In order to understand what is happening in Urbana schools these days, I find it helpful to remember the advice of the famous 1970s White House whistleblower “Deep Throat,” who exposed the misleading statements coming out of the Nixon Administration and repeatedly urged Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money.”
I say that because I strongly believe we have been overlooking the main drivers behind a series of sudden, disruptive, otherwise-difficult-to-explain actions by district leadership, and without looking into this, we will never understand what is really happening — and more importantly, we risk never knowing how rapidly our options are disappearing.
In a nutshell, the problem is this: Urbana schools are facing a financial squeeze, and it’s getting worse.
School districts are required to fund education expenses through a combination of state funding and local property taxes. State funding is based on attendance, and for a variety of reasons, Urbana doesn’t have a growing population of kids attending public schools.
The importance of property taxes in school finances is well-known. In our area, Champaign and Savoy have captured a large amount of overall residential and commercial property growth. They use this growing property-tax base to fund Champaign schools while maintaining lower tax rates. Urbana’s tax base has remained relatively stagnant.
Adding to these older problems, our district has new challenges in education expenses and funding. In addition to a national teacher shortage, nearby districts offer combinations of pay, benefits and environment that are more compelling. Our new teachers contract will require competitive salaries to fill empty positions and keep existing teachers. Finally, like a fatal blow, pandemic-related federal grants will expire and increase our education funding shortfall.
Closing Wiley Elementary presented district administration with a devious solution to several problems. Shifting Wiley teachers into unfilled and substitute-filled teaching positions eliminates those wages and salaries and creates urgently needed education-fund savings.
Relocating Wiley students provides an excuse for increasing elementary class sizes and reducing elementary teaching positions. Spending non-education funds on the abatement and renovation of the Wiley building provides an illusion of financial health while distracting from educational cost cutting.
Decisions related to the Wiley closing will not be isolated to one building. They will affect nearly every child in our district. Out of financial necessity, fewer teachers, larger classes and reduced educational support programs will likely become permanent.
We can only get out of our financial difficulties by growing our tax base and student population. Fortunately, our district has many unique features and strengths to build upon and make our schools attractive to new families. Unfortunately, recent decisions, like closing a neighborhood school, will damage some of our strengths and make Urbana increasingly less attractive.
District leadership can’t pull us out of this downward spiral alone. The level of creativity we need won’t come from a small group at the top. We must engage parents, teachers and our entire community.
This all adds up to a massive financial and leadership challenge.
So why, we must ask, has the current administration and board never addressed these issues honestly and directly with the community?
And, why aren’t they sharing these challenges with district parents and taxpayers an attempt to “crowd-source” smarter solutions?