Why I voted “no” to the $149 million bond referendum

The question on the ballot reads:

Proposition to Issue $149,000,000 School Building Bonds
Shall the Board of Education of Champaign Community Unit School District Number 4, Champaign County, Illinois, build and equip a new high school building to replace the Central High School Building, build and equip an addition to and alter, repair, and equip the Centennial High School Building, improve school sites, and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $149,000,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?

I also noticed that folks are searching for “champaign school district 4 proposition to issue $149,000,000 school building bonds”

 

After talking to folks on both sides of the issue, reading what materials were available, considering the historical context, I was definitely torn on this issue, but in the end I was compelled to vote “no” on this proposition.

 

In talking to others who also plan to vote “no” (or who already have voted), their reasons are many and varied. Some think the location is horrible, some think the price tag is too high, some just outright do not trust the school district nor the board. In talking to those that support the referendum, they are full of energy and excitement, and full of conviction to give our children “the best.” This made me chew a lot – if anything, I fall in the middle. I found it interesting that when I talked with those who generally did not feel good about the referendum, they often expressed that they felt they were being labeled as being “anti-student” or “anti-public-school”. I have also heard a rumor that teachers are being told that anyone who votes against the referendum also votes against teachers; so far, this remains unsubstantiated (I asked several teachers). Is it possible to oppose the referendum and yet still show teachers and students that you support them? I believe so.

 

Back in April, I mentioned several things that I personally was looking for that would catapult me into a “yes” vote. There are still a few outstanding items on that list. Having said that, there are three factors that have persuaded me the most:

  1. The school district has not had a dedicated planner on staff, and as such, there is no consistent long-term plan, let alone one that has fully engaged the community. To my knowledge, the “living document” of projections and demographic statistics has not been updated, nor was the district left with the necessary tools to do so. The current 20-year strategic plan calls for addressing Garden Hills in 10 years and Edison in 20 years. “Our children deserve world-class educational facilities”
  2. We hear a lot about a “21st Century Education”. However, the precepts of a 21st Century Education are already taking hold in our schools. The vast and ambitious plans to build hi-tech modern high schools are definitely a way for the school district to jump in with both feet in a very public fashion, but I firmly believe a 21st Century Education does not depend on a $98 million high school. I do believe new construction and new renovation would certainly help in a big way. Additionally, it is obvious that many on the board and in district administration want to open the doors of the future by ushering in new facilities. I applaud the forward-looking vision; yet I maintain that the future does not need bright shiny new buildings.
  3. I am very much disturbed by the trend of hiring consultants that do a bare minimum of community engagement, and then turn around a very expensive plan which evolves into a big ticket referendum. Looking at the historical context of referenda (past ballot issues, consent decree and enrollment), we have seen that the school district has a long-standing penchant of seeking new money for new construction as a way to address old problems. When the 1% Sales Tax was passed, the district placed a higher priority on building new schools, renovating several others and paying off previous debt than focusing on the looming problems of Central, Centennial, Dr. Howard and Edison. It is odd that the August heat at Central was not even on the list for mitigation.

 

I wish to reiterate that there are many good reasons to vote in favor the referendum; I want to give credit to those who passionately stand behind Unit 4 no matter what. People like that are much needed. I also note that many stalwart organizations and groups are casting their support behind the referendum, including CUC2C, CFT and possibly “At Promise of Success”. Like I said, I have not arrived at my own personal decision easily, and I am still torn even now.

 

So as not to merely vote “no” and call it a day, I suggest an alternative. In the past I have referenced a “Plan B“. That plan continues to morph and change as I learn more from those I talk with. For instance, Dr. Laura Taylor has convinced me that high school size does not matter (at least, not as much as other more weighted factors in terms of total student achievement). I have also learned that the current building that houses Judah Christian School will not be up for sale in the next two years, probably even further out. It seems to me that one of the most significant priorities of any plan going forward must revolve around what makes an awesome educational environment. I truly believe that the administration and the board believe with their heart that they are pursuing this goal, and I give them all kudos for the bold plans they have laid down, and the taking the initiative in buying a huge swath of land to get the ball rolling.

 

Having said that, here is what I propose:

  • Fully embed and incorporate CUC2C and “At Promise of Success” into the Strategic Plan
  • Retain Central as a high school but cap the enrollment between 900-1000 students to reduce the number of students in each classroom
  • Build a third high school (personally, I don’t really care about the location anymore)
  • Continue to pursue CAPS, Computational Thinking and investing in preparing for the Trades
  • Provide a way for community members to help teachers create awesome learning environments
  • Hire a full-time planner
  • Come up with a new Capital Improvement Plan that prioritizes maintenance projects (including renovations) so as to lengthen the life of all physical structures
  • Pursue and implement distance learning options, with the intent to eliminate busing between schools for classes at one physical location
  • Don’t hire any more consultants; moderators that facilitate discussion panels and deliberations are ok
  • Always invite disagreement and healthy, public debate

 

Of course, I could be completely and utterly wrong. You are welcome to comment either way, but I especially value your constructive criticism and ideas for how you would improve the future. Regardless of how we vote, I do think it is very important for each of us to be involved with students, teachers and/or schools. I urge you to volunteer, whether it be over lunch, as a tutor, or just giving up an hour whenever needed, or sign up to be a mentor. The mission of the Unit 4 School District says it works “in partnership with the community”. We all need to work together to make that happen, and I am convinced that getting involved is one of the best investments you can possibly make.

Pros and cons of the November 4 school tax referendum

I’ll start with the short and sweet, a brief list of some of the advantages and disadvantages of the $148.95 million tax referendum that is up for a vote on November 4th. However this post will run a little long with a number of observations, anecdotes and elaboration on both sides of the issue – the faint of heart need not read the whole thing.

 

 

Pros

  • Addresses capacity issues by building a new school capable of holding 1700 students and renovates an existing school to allow for 1700 total students.
  • Sidesteps the many maintenance issues at the current Central building by building a brand new structure.
  • Addresses the issue of co-located athletic fields for Central (currently lacking).
  • Increases morale and continues the kinetic synergy that has slowly built up among staff and students; the increased excitement gives some an extra dose of energy and optimism.
  • The district administration and board has committed to bringing in a “21st Century Education” with the passage of this referendum, a grand vision with lots of interesting and fascinating ramifications.
  • At the September 8th Board Meeting, a number of innovative and long overdue community partnerships will be announced.
  • The district has a comprehensive and growing list of “Frequently Asked Questions” (aka, FAQ) on the futurefacilities website.
  • The board has finally made a decision to move forward; this has catalyzed a thorough and necessarily critical discussion of the direction we are heading in.
  • With the addition of co-located athletics, allows for more folks to participate who might not have otherwise.

Cons

  • Fails to address any of the maintenance issues at the current Central building that will be required once the building is repurposed.
  • Fails to address any of the other deferred maintenance (at other schools) that has been known for at least a decade.
  • The tax referendum, if it should pass, presents a relatively much larger burden to those on fixed incomes and those who are already struggling to make ends meet.
  • Allows too many “wants” to take a higher priority over the “needs” of the district.
  • We do not know what we are buying – what exactly are we getting for $98 million and $52 million?
  • A detailed list of deferred maintenance (aka, “needs”) is not published as of this writing. Let alone a prioritized list.
  • The district has no viable “Plan B” if the referendum should not pass – the only alternative is to go for the referendum again in 2015 for at least $153 million.
  • The district has yet to present a balanced set of facts; they have not acknowledged the downsides of the referendum very well.
  • Division and burned bridges in the community; instead of working together for the greater good, politics and personal agendas are distracting us from the true, root issues.
  • The 10-year and 20-year plans are not very clear, nor does the community understand them if they are even aware of their existence.
  • Commits the district to building larger schools, which was not chosen as an option during Dejong-Richter.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

 

Communications with Unit 4

I have sent a few questions to the Board and Stephanie Stuart (separate emails):

 

These got me to thinking that I need to expand on my Plan B a bit more. In two different directions.

 

Plan B – first fork

Unit 4 is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to capital improvements and taxes. Even if/when the $150 million referendum passes (for brevity, I will hereafter call it $150 million even if it is $148,xxx,xxx or over $150 million next year), we are told that the district still has a bucket list of nearly $100 million in deferred maintenance. If you think about it, the $150 million is itself a bucket list – it addresses the issue of no A/C, lack of athletic fields and lack of parking at Central. But there are many other issues reported at various board meetings. Unfortunately, it is hard to find this bucket list in a central location, and even if you did find a list, it would not be ordered by importance or criticality. And be warned, they are not all equal. Just a recent letter to the editor reminds us that Dr. Howard seems to get shafted time and time again. How important are all these individual issues? This is my next task, and forms the basis of my email to Stephanie. It seems that the public needs to be educated on what the district truly needs, and if the community truly wishes to show support for their public schools, they will vote in favor of addressing those needs. This is what a Capital Improvement Plan is.

 

Plan B – second fork

Secondly, all this talk about doing education in new and different ways…. The saying “nothing is new under the sun” is definitely true here – we may wrap newly synthesized words around concepts, but the core concepts have been tried again and again. The focus, I think, should not be on finding that one silver bullet method of “doing” education that will solve all our problems, but rather, we should excel at being adaptive and be able to address the current issues in the most optimal way. To do this, you have to be intimately familiar with 1) the challenges and 2) the tools. Technology is a tool. Educating children with discipline issues is a challenge. Addressing the dysfunctional issues of society is a challenge. In my opinion, this is what the Strategic Plan should address.

Plan B

I submitted a guest commentary to the NG (Dan Corkery), which I will include below. I limited it to 749 words (before editing), but there is more I wish to include. In fact, I will probably remember more and more things to include. 🙂

 

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to hurl stones at the Unit 4 administration nor the Board. I believe they have a ton of good intentions, and obviously this whole saga is not an easy one. I must also remind us all that the current board and administration inherited this problem from their predecessors. Having said that, I hope that anyone reading “between the lines” realizes that I disagree with the board and the administration about the current direction of the $150 million referendum, but I by no means want to disparage them. Likewise, there will be those that disagree with me, and I will not take that personally. This is a huge deal we are talking about – not just building a new high school, but what our schools will look like in the next 80 years or so.

 

I also wish to remind all of us that there is still a ton of work that needs to be done in other schools. Dr. Howard? There is significant attention being poured upon where to site a high school, but for almost a decade now we have heard hints of outstanding, deferred maintenance. We cannot simply ignore that. It is utterly irresponsible for the school district to not maintain the buildings it owns. To this I would also say that there is a huge communication problem in that the school district has not properly educated the pubic; the school district has attempted to raise property taxes to fix buildings, but the public frequently rejects the proposition at vote time. Why?

 

I also mention building smaller schools, and I suggest starting with Judah. Maybe we keep Judah “as is”, maybe we renovate later. There is still an option at Spalding, maybe in the next few years, to do something. I am certain there are many other options around town. I wish to tie into Greg Novak’s, Marc Changnon and the findings of Dejong-Richter – a small highschool focused on the trades would receive a lot of support. In fact, this was one of the top-voted options in the Dejong-Richter findings, something you will not find in the FAQ. I am not proposing that we reduce the current highschools from 1200 students down to 900 (which is an interesting idea), but rather that we cap each high school at 1150 students or so, and build smaller schools to handle future capacity. I submit that smaller schools are much more versatile and adaptive to future needs. You could even have a single high school at several locations (other Illinois schools are doing this already). Finally, in talking to another resident in town, why do we compare to larger schools – why not compare to Urbana? Just saying.

 

Lastly, in last sentence of my guest commentary, I broach the topic of allowing park districts to maintain the athletic facilities. I understand this is contentious and I have not devoted any time or space to developing this idea. In my opinion, the school district should be focused on public education. Sports have become a huge portion of secondary and post-secondary education. Why? As much as I am against it, I realize there are a large number of citizens, voters and supporters that love the marriage of athletic programs and education, and I will not be able to change their mind over night. That’s ok, for now. We will just have to disagree. My point is, in the context of Plan B, if we allow for a small school that has very little requirement for practice fields, it is quite easy to find “in-fill” space in town for such a school. I am in total agreement with those that argue our kids need extra-curricular (what does that mean? *grin*) and intra-curricular athletics for our students – it is REALLY good for them to be active in many different ways. I am not saying students should not be in athletics. If you read that somehow, please go back and read again.

 

Here is the Guest Commentary I have submitted.

guest_commentary_Plan_B