Guest commentary: School board, community must work together for kids' sake
By CHUCK JACKSON
On Feb. 12, Unit 4 schools and Dejong Richter (a public engagement firm — on Unit 4's behalf) made a presentation to the community about options for a comprehensive building plan, including a number of new school buildings.
The presentation was simultaneously too complex to understand and the allowable feedback too constrained to be meaningful. School remodeling projects were packaged together without explanation rather than each campus standing on its own.
While the intent (I think) was to narrow the choices, by putting multiple schools together, there was no way to critique the options with the necessary level of detail. For example, it doesn't make sense to me to remodel South Side into a two-strand school but I do like the possibility of a K-8 building (Elementary Option 4). Moreover, the surveys which acted as the feedback mechanism were so limited that any feedback received is tainted. The second question on the survey asks me to rank five criteria (vehicular accessibility, other forms of accessibility, social, environmental impacts and financial concerns) in order of importance. I value a central location and urban infill development. Where is that among these options? How the question is asked affects the answers received, to say nothing of the questions that aren't even asked. If the feedback doesn't capture the priorities and concerns of the public, is it worth having?
In terms of buildings we need to know: 1.) What is needed (connected to the educational program contemplated); 2.) Why it is needed (at some reasonable level of detail) and only then can the community begin to get behind the question; 3.) What do we do about it?
Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?
In the meeting, no case was made for why we want new construction. No argument was put forward casting a vision for what Unit 4 could become if we just had the right infrastructure. Excellent facilities don't guarantee quality education; in many studies there is no linkage whatsoever.
This meeting illustrates a common reality at board meetings and the normal practice of the schools. On the whole, the people employed by the district, top to bottom, are excellent, more than competent to do their job. Their ability might get in the way however; they don't NEED community input to do their job. From the board on down, the work gets done but the public is left out. Aren't public meetings public for a reason? There is no doubt that many individuals within the system make time to be available but there is great variability and no systematic point of entry (outside of already overburdened teachers).
The common complaint by the board is that people don't show up. I have seen this reality and agree. Where I differ is in my response to that reality. I don't understand hiring a public engagement firm from Ohio that knows nothing about the local context to put together meetings, write surveys and crunch numbers. We already have people on staff with existing relationships who can call on their friends and neighbors, students and their families. While I saw the board vote to spend six figures on a consultant, I did not see principals encouraging families in their school to attend the meeting. I did not see administrators or even board members press the people they already know to become involved. I hope I just didn't see it.
In the bad old days of Unit 4, we had opportunities to bring the community together. To cast a vision about what K-12 education in Champaign can be. During the consent decree we could have all rallied around the common goal of educating all of our children, including African-American children. Instead what we got was divisive policies. Half the community complained about legal costs and half the community complained that all the effort made little difference.
The high school, indeed all the schools in any town, form the nucleus of identity. In any park district activity, in any community event for kids, what's one of the first questions? "Where do you go to school?" Our allegiance to, and membership at a school forms a part of who we are as individuals and as a community. We must take the time to get this right.
Fellow citizens: Please, attend board meetings, take the survey (make sure to use the free form response boxes), talk to administrators, teachers and members of the board.
Board members: Please think creatively (and spend money if necessary) about seeking involvement from those who are already sending Unit 4 their precious children, those who pay the bills through taxes, indeed the whole community.
I am convinced that if Judy Wiegand and the other smart people of Unit 4 stand up and preach the gospel of excellence, people will rally to that cause. If we set as our goal to lead the state, not just in higher education but K-12 education, people will rise to the occasion with time and money and creativity and love. We all desperately want to see the success of our very own children.
Chuck Jackson is a technology consultant and a candidate for a seat on the Unit 4 school board. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.