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 »

Taxes and Capital Improvements

I have been following the WakeEd blog (from the Wake County News Observer); recently, T. Keung Hui posted noticed that the school board passed a resolution to ask for $939.9 million in funding. That’s right, $940 million.

I did some digging around to put things in perspective. First, I knew that Wake County was much larger than Champaign Unit 4 – like two orders of magnitude larger. Their 2012-2013 projected enrollment is 149,508. So I asked how such a large referendum ($810 million, not the full $940) translates to property tax increases, and Keung replied it is about $55 on a $100,000 home. Get this, Wake County (WCPS) has been passing bond referendums on a fairly regular schedule, its actually quite impressive:

Year $Million per $100,000
2000 500 34.13580247*
2004 564 38.50518519*
2006 970 66.22345679*
2013 810 55.3
total 2844 194.1644444

* Using the 2013 tax rate of $55.3 per $100,000 on a $810 million bond – these are not actual values. If you know them, please let me know.


With that money, they have built, on average, 14 new schools and renovated, on average, 21 schools per referendum. Or for a total of 42 new schools and 62 renovated schools, prior to 2013. Wow! And that cost $139 per $100,000 in property taxes (again, subtracting out the 2013 value). Not too shabby.

In comparison, Unit 4 wants $180 per $100,000 in 2014 and another $70 in 2018. The working cash bond of 2012 works out to roughly $16.67 per $100,000. There is already controversy about the 2014 referendum; there is even not much consensus on what direction to head in.

The point of this post is to look at other school districts and see how they do capital improvements. I just happened to watch WCPS because they are tied up with Alves “Controlled Choice” thing as well, just played out on a much larger scale. I wonder what other school districts are doing. How do they get to the point that they can pass referendums every so often, backed by a well-thought out plan?


An incomplete historical snapshot of bond issues, tax levies and referenda

After attending and chewing on the Community Dialog about various school options (which all lead to big tax referendums), I got to dwelling on the the Elementary School options. Partially, as I said before, I was surprised to see them in the packet on Tuesday in the first place. So let me state right off the bat, I am fully aware and acknowledge that our school buildings, at all levels, need a bit of help. We have known this for over two decades. The sad part is that we have not come up with a good plan to deal with these issues, which has resulted in a snowballing problem, an escalating urgency that eventually borders on a crisis.

First some definitions and attempts to bridge the financial jargon.

  • Bonds (Sales Tax Bonds, Working Cash Bonds, etc): Basically, these are long-term loans, like mortgages.  The district gets a bunch of money from a bank to do stuff, and the district slowly pays back the loan (including interest) over 20 years (typically). To “issue” a bond is therefore to put oneself in debt to another.1
  • Tax Levies: This one is a bit harder for me to wrap my head around, but here goes. We pay property taxes, right? Various groups get a slice of the pie from those property taxes, and public education usually gets the biggest slice.2 The tax levy by the Board of Education therefore determines exactly how big that slice will be. 3 5 7 Gene Logas often bragged that Unit 4 has one of the lowest rates going.4 At the same time, Gene complained that “tax caps hurt”. 6
  • Referenda: The law states that when the school district wishes to acquire more money above and beyond what tax levies can bring in, the school district can ask the voters to approve more money via vote during an election in the form of a referendum. Obviously, this does not happen often because taxpayers typically do not want to pay more taxes. The Working Cash Bond is special because it slips under a certain ceiling that allows the district to raise property taxes without a voter approval.

(NOTE: Both Gene and Greg were amazing warehouses of information, but even more impressive was their willingness to sit down and explain things to folks like me)

Elementary School funding (and lack thereof)

While there is a rich plethora of statistics, financial data and worthy history, I am going to just rewind the clock to 1998 and focus on the elementary schools and related funding projects.

Gene Logas tells that Read the rest of this entry »

Heads up – Nov 5 Regular Board Meeting

Just looking through the Nov 5 Regular Board Meeting agenda posted on BoardDocs and spotted a few things; it is my intention to chew on these and respond later, but I at least wanted to mention these so others could be thinking and commenting as well. The “Controlled Choice” is what prompted me to make this post.


  • What is School Board Member Day (Nov 15)? 🙂
  • Schools of Controlled Choice Seat Assignment – lots of modifications to the written Policy, including the global replacement of the word ‘Lottery’ with ‘assignment’
  • Eliminate Proximity A and B.  With the addition of a new school in Savoy, there is no longer a need to have both a Proximity A and B. All households have a Proximity school.
  • Magnet Registration will be concurrent with March Kindergarten registration.
  • Wait list for both elementary and middle school will expire at the end of the first semester.
  • School report card – 30 pages of data, wow. I still don’t get why they print it out, and then scan in the printout to be displayed on the webpage. Why not just post the original?
  • Abating property taxes (x3) – I wish they would provide a “common language” translation of this financial mumbo jumbo. How about something that a 5th grader can read? My understanding is that abatement is a good thing for us because we tax-payers no longer pay property tax on outstanding bond debt from 1997, 2006 and 2010. I think. But I am pretty sure we still pay the same amount of property tax, it just goes towards something else.
  • Having said that, the next items is a Tax Levy. I appreciate that Dr. Joe Davis is explaining this one a little more, but it is still confusing. Remember the big bally-hoo about Working Cash Bonds this summer? Part of the new Tax Levy will cover the first two payments. I think the bulk of the Tax Levy is being used to offset the expected decrease in revenues due to a lower “valuation”. AKA, Black Magic. 🙂
  • A number of other HR changes followed (new staff needed for Early Childhood Center, ESL, a summary report of how many resignations, terminations, etc).

    On top of all that, current Board President Sue Grey has been promoted to CEO of the local United Way (NG article) and according to the News-Gazette will step down as BOE President; the NG reports a finding in the School Board Policy that the VP usually takes over, that being Stig Lanesskog. Congrats to Sue Grey!!



    Next Board Meeting (Monday, August 13th)

    [updated 13-Aug: Moved WCBs to the top]

    Working Cash Bonds will be discussed tonight. Keep in mind this is a 20-year loan (I believe). From BoardDocs:

    In February, 2012, the Board approved the Resolution indicating their intent to issue Working Cash Bonds in an amount not to exceed $14,500,000.  The purpose of the Bonds was to provide money to undertake certain construction projects including HVAC, energy efficiency, technology upgrades and a transportation facility.  Administration is now seeking Board approval to issue approximately $9,800,000 in Working Cash Fund Bonds. […] It has been estimated by Stifel Nicolaus that the tax increase on a $150,000 home will be a 5¢ increase for 20 years ($22.50/per year).

    I must confess, when the agenda was posted on BoardDocs, I skimmed through it looking for an agenda item to change policy 270.01. Alas, there is no agenda item for that. What is even more strange is that the a very full list of future meetings (at the bottom of the agenda) does not list any special meetings in August; I believe Dr. Wiegand indicated to me that there would be one on the 20th (budget stuff) and one on the 27th (possible first reading of policy 270.01 draft, possible high school options presentation, and something else).

    So what is on the agenda?

    Aside from the Academic Spotlight, Recognitions and Upcoming Events, the first thing on the “New Business” section is a report on Mentoring and Volunteers from Lauren Smith. Looks like last year was very positive in this sense. As a member of 1-to-1 Mentoring, the numbers are “feel good”, but I also very much want to see Orlando Thomas’s statement of acquiring 100 new mentors this coming year err on the side of being too conservative. With all the churches and volunteer organizations/efforts in our town, 100 new mentors should be easy-peasy! And I personally see mentors and volunteers as such a huge positive for our school district.

    The next item is a proposal to change the legal limit at which purchases and bids must go through the RFP process – Administration wants to raise the limit from $10,000 to $25,000. As a taxpayer, I would be able to support this %100 if (and only if) I felt I could keep the district accountable and felt confident with the level of fiscal transparency, and more important, proactive reporting. The district has dipped their toes into the transparency waters by putting check registers and initial RFPs online, and I am thankful for that. I personally think there is still a little more work to be done before the level of trust between the district and the voting public is at a sufficient level where these kinds of caps become arbitrary. But hey, maybe only a small handful of us feel that way. Rather makes me wonder if many other folks even care. 🙂

    The third item (C) is a presentation by Orlando Thomas on the topic of High School Climate. The short line-item description perhaps does not do justice to the entire presentation. I’ll Read the rest of this entry »

    Letter to the Board: "April 23rd Board Meeting"

    My letter to the Board follows – I am linking this to my previous post about the board meeting.

    [sheesh, this wordpress formatting is HORRID – some kind of div fetish….]

    Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the Board,

    I was unable to attend yesterday’s Board Meeting but I did intend to state a couple of things in Public Comment. So I am resorting to email as a secondary method to communicate.

    First, I wish to again congratulate the Board on their choice of Ileana Saveley, and wish Ms. Saveley a satisfying and most successful term(s) of service with the Board.

    Next, I wish to again implore the Board and the Administration to further seek out ways to achieve transparency and build trust with the community. There are two areas of immediate relevancy in regards to the direction of the School District and the community. For each, I list the issue and a possible solution – I am open to other possibilities as well.

    1. High School Options. 
    Issue: During the Feb 27th Board Meeting, Read the rest of this entry »

    Resolution to Abandon Working Cash Bonds

    From the Monday, April 23rd Board Agenda

    Resolution to Abandon Working Cash Bonds: Judy Wiegand

    I have heard rumors about how this happened (ie, reversing votes, etc). But nothing appears to be in the light at this moment. I wonder if any light will be shed at the meeting.

    Report on the April 9th Board Meeting – part 1

    Video is available – I recommend downloading it first, since the streaming playback is having issues for me:

    [I am breaking this post into two parts – folks rarely read really long posts *grin*]



    The Board Meeting got a little emotional. So what I am going to try doing in this review is to focus on behavior, not so much on people. I am hoping that this reduces the feather-ruffling. Maybe. Also, I was not present for the entire meeting, and even for those parts that I was present, my mind wandered a bit. And lastly, I don’t really want to repeat what the media has already reported on. With that said, let’s dive in.

    I had to cringe when Read the rest of this entry »

    Brief review of the March 26th Special Board Meeting

    First off, I could not stay for the whole thing; as it was 7:pm by and only up to first half of the High School Initiatives update (Section 7: Reports), I knew it was going to be a long night and I needed to spend some time with family.


    Chatted with Meg a little before the meeting – not sure how much she wants me to talk about her article coming up on Wednesday, so I’ll let that little mystery linger. I am looking forward to reading it. Also noticed that WCIA was at the meeting – I wonder how long they stuck around. First time in a long time that I saw the camera rolling like that.


    The first part of the Board Meeting was actually quite good, in my opinion. There was no “open comment” from anyone in the audience (and there were a LOT of people there – mostly teachers, faculty, and Architects). Tommy Lockman kicked of the “Communications from Board Members” (Section 5D); in an effort to be responsive to the community, Tommy suggested that the Board re-open discussions and/or possibly not move forward with the working cash bonds. I was thrilled to hear this, not so much because of the working cash bonds itself, but it was (from my perspective) a great way to send the message of “hey community, we hear you”. It will be interesting to see how the Board as a whole responds. Dave Tomlinson did mention Read the rest of this entry »

    Houlihans: Board President Sue Grey to join us March 21, and a recap from previous Houlihans

    First, just a reminder that Sue Grey has agreed to meet with us tomorrow (March 21st). I have asked her to give me an update once a month what is on the Board’s plate. The last time we met, Sue mentioned that the Board is rather concerned about “pension funding, transportation funding and the early childhood  programs funding”.

    I realize it is Spring Break; but if you are around and want to chat, please drop by.


    And finally, I want to wrap up some thought from previous Houlihans gatherings, which I have not yet properly documented. And unfortunately, I didn’t take notes so I am going strictly from memory and using my announcements to jog them.

    In attendance at the February 29th Houlihans, we had Greg Novak, Pattsi Petri, Chuck Jackson and myself. Greg made a joke about now being a tyrant (in light of the Feb 27th Special Board Meeting). Also, Tom Lockman dropped by to say ‘hi’ (woot! Two Board Members – a new record), but he was really meeting someone else. He did clarify a couple points for us, but I do not recall them off the top of my head. Greg reiterated points he had been making about the need to address deferred maintenance. We had some back and forth discussion about communication (and the lack thereof), about perceptions and how the Board and the community are not on the same page. We talked about how we thought the pricetag associated with the wireless technology was rather high, and we questioned why one of the schools (BTW? I forget now) had, on average, 3 computers per child.

    In a follow-up email on March 6th, Read the rest of this entry »