 

Hangup #1

Why can’t we vote on pieces of the referendum? Why is it all or nothing? I think it is outstanding that the board and district administration FINALLY put Dr. Howard in the spotlight, and FINALLY decided to put HVAC at Central (tired of the trolls about holding Central students hostage?). I am still dumbfounded why those were left off the table in 2014. But we still have a $94.5 million high school being planned for Interstate Drive (I am not even going to get into Dodds Park thing now). That’s a lot of money, and still at a site that a large number of people do not support. From my point of view, it totally sucks that we have to vote for all of it or none of it.

 

Hangup #2

All the focus is on location, capacity and addressing the issues of aging physical plants. Show me the correlation between $1 spent and an increase in academic achievement. In 8+ years of talking, why do we still have unanswered questions in regards to how a referendum will boost the “output” of our school district? We have some excellent educational initiatives, including CTRL-Shift, CU Cradle to Career, and At Promise of Success, but these are not rolled into the language of the referendum at all.

 

Hangup #3

While I appreciate that board members met with each other, and someone met with some “no” voters (who talked to whom?), I don’t like that so much is happening behind closed doors. I appreciate that board member Kerris Lee has been filling me in on a number of details (like the $139M alternative that we still have not seen), but why is so much hidden from public view? I don’t get it that “we have been talking about this for 8 years” but then in a last ditch effort to “tweak” a failed referendum, some very important items are put on the table. There is something very wrong with this picture.

 

Hangup #4

I still very much want to see a super-majority vote. Counter to what the article says about the expected results for the 2014 referendum, I expected things to be close. I actually thought it might be a little closer. I expect this tweak is going to win over a few more votes; it is hard to say what the expectation will be given how voters in Champaign vote quite differently in a Spring Consolidated Election. But personally I want to see a vote that is 75% united. How do we get that? See my previous post about a successful school board and community engagement. There is a lack of ownership and concensus that is going to continue to make public support challenging.

 

Hangup #5

I still don’t see a big overall plan. Yes, we have the 20-year facility plan (which will now have to be updated to account for changes at Centenial, the current Central and Dr. Howard); yes, I understand that took a lot of work to compile, and yes, I realize it signifies that someone is trying to do some planning. But more importantly, how are we going to keep ourselves from winding up in this stupid place again? Tom Kacich had a good response in today’s “Tom’s Mailbag” about why we are where we are:

“As to how Champaign got into the predicament, my take is that school administrators and board members for decades were preoccupied with other issues and ignored their aging buildings and growing enrollments. Now that those issues have finally been addressed school leaders have taken note.”

Yes, decades!! That should be a little scary.

Here is the problem with the current referendum and 20-year facility plan – nobody is painting the big picture that we are going to have to go out for YET ANOTHER referendum to fix up all the still existing problems. My understanding is that we have a number of “Health/Life/Safety” (HLS) issues that are supposed to be paid out of a HLS fund, but my understanding is also that we have no such fund. I am still trying to seek out the facts about that. Beyond HLS, what about the expansion work at Centennial that is supposed to help us prepare for future enrollment? Who is going to pay for that? We have a number of things that are stacking up that might get paid when 1% sales tax money becomes available again (2024?). We seem to be spending money we do not have, hence our current annual $8 million debt service and the need to go out and get a $144 million bond issue. Ouch.

 

Hangup #6

We are getting a minimum of 3 new board members in April; in other words, at a bare minimum, three people who worked on crafting the current referendum will not even be on the board after the vote. The number of new faces could potentially be as high as 5 (out of a total of 7). And if Board President Laurie Bonnett should happen to win Frerich’s old seat and choose to resign from the board (my understanding is that this is her choice, it is not required), that will be a maximum of 6 or a minimum of 4 new faces. That’s got to be a little rough.

 

Conclusion

So with these hangups, am I stupid crazy to be leaning towards a “yes”? We have been totally screwed over by previous boards and administrative officials. As the general rule in Illinois now, we have for too long borrowed against the future, and now our debts are due. In fact, for me personally, it is more imporant who we vote in as board members than how we vote on the referendum. That is the reason why I wrote my previous post, and why I intend to follow-up with another post about characteristics I am looking for in board members (and the board president). If we want better results, we must change the very process itself. Unfortunately, it is easier to address the “surface” issues of a school site or whether we put in HVAC at an old building. I hope we begin to wake up to the fact that we will forever have disagreements about many of the details, but at some point we must work, and even collaborate, on the bigger issues.

 

NG articles this morning; covering both sides of the referendum

A nice bevy of things to read in today’s paper:

 

Julie Wurth’s article goes into quite a depth covering both sides of the story, and references a study of which only a few pictures are included in the 6-page PDF, as well as previous studies. The editorial highlights two distinct viewpoints of the $149 million referedum, closing with “Next Sunday, The News-Gazette editorial board will offer its opinion on the Central/Centennial proposal.” I have not yet had the time to digest what both outstanding ladies have said, but I hope to do so later today. In the meantime, I recommend you read these articles as they are excellent windows into differing perspectives.

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?

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.

 

Three NG articles added to the NG Index

I purchased permission to convert three print-only News-Gazette articles to an electronic format and post here on this blog – all three have been added to the NG Index:

YMCA plans new facility (J. Philip Bloomer – 22 Sep 2002)

Champaign schools net high legal tab (Diane Haag – 06 Oct 2002)

Real results of Unit 4 Schools consent decree (Dr. Mike Woods – 01 Jul 2012)

“We’re going to live inside this ring”

Today’s subject comes from a News-Gazette article in today’s paper (“Since you asked: July 18, 2014“). In my limited experience, municipalities don’t appear to think about the end game too much – it’s all about growth. For example, several years ago I asked my village representatives what the goal population was, and the only answer was as big as possible. That is a horrible answer! The several local Comprehensive Plans and Strategic Plans I have looked at for Savoy, Champaign and Urbana are lacking in any kind of holistic picture of what population size we are aiming for.

 

There is another kind of growth that occurs without bounds. It is called cancer. And I think that pretty much describes our collective approach to planning these days – grab as much as possible, and damn the consequences.

 

In Thursday’s paper, the NG printed a copy of a column by Esther Cepeda, a resident in the Chicago area who has written quite a lot about Chicago and issues concerning education, politics, Latinos, ethics and poverty. The Thursday article is a very painful reminder of how a large city like Chicago has become extremely skewed, twisted and unmanageable. Bruce Knight (City of Champaign Planning & Development Director) tells me that Champaign is not Chicago, and while I totally agree, I also acknowledge that Chicago did not become what it is overnight, but rather over a century. It is the mentality of the people in charge that make the most difference. We have our own sordid stories of murder, rape and other heinous crimes; and if we were to map them all out (which I believe the City of Champaign does, but I cannot find it at the moment), those crimes tend to concentrate around specific geographic locations. I fear we are too “reactive” instead of being proactive. Please note that I am not laying the blame for our situation at the feet of any one person – rather, it is many long years of corrosion of the human condition. Just like cancer.

 

On several occasions on this blog, I have written about other issues like “social justice” (a term that is hard to nail down), poverty, racial and cultural inequities. I continue to assert that all these issues are interwoven with education, specifically free, public education that strives to equip all our learners with the tools necessary to succeed at life. It is my belief that a strong public support of this kind of education is not only a moral obligation (Dr. Edna Olive), but also one of the best forms of prevention for our societal health. Just like brushing teeth, eating healthy, exercising, and regular checkups. Or for another analogy, changing the oil in your vehicle and bringing it in for scheduled maintenance. And for those of you that like to think in business terms, the Return On Investment (ROI) is huge – for the little bit you put in day by day, you reap many more times in rewards and benefits.

 

Most likely, some day in the future we will have schools (plural, yes) north of I-74. Maybe we will have schools west of I-57. Maybe Tolono will put a school between Unity and Savoy. To me, all these are lesser of an issue than having a plan in place that will prevent the atrocities we see today. Yes, we are not the Chicago of 2014; let us not walk in the steps of Chicago of yesteryear. Pointing fingers at drug users, gang bangers and promiscuous women never solved the problem (“War on Drugs”? “War on Poverty”? “War on Terrorism”?). We need to address the root issues of these malignant behaviors in the first place, and I firmly believe that can successfully happen in the schools.

 

We do not know if we will have a massive November school referendum or not; we will probably see a question on the ballot about bumping property taxes significantly to build a new high school and to renovate one or more other schools. This community is widely divided on the issue of supporting such a referendum, because we are not on the same page at all. We have no overall plan for what is best for all of us. Instead we have personal agendas, rife with opinions, perspectives, history and experience. And too often our personal agendas are not compatible with others.

 

Board members say we have been talking for years (even decades). Yet with all this talk, we have no plan that maps out what our future will look like. Some say they are done talking and ready to walk. Draw me a ring.