Questions about finances

I don’t know about you, but every time the topic of money (levies, tax abatement, fund transfers or anything else to do with finances) comes up in board meetings, I feel like a secret language is being used which I do not fully understand (is it Elvish? Klingon?). I mean, I can look up the terms and understand the words that are used, and by doing so, I can slowly chip away at the information that is presented. But by no means would I say that I have a clear picture. Having asked several questions and finding myself still perplexed, a friend suggested I just put the questions in a blog post and see if anyone else can provide some clarity. Or at least commiserate. *grin*

 

This first question I have asked many times over the past few years; can a Unit 4 5th grader present the finance information to the community? Whether it be in the context of a public hearing of a new budget or abatement, I want to know if a 5th grader can not only understand the information, but then also communicate it back out to the community in a language and style that is easy to digest. A few years ago I chatted with Matt Foster and developed a sample Sankey chart of the FY14 budget – for me, visualization helps a lot. This is just one step towards better understanding. I have also asked that jargon like “levy” and “abatement” not be used to explain “levy” and “abatement”.

 

On the topic of levies, I have queried board members about how the district settles on a tax levy amount (the “ask”). From what I gather, the district attempts to make an informed, educated guess about how much money is coming in via the tax rolls, and sets a levy amount that they know to be slightly over the amount they think they can take in an effort to “capture” any new taxes. The reason they submit a guess is that the Champaign County Clerk ultimately decides what the tax levy will be (based on the EVA, or “economic value added”), and due to an unfortunate timing of events, entities that levy taxes, by law, must submit their levy amounts even though the amount of money collected by taxes is not known until several months later. So in essence, levying entities in a “home-rule government” (Unit 4, MTD, Forest Preserve, etc – Parkland is not constrained by “tax caps” or PTEL, as a counter example) either declare some artificial maximum tax rate that will later be tuned down by the County Clerk, or if they set an amount that is less than the maximum, they “lose” the difference when taxes are actually collected. It’s all pretty stupid – I don’t know who wrote the laws that muck things up like that. But this brings me to my second question: why not just always levy for one billion percent? (Yes, 1,000,000,000%) Or choose some other completely arbitrary number that will always be “maximum”. Because in the end, no matter what number the district settles on, they always want it to be some (at the time) unknown “maximum”. It seems to me that this would at least make things a bit less confusing – you just basically skip all the nonsense and tell the County Clerk to assign the highest number possible. Until the laws change. (I settled on 1B% because it is absolutely ludicrous – it reflects the silly dance we do every year)

 

And finally my last question for today. What role do the various funds (ie, Fund 60, Fund 61) have, and when money is moved from one fund to another, exactly what is the intended purpose? I believe there is a document on the Unit 4 website that describes some of the funds, but at this time I cannot find it. More importantly, when there is a public hearing, currently all the documentation is presented in “State Form”, a format that is sent directly to the State for legal purposes. It is exceptionally hard to make sense of, and I have no idea why monies are moved from one fund to another.

 

I had the privilege of speaking with Gene Logas several times when he was the CFO at Unit 4; after one of those chats, Mr. Logas published several informative and helpful documents that are still listed on the “Finance department” section of the Unit 4 website, in particular, “Where Does All the Money Go?” and “Property Tax Lesson“. I applaud the district for going through the trouble of putting check registers, yearly budgets and many other pieces of information on their website. This is an excellent step towards transparency! The next step is helping taxpayers understand the information.

Chat with Kerris Lee

Board member Kerris (up until a couple Thursdays ago, the newest board member) was out of commission for a few days, but we finally connected. I had initially contacted several board members about the Bambenek appointment, but our conversation morphed and took on much bigger issues. Which is a good thing; Kerris enlightened me on many of the awesome things he is in the middle of right now.

To do things a little backwards, I’ll start with my conclusion or my take-away, which I told Kerris at the end of our talk; somebody really needs to take an audio recording when talking to board members! *grin* He shared so many great things I fear I will miss some of them in my retelling of them. Yes, I realize having an audio record can be abused and might even stymie some of the more colorful expressions one might use. Baby and bathwater. Or maybe board members need an outlet to broadcast/publish without so many restrictive guidelines. I do not know any perfect solutions – I am just very inspired when talking to Kerris, and it would be awesome if more folks could have been in on the chat.

To that end, we covered the topic of “transparency” a bit. As with many other subjects we went over, there are two facets or aspects when it comes to the board; there is the “public” face they show to all of us, the portal through which we start to form our opinions and perspectives, and then there is the more private portion, where individual board members are doing amazing things, and even as a board, they are moving in various directions and covering some ground, but the public just has no clue whatsoever. As mentioned in my Bambenek post, I think it is important to recognize the progress that the board has made while also at the same time keeping an eye on the end goal. I had to agree with that, by and large, I believe the Board as a whole does not want to hide things; rather, I get the impression that there is an underlying systemic force that works against creative ways of communicating and sharing. On the whole, the board tends to err on the side of caution, or rather, on the side of being “informationally conservative”. Kerris indicated that he has talked to Superintendent Judy Wiegand and Board President Laurie Bonnett, as well as School Attorney Tom Lockman and Board Attorney Sally Carter, about addressing these fundamental roadblocks at the policy level. As with other board members, I have asked Kerris about all that goes on in Exec Session, and he has reassured me he is asking if more can be shared in Open Session.

We also covered AYP a bit. With NCLB pushing unrealistic goals (we are not aware of a single public school that meets 100% AYP across all subgroups), school districts are being faced with not only the temptation to “teach to the test”, but now are also being hammered with Common Core transitions. This topic alone was one of the big issues during the CFT negotiations (time outside of teaching time), and something I hear about from teachers as being a challenge to deal with. Again I asked how parents and the community can help shoulder that burden or at least do something about it.

In terms of the board engaging with the community more and along the lines of the board getting their thoughts out to the public, we lightly considered blogs, tweets and even a radio show. The fact of the matter is that nothing beats one-to-one conversations. What if the board did rotating shifts (no more than two board members each) at a coffee shop or other such venue? When Chuck and I were out at Houlihans every Wednesday, we were honored to be graced by board members every once in a while, and it was a great way to connect and catch up. I am curious, would members of the public take advantage of these opportunities? I am not looking for casual sounds of “sure”, but solid commitments; even though we made opportunities available at Houlihans, not many people at all showed up.

Kerris also mentioned that the board is preparing to make several presentations to the public about the high school referendum. He expressed a little bit of frustration in that the board is constrained to only communicate facts, and so being “informationally conservative”, their message may lack the soft edges of more embellished thoughts. I challenged Kerris with the idea of doing charrettes, of bringing in opinions and perspectives from students, teachers and community members. Even at this late stage, there is no reason why the district cannot see what people want. Kerris gave me some insight into some of the ideas that are being batted around internally (some of them sound really cool, like more focus on vo-tech), and again I had to ask where the community was in that discussion. I am hoping to hear back from Kerris in a couple weeks to see how these ideas are being floated internally.

Our conversation transitioned to Educational Technology, and this is where most of my excitement comes from in regards to our discussion. Most people already know, but for those that do not, Kerris has been a huge supporter of getting kids into programming, eToys and pushing technology in the curriculum (ie, STEM). Makes me wish I was a kid again. 🙂 As recently announced on the Unit 4 Facebook page, Kenwood is taking the next step to encourage kids to think “computationally” and pursue programming. The school’s new theme (Technology and Literacy in the Community) is benefiting from huge support from the University of Illinois’s Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (MSTE) department, headed up by George Reese. As a side note, Dr. Reese is also on the Advisory Council for the Center of Education in Small Urban Communities, which has been very involved in local education and will be doing a lot more. I mentioned that it is still hard for me to see the wedding of technology in today’s curriculum, but Kerris assured me that we are only going through the birth pains right now.

 

I need to circle back and ask about the topic of increased usage and interest in technology; what will “school” look like in 20 years? Will classrooms become more “flipped”? Will more students (and families) be able to learn at home (perhaps on school provided technology)? How does that play into the whole high school tax referendum?

 

One thing that really impressed me as I was talking to Kerris is that he is out there in the community doing things. Not just talking the talk at board meetings, but he is tracking down and researching policy issues and legislation that stands in the way of progress and is talking to pivotal decision-makers in an attempt to make things better for our children and our community. He is involved with United Way, the recently started Cradle to Careers and many other service-oriented ventures in town. To put it bluntly, the guy is just friggin’ nuts! 🙂

This post is just a sample of what we talked about. As with many other board members, Kerris reiterated that he is more than happy to chat with anyone. So give him a call or drop him and email. I warn you, he is extremely busy and you might have to be patient to hammer out a good time. But the wait is worth it. 🙂

Who is this John Bambenek guy?

I had a great chat with the new Board member, John Bambenek, on Friday. My interaction with Mr. Bambenek on Friday reinforced my previous interactions with him, and I had two take-aways; 1) he is very open to talking, just drop him a note and work out a good time, 2) he is passionate about bringing a deeper level of transparency and financial accountability to the school board.

As an alumni of the University’s Computer Science department, I was somewhat compelled to start our conversation on the topic of computers, a topic that came up frequently. John teaches a 400-level course at the University dealing with operating system and network security. If I recall correctly, their latest task is to reverse-engineer a computer virus. I asked about special projects, and he mentioned one I was fascinated with, a quadracopter carrying a raspberry pi to accomplish specific tasks. Computers bled into other aspects of our dialog as well.

For instance, Bambenek has a tie into Adam Andrzejewski’s Open the Books project (I believe he said he either sat on one of the boards or consulted for them). For those not familiar with Open the Books, I encourage you check out the website and/or go read Jim Dey’s Editorial on it (11/02/2013). The basic idea is to track where and how all the money flows, or as their motto says “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” For me personally, I find this to be a fundamental part of modern democracy, giving normal taxpayers the tools and authority to see what their tax dollars are accomplishing. I believe it has the potential to bring the voice back to the voter, so that we can ask intelligent questions, but more importantly, give critical feedback to our elected officials so that they have concrete guidance on how to perform their duties. “Transparency” is something that becomes a bit of a buzzword when folks are campaigning, but it makes me wonder how many people really “get it.” I believe Mr. Andrzejewski gets it – and if Bambenek is following in the same path, I am happy with that. To bring the conversation to Unit 4 in particular, there are several things going on. First, we recognize and acknowledge that Unit 4 has gotten better about transparency. For instance, they have been posting check registers online for quite a while now, and even better, Read the rest of this entry »

The changing face of the school board (but what changes on the inside?)

There was quite a splash, for those that follow news about the school district and/or politics, when the school board appointed John Bambenek to be the next school board member, serving until the April 2015 elections. Just from reading several pages of commentary on BigDebbiesHouse, and even the online reel via the News-Gazette, it is obvious to me that some folks are entirely upset, flabbergasted and just a tad pissed off. But what does it all mean? At the end of the day, who really cares? Or rather, what are the real ramifications and consequences? So many times I have heard “time will tell”, but that is not good enough for me.

First, I am obligated to disclose my own perspective, to help you understand the framework from which I write this post. I have corresponded with Mr. John Bambenek (infrequently) since 2006; at the time, I was just coming up to speed on Unit 4 and the Consent Decree, and I had asked John what he thought some of the issues were surrounding the district and the board. In a January 2007 email, he pointed out the issue of a lack of trust:

“The biggest problem, and I think everything feeds into this, is that the current Board and Superintendent have lost the trust of the community. That’s ultimately why there is a consent decree and the problems that are there now.  I don’t want to come right out and say Culver has to go, but he certainly would have to come up with a real plan to win back that trust.” (quoted with Bambenek’s permission)

His second comment was about how much the district spends per child; not so much in the dollar amount, but the “bang” of each dollar – what are we getting out of the investment? At the time, he was worried that Unit 4 was spending way over the state average (per child), yet our results were not anything to write home about.

“The next budget is projected to spend about $10,700 per student.  I have heard both the statewide average being $7,000 and $8,500.  I need to review more, but if that holds, I’d be going over the finacials with a fine tooth comb.  Spending that money is fine, but we ought to be getting more results for our dollar.”

That was seven years ago. On a more recent occasion, Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Public Access Counselor and the Attorney General's office

I had an excellent conversation with Mr. Christopher Boggs from the Public Access Bureau of the Attorney General’s office. In short, he gave me the green light to publicly post any and all correspondence with his office, so without further ado:

 

Why am I making a blog post about this? For the record, my interest is about pursuing open and transparent governance. Mr. Boggs related how Illinois and Chicago have had a rash of corruption and heavy-handed tactics exhibited by our elected officials, and thus the recently updated FOIA and OMA laws are an attempt to bring power back to the citizens. I am very much inspired by this, because I have come to believe that we the people have given much of our power away, and I firmly believe that the most healthy thing is for us to take it back. Please note that I am not talking about anarchy; government, when executed within the proper boundaries, is critical and fundamental to society. I get that. But when government is bloated, rotten and corrosive, we need a way to either correct it or replace it. Isn’t that what we told England a few hundred years ago? In some ways, it seems the US has come full circle.

 

So my goal is not meant to make any one person or an entity look bad. Rather, my post is about encouraging others to fight for a healthy balance of power between the people and the decision-makers. Mr. Boggs, and the entire Public Access Bureau, are all about bringing sunshine into our government. Amen to that! I am all for it.

 

Mr. Boggs also lamented that the Bureau is terribly backlogged; I get the impression they are burning the candle at both ends. Tons of FOIA requests are being filed about the Chicago Public School system. I am so glad we are not embroiled in that. 🙂

 

So, I encourage you to join me in working for a balance. My personal journey has led me to push hard for changes in Controlled Choice (aka, Schools of Choice, Kindergarten Lottery, etc) by suggesting policy changes and interacting with board members (individually and as a group). Where is your path leading?

 

To aid in this effort, I have created a repository for FOIA documents. It is still really rough and takes a lot of work to maintain, but I wanted to get something out there with the hopes that it will evolve and because more organic.

 

FOIAs: another step of accontabiliity and transparency

I have heard some rumors of FOIA activity in regards to the school district. Instead of propagating rumors, I am going to see what comes out in the public sphere. I have also asked 1) if the school district is currently publishing all FOIA responses, and 2) if not, will they consider it. I have since learned the answer to the first question is no – I am now waiting on the second question.

The University has a very nice FOIA page (a whole subdomain dedicated to FOIA):

http://www.foia.uillinois.edu/cms/one.aspx?portalId=1017570&pageId=1083933

I really love how they set the tone:

“The goal of the FOIA request log is transparency for the public and increased understanding of the FOIA process and timelines.”

The University FOIA homepage says:

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides public access to government documents and records. The new Illinois FOIA notes that it is “the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of this Act. Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.”

That last sentence is a kicker – wow. That’s right, you and I have a duty, and it is to talk about these public issues, make informed decisions and monitor government to make sure they are doing what we want them to do. Now how often does that actually happen?

So my question to you – in the grand scheme of things, how important is a FOIA index? Something I should push hard for? Or just send occasional requests? Surely there are “big issues” on the plate, and I am not sure this is one of them. However, from my point of view, it seems like low-hanging fruit that would be easy to knock out without much overhead at all.