ELECTION 2019 QUESTIONNAIRES | Champaign school board: Lee McDonald

ELECTION 2019 QUESTIONNAIRES | Champaign school board: Lee McDonald

1. What prompted you to run for a seat on the board?

"Growing up in a large city, I saw too many examples of children who had little or no chance to get to the middle class or above. One of my 'passions' has always been: How do we break the cycle of poverty? It is a big question that involves society, culture and a lot more than school. However, school can be part of the solution. The best way out of poverty is via education and what education leads to. 54.1 percent of Unit 4 students are considered low-income.

"Every study agrees that if a student is not at needed levels for English Language Arts (ELA) and math by the third grade that they generally stay behind throughout school and are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

"Third grade is the tipping point. Over the last four years, the Unit 4 report card for low-income third-grade students has been declining and is underperforming compared to the state of Illinois benchmark. Currently, only 12 percent of low-income third-graders are at a third-grade level for ELA, versus the state benchmark of 24 percent. For math, the scores are 14 percent for Unit 4 and 23 percent for the state of Illinois. The opportunity for improvement lies within the K-3 grades and pre-school.

"Several other issues contributed to my decision to run: a lack of focus on students who will not be attending college; a lack of transparency on the costs for items other than the referendum building projects; and major discipline issues — hopefully, in several isolated areas — that leads to higher teacher turnover and lack of attention to the students who want to learn."

2. What makes you most qualified to serve on the board?

"I have worked in the business world for over 36 years starting with my family's small firm in St. Louis followed by 13 years with W.W. Grainger and 16 years with FedEx Services. While my positions were with the sales divisions for all, I have had training/classes in negotiation, finance, technology, total cost analysis, internal culture, etc.

"My wife worked for almost 20 years as a teacher's aide in a Unit 4 middle school striving to get students to their needed grade level. I am now retired and have the time to give back to the community by working on issues within Unit 4 that have continued for several years."

3. What, to you, is the school district's single-greatest strength?

"I think the diversity of students is a great strength that manifests itself in multiple ways. Certainly, different races and nationalities in the classroom are beneficial for both students and teachers. Diversity can also be exhibited in other ways such as the arts, music, and sports that are not the norm for some schools such as archery, etc.

"A close second would be the special ed department that meets the educational needs of students with a wide variety of special needs."

4. What issue would you like to see get more attention than it has from the board or district?

"More pre-school. Too many kids are not ready for kindergarten at age 5 and struggle in a structured classroom.

"Take a look at what Montgomery County did near Dayton, Ohio (Strive Together). I would like to see a pilot program with a limited group of future students who are considered low-income. Start with two years of pre-school prior kindergarten. Then track the student performance on several levels, including ELA and math; discipline issues; parent/guardian involvement; social interaction with other students, etc. Assess their progress yearly at every grade level until they take the PARCC testing in the third grade. If there is a positive causal/effectual outcome, then consider how to expand the program and to what degree.

"Also, I would like to see more options and training for students who won't get to college, specifically in the trades like electrical, plumbing, general construction, truck driving, etc. There is currently a nationwide shortage in these areas. Expand our offering with more partnerships with Parkland and local businesses to explore apprenticeships for students (Center for Public Education).

"Any new programs will have to be revenue neutral. After passing the 2016 tax referendum for brick-and-mortar construction, the customers of Unit 4 would not stand for another tax increase. Create a cross-section of parents, civic leaders, business, etc., to find any required revenue from existing channels and options other than a tax increase. One possibility is to explore options for the 80 acres on Olympian Drive which cost the district $3.2 million. Could they be sold to raise revenue?

"Lastly, a lack of discipline in some locations has led to higher teacher turnover and a lack of learning by the students. There is too much random enforcement of rules. I will address this in my answer to question No. 9."

5. How big a concern is the size of classrooms, particularly at the lower levels, in Unit 4?

"Especially for the K-3 grades, it is a huge concern. As stated previously, third grade is the tipping point. We have to focus on those grades if we can instill an interest in ELA and math that will last a lifetime, improve scores and hopefully lead to successful careers/professions.

"Every study shows that class size at those grade levels is critical. Use the average size of classes in the state of Illinois as benchmark.

"The Unit 4/state numbers — K: 22/19; 1st: 22/19; 2nd: 22/20; 3rd: 21 / 20."

6. How do you feel about armed, uniformed police officers in the schools?

"I don't have a problem with the current resource officers in the three middle schools and two high schools. The safety of our students and staff is priority one. Crisis drills are acceptable, the same as fire drills, etc.

"It's my understanding that most or all school doors are locked after the first bell with improved site lines from the main office/reception area for the newer schools. A locked door policy should be implemented in all schools if any are lacking with this policy."I am open to a discussion of resource officers in the elementary schools, but would like to hear more on that issue from all concerned before making a decision."

7. What are your ideas for how to keep district spending in check?

"Ask questions, ask questions and ask questions. Did I say ask questions?

"Here is an example where I feel the board missed out on digging into the financial side of a request from the transportation department.

"During the school board meeting on December 10, 2018, at the request of the director of operations and the director of transportation, the board unanimously approved a motion to move $500,000 from a contingency transportation fund into a transportation capital outlay fund. These funds would then be used to replace 17 of 78 school buses in the current fleet.

"Prior to the vote, the board asked the following: Would some buses be leased considering the high cost to purchase? When would they be purchased? Would there be both 'long and short' buses? What 'bells and whistles' would be included?

"There were several comments, which I will paraphrase: This will help to reduce the number of late school bus stops; the transportation department does a great job; some of the school buses have hard-frame backs on the seats and the seats smell bad.

"On December 18, 2018, the director of accounting services issued a bid letter for 10 71-passenger buses with delivery by January 25, 2019. The bid was awarded in early January at a figure of $810,770 and was approved with a consent vote with no discussion during the January 14, 2019 board meeting.

"While the safety of our students and personnel while on our buses is a major priority, if I was on the board in December, I counted a list of 15 questions I would have asked. A summary of those is as follows:

— "What line item in the 9/24/18 FY2019 budget shows the $500,000 contingency funds? (Answer: page 2, line 18).

— "What line item in the 9/24/2018 FY2019 budget shows the capital outlay for transportation and how many dollars are currently there? (Answer: page 3, line 91, and $122,000).

— "How much will you need to make these purchases?

— "Guessing that a new bus purchase is in the range of $70,000 to $80,000, how many buses will you purchase and how many will be leased?

— "What are the financial implications, both short term and long term, for making a purchase versus a lease? Have you done an analysis on which path to ownership is best?

— "What is the average life expectancy of a bus? A yearly range would be fine.

— "What is the age range of the remaining 61 buses in the fleet?

— "Do you anticipate — best guess is fine — that you will need to make more replacements in FY2020 and/or FY2021?

"If the presenters could not answer these questions, I would have made a motion to table the vote for 30 days to give them time to answer these questions and any others the board might want to add. If my motion would have failed for lack of a second, I would either voted 'no' or at the very least 'abstained.'

"At the January 14, 2019 board meeting, I would have moved to take the bus purchase out of the consent vote — no discussion approval process — and asked the following:

— "From the last meeting, it was determined that the transfer of funds resulted in $622,000 in the capital outlay fund. The winning bid was for $810,770 for 10 buses. From where will we be pulling the additional $188,770?

— "Will the remaining seven buses all be leased? How much cost? What part of the budget will be used?

"At the February 11, 2019 meeting, the board approved a purchase/lease program for the 10 buses. Possibly the transportation department realized they did not have enough money to make a one-time purchase and then submitted a 3-year lease program at a total cost of $852,275.

"Again, this was done during the consent vote portion of the meeting with no discussion. Also, still no discussion on how the remaining seven of the initial needed 17 will be obtained."

8. Would the district benefit from a charter school that serves low-income students, like the one (North Champaign Academy) proposed a year ago?

"I have watched the school board meeting video twice when the NCA proposal was presented. As you can see in my previous answers, low-income students — which make up 54.1 percent of our students — are a huge concern. However, the focus from the NCA group seemed to be more concerned with black students, not low-income students.

"The NCA group was very welcoming of any students of any color, but they did focus their analysis on black student academics and discipline issues. Their numbers seemed to indicate a bias among Unit 4 teachers/administrators.

"While I like numbers, I felt that their analysis did not drill down far enough to prove a cause/effect situation. You can't use a small sample size, nor only a small set of numbers, to prove a predetermined conclusion. Also, on the academic side, they used third-, fourth- and fifth-grade academics to illustrate the academic side for black students. I think they missed the need for improvement in K-3 that I have expressed previously.

"Before spending huge amounts of money on a charter school, I would welcome an open and respectful discussion among parents, administrators, teachers and the board to drill down to the cause of discipline concerns with suggestions on how to create improvement. While it is difficult to see inside one's heart, the teachers I have talked to seem to be especially focused to help the students with discipline problems and those who are behind academically."

9. What would be in your plan to recruit and retain high-quality teaching staff?

"The competition for teachers is, of course, the Chicago suburbs that have higher teacher salaries. Plus, many recent graduates of the U of I, EIU and ISU want to 'go home' to the big city if that is where they grew up.

"Unit 4 has tried to offset the lure of the suburbs with good benefits such as 100 percent payment of health insurance premiums, tuition waivers with the U of I, etc. Plus, we can sell a lower cost of living versus the big city.

"There is one negative that hopefully is very isolated but that can and will drive teachers away. I am aware of discipline issues at one location that prevent a teacher from teaching to the students who want to learn. We can't allow that to continue. Below is part of an email I received from one teacher. I would like to see an assessment from the administration on which school and/or schools where discipline is an issue. Then meet with teachers, administrators and parents to take imput on ideas on how to improve the situation and put a plan in place.

"Below is a small portion of one teacher's experience: 'Here are some behaviors that I experienced in my class DAILY. I had kids who would steal from me and their peers. I had kids who would attack me and other students both verbally and physically. I did not feel like a teacher. I felt like a guard that was trying to make sure that no one got into fights. I had students who would break things in the room, throw things across the room, slam the door, run out of the room and all around the school, hide in the bathroom, etc. I can't even count how many times my students got into fist fights. I once had a group of over five students hold down another student with a chair while other students pulled her hair and kicked her. I once had a student lash out at me and cuss me out and hit me. I also had an extremely small group of kids who were none of these things. They were kind, respectful, and wanted to learn. I was most heartbroken for them because I wanted to give them the education they deserved, but it was impossible. Unfortunately, they were stuck in a room where they just had to sit quietly and forfeit their education because the majority of the kids made it absolutely impossible for me to teach or for anyone to learn.'"

10. Do you believe there is too much money being spent on administrators?

"There seems to be a perception with many in the community that there are too many administrators and some are overpaid. To answer the question requires more detailed data.

"The Annual Statement of Affairs does provide numbers on students by class plus certificated and non-certificated employees. However, it does not break down the employees by a sub category of administrators.

"We could use data with a summary of salaries for administrators; number of administrators; numbers of students; number of teachers both certificated and non-certificated; and a salary summary for both types of teachers. If yearly numbers for each of those for the past five to 10 years were available, then a conclusion could be reached.

"Use the data sets to determine if each category is raising more quickly than the others."

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