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.

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.

Will we need a Plan B?

With Julie Wurth’s latest update (New Central High School: it’s back to Interstate Drive), prepare yourself for a November ballot question, “Will you spend x millions of dollars to build a new Central, refurbish Centennial, and possibly fix up South Side and Dr. Howard?”

 

There are several angles to this I wish to address. First I am going to defend the board and the administration. *grin* But I will not stop there, so please keep reading.

 

A large number of those who leave comments on the relevant NG articles (see my Index if you want a comprehensive list) demonstrate that they do not fully understand the historical context of how we have arrived at where we are. I will even go so far to say that some are being purely emotional and just spouting opinions that have no basis in reality whatsoever. It is easy to say the board/administration is not listening. Isn’t it odd that Unit 4 has spent over $200,000 on multiple consultants and experts to “prove” that they are listening (that is not meant to be flame bait – hold on a couple paragraphs)? Casting such a wide net of blame is not fair; “Wah! The board didn’t pick my favorite option, they must not be listening to me!! WAAAHHHH!” The board and administration have heard many things from the community; in all that, they have finally made a decision to act and are acting on a portion of community feedback that is easiest for them to work with, aka “low hanging fruit”. You know the saying, “haters gonna hate”? It is impossible to reach 100% consensus, so we will always have a group of people who do not like “the idea”, no matter what the idea is. To give credit to the board, they have not been idle; aside from the forums and other opportunities at various school district locations, individual board members have made themselves available and Dr. Wiegand has been on Penny for Your Thoughts to answer live questions, not to mention a twitter chat that some were able to take advantage of.

 

I must also remind the larger community that over the past several decades Unit 4 has done just about nothing to plan ahead for capital growth, not until the past 6 years or so when a semblance of a plan has been batted about. I cannot blame the current board and administration for that; it was an inherited problem. It should be obvious that we need to do something – renting out trailers to house additional students is a horrible long-term plan. That’s a black eye for any proud community.

 

Finally, way too many people are ready to cast stones without even going through the steps of representative government; if you don’t talk to board members, if you don’t show up at board meetings (*cough cough*), if you do not participate in the public “Community Conversations”, and if you don’t make alternative suggestions before the 11th hour, can you really expect to start complaining now and have it mean much?

 

And now I am going to flip it around. As much as the community has issues, so does the board and the administration. Karen has talked about the “Delphi” effect, and from the external evidence we have (not having access to closed board meetings, nor all the many conversations that do not happen in the public sphere), there is certainly the appearance that some group in the school district decided what direction this would take, and then went through the hand-waving motions of engaging the community. There are those of us (tax-paying, voting citizens who do not draw a check from Unit 4 nor sit on the board) who are very much engaged at various levels and yet we have an exceptionally difficult time trying to affect change. There are a lot of heads beating against walls, which leads to trust issues with the school district. Imani Bazzel had a super awesome collaborative effort all packaged up nice and neat for Unit 4, and all that effort and hard work all but disappeared from Unit 4 after the final presentation – never came up with Dejong-Richter or Gorski Reifsteck. Holly Neslon’s excellent work (for FREE!) was largely brushed under the rug as well.

 

To this end, I hold the board at fault for not fully adopting the IASB’s John Carver Governance model. Granted, it is relatively new and the IASB is still in the process of pushing it out, but the board for a long time (ie, at least over the past decade that I have been involved, and I hear longer from others) has had a hard time of demonstrating that they are beholden to the community. It is not that I want the board to do more, but rather, change what they are doing and how they are doing it.

 

 

Circling back to the topic of this thread, “Will we need a Plan B?”

The writing was on the wall back in January that the district was focused on Interstate Drive. Hiring Gorski-Reifsteck and considering Spalding were, I believe, just steps to pacify the angry mobs. 🙂 The district has shown that they are following a loose blue-print that came out of “Great Schools, Together” (GST), to the extent that the 1% sales tax and “Promises Made Promises Kept” were all about achieving some of the goals from GST. The November referendum is just an extension of that effort, to further address the goals outlined in GST. The problem is that the GST is, for all intents and purposes, dead to the community. Most people have completely forgotten about it. The Unit 4 website for GST was absolutely abysmal. Thus, it seems (feels) like this whole business about building a new school and vamping up the high schools is totally out of the blue. On top of that, it is obvious that there are many different ideas on how to proceed from here – the community is very divided.

At this point, I think Unit 4 has a pretty strong backing of followers who fully support any decision they might make. The last minute campaign, which was partially already put into play via the fine Shatterglass videos, will convince some people that yes indeed, Unit 4 is stuck between a rock and a hard place and we need to pass a referendum to build buildings. But there are also a lot of divided community members whose only common point is that they plan to vote “no”.

From where I sit, I believe the November referendum will fail. Why? $100 million dollars is a lot to ask for! Unit 4 has already asked for almost $100 million since 1998, and there is the promise that Unit 4 will have to ask for more again in the very near future. This is a huge burden on our lower income folks, and probably even the nebulous middle-class. Additionally, I think the style and method by which the board has conducted its business has not adequately crossed the chasm of distrust built up over the past couple of decades. And please note, I must again point out that I am not blaming specific individuals for this – rather, it is a huge systemic problem with the way we exercise governance. We need more people to rise up and demand changes. Voting helps, but is a very limited tool.

 

So what is going to happen when (if) the November referendum does not pass? One popular sound-byte reported by the NG is that Unit 4 will get more trailers. Obviously, that is not the only thing Unit 4 will seriously consider; most likely they will try for another referendum. Here is my challenge for all of us – if/when the November public school referendum does not pass, we need to figure out why. Yes, I hear the sentiment that we are “done talking” – however, it has been the wrong kind of talking, in my opinion. With all that talking we did, where are the 20- and 40-year plans? Supposedly we have a GST Strategic Plan and a Capital Improvement Plan, but I found them exceptionally hard to plot a course with. Yes, let us stop talking – let us do more planning charrettes; let us have a Unit 4 classroom that finds solutions for us; let us reflect on our true mission, collaborating with community to training up all learners to be wildly successful at life; let us volunteer for programs like ACTIONS, 1-to-1 mentoring, TALKS, or as a classroom parent or helping in the lunch room or with after-school programs. Heck, get involved with Pre-K and CUC2C.

 

If the November referendum does in fact pass, we need to stand up and support the schools still. Giving up is not an option. If 50.01% voters vote yes, that is what we have to live with and move forward.

“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.

Great Schools Together: a few sidenotes

When I started this series, it was my desire to track down various metrics outlined in the Strategic Plan to measure progress. I have encountered some serious obstacles in that effort.

 

The first set of obstacles comes from the fact that while Unit 4 does a TON of reporting and “information sharing”, there is no central repository or index of where to find such metrics. Some are much easier to find than others, just by a google search of the champaignschools.org site; for instance, “Attendance Rate”. Yet even with this, you will have to dig through seperate documents for each year, as Attendance Rate is not aggregated that I know of. You can find it in Board Meetings, the district Report Card and various committe reports. What about metrics on discpline issues (“Discipline referrals and suspensions” from “Student Achievement and Well-Being”)? That information is shared at the “Discipline Equity/Advisory Task Force Meeting”, but it isn’t online, so the only way to get the updates is to attend the meeting. After a bit of searching on boarddocs, I did stumble across a Board Retreat presentation that aggregated numbers over various years:

http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/files/9A7KHL51F6D0/$file/06%2024%2013_Monday_Noon_Revision5.pdf

 

When I asked Unit 4 for advice on how to find each of the 50 metrics outlined in the Strategic Plan, I was told that all the relevant information was shared out on the champaignschools.org website and boarddocs.

 

The next set of obstacles is the fact that Uit 4 paints a moving target. In a recent email exchange, Stephanie Stuart indicated tha these metrics are “determined each year by the Board of Education”. Some times the name/label changes, other times they are dropped and new ones added.

 

On the plus side, Dr. Wiegand has wrapped each of the six GST Strategic Goals into her Superintendent Goals:

GOAL #1: The Superintendent will foster high academic achievement, wellness, and well-being among all learners in a safe, supportive environment.
GOAL #2: The Superintendent will align the District’s priorities and resources through a community-involved planning process implemented through focused action plans with regular progress reports.
GOAL #3: The Superintendent will retain, hire, and support highly qualified faculty and staff that will best serve the District’s diverse student population.
GOAL #4: The Superintendent will effectively and efficiently engage parents and other community stakeholders resulting in strong partnerships.
GOAL #5: The Superintendent will leverage the strength of the District’s diverse population to create a rich academic and social environment in each of the District’s schools.
GOAL #6: The Superintendent will revitalize, build, and maintain facilities that are safe, sustainable and allow equitable access to programming services across the District.

 

I think it speaks volumes that Unit 4 holds the tenets of the Strategic Plan in such high regards. In the words of Stephanie Stuart, “all that we do here in Unit 4 is responsive to that plan.”

“Unit 4 should spend money on instruction”

Great letter to the editor this morning:

 

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/letters-editor/2014-05-30/unit-4-should-spend-money-instruction.html

 

I have asked several questions of Dr. Wiegand along similar lines (I’ll publish those later). I have also started to look at the “Strategic Plan” and “10-year Capital Improvement Plan” that came out of Great Schools Together, which the Board and the administration say they are following. The 10-year CIP is extremely short on actual plans, in my opinion, and it seems like we have missed a bulk of the goals in the Strategic Plan.

 

more to follow

April 14th BOE meeting agenda has been posted

As I was typing up this post, it occurred to me that perhaps my tone is critical and even negative towards the school district. Know that I very much support Unit 4, and I love many of the things that are going on. Yes, I am critical – but I aim to be constructively critical. The main goal of this post is to raise awareness in the community on various issues and developments, to make people aware and maybe even to generate discussion. I am of the belief that the more we involve ourselves, the more we care and the better we can work together. Yes, we will always have differences of opinion. That is a good thing. 🙂

 

A number of items are on the agenda for Monday’s regular board meeting. One of the first things is a continuation of the future facilities discussion (aka, strategic planning):

We have spent time learning about several potential scenarios regarding our facility strategic plan.  The administrative team would like to recommend that the Board narrow the scenarios for consideration to Scenarios One, Eight, and Nine.    We believe that these three options have many positive elements to consider as we continue to work towards one comprehensive facility strategic plan. 

The three scenarios have been posted as well if anyone wants to compare them:

The meeting minutes from the last few meetings will be “approved” at Monday’s meeting, so we can’t see them, yet. For those that want to get “caught up” in this ongoing discussion, you will have to go back and watch the videos (Vimeo). The News-Gazette also has a bevy of relevant articles and “letters to the editor”. Several of those have a long list of comments from a small group of readers that make for interesting reading in their own right. If I had to summarize, I would say it like this.

The school district feels pressure to get a high school built because 1) previous administrations and boards didn’t do diddly squat to help plan or prepare for growth, and 2) the current projections for growth warn us that within the next eight years, we will be exceeding capacity at all schools. Right now, the school district is concerned that the high schools are already at 103% capacity. There also seems to be a huge amount of pressure to have schools ready for the “21st century”, but it is not clear to me where this comes from. On the other hand, the predominant voice I read/hear from those who are not Unit 4 employees orbit around feelings of frustration, anger and consternation. Especially about plans for land-hungry athletic fields, building out on the edge of town, contributing to sprawl and how much worse the traffic on north Prospect will be.

In the middle of all this, I reflect upon the district’s desire for “community involved planning.” There have been some token efforts in the past to engage and involve the community; much of the current planning and directives come from goals set forth in the 2008 “Great Schools, Together” project. Some of the decisions have been shaped a little by the 2012 DeJong-Richter work. And right now, the Facilities Committee is pretty much carrying the torch (the genesis of the “three scenarios” above). The deadline for the district to submit  a referendum for the November ballot is August, which leaves us with about four months. As expected, the Unit 4 PR machine is in full swing, with a lot of help from the sharp Shatterglass videos (more are in the works). What I long to see is an effort to build unity. How are we addressing some of the deeper issues in our community? What are the deeper issues of our community?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really awesome things going on in Unit 4 – there is a ton of positive energy and excitement all around. Stephanie Stuart has been a “veritable cornucopia” of many of those things; there are also lots of really cool things going on with the Magnet programs, STEM at various schools (not just BTW), cultural understanding and appreciation via efforts of a group out of NYU and also local activist Imani Bazzell. The list goes on.

Back to the agenda.

This next one really concerns me, and I have to get my ducks lined up to make sure I am reading this right.

Agreement for Consulting Services Approval: Tom Lockman

Administration is recommending the approval of the Agreement for Consulting Services with the team of Gorski Reifsteck and DLR Group.

Architectural and professional services would be provided under this Agreement for a fee of $120,000.

 

There is a lot going on here. First off, Gorski Reifsteck was hired to the tune of some $60,000 last year to help the district narrow down the list of 16 different potential high school sites around Champaign down to one. So the fact that they are now being hired to consult on and design the school on a site where they acted as primary consultants in choosing seems a bit controversial to me. Second, this isn’t just about consulting on the architectural designs – this is also about promoting and building support for the November referendum; Gorski Reifsteck is going to be tasked with making sure at least half of the Champaign community votes in favor of a $100+ million referendum.

These raise my eyebrows quite a bit. Like I said, I need to chew on this some more and read up to make sure that I understand this correctly.

 

And to round it off, that previous RFP for 180 second generation iPads was upgraded to fourth generation because nobody wants to sell 180 IPAD 2 units:

Administration recommends the award of the RFP for iPad 4’s to Apple Computer for $68,220.00.

 

I am concerned about the push for “21st century” technology, and all these cool little gadgets (not to mention all the other computer equipment being purchased). I did follow up and talk to a few folks about the World Language program and how these iPads will be used. Again, there is a lot of positive energy and even synergy at various levels. However, there are some downsides as well. One employee I talked to said that they do not even want the iPads because they do not support Flash, and many of their programs require Flash. If the district is pushing these devices, what input from field staff did they take? How are the people who are actually using these things playing a role in the decision and planning of the utilization of technology in the curriculum? Also, in my own experience, using tools like eToys is a bit of a challenge on the netbooks; the trackpads are not that great for general navigation, and some of the finer details are really hard to appreciate. However, in the end what amazes me the most is how kids adapt! You give them a challenge and you watch them figure it out. It is so cool when that happens. Yet we have to figure out how to work with those children for whom these technological approaches are not a good fit.