Wednesday, May 14, 2008

District 150 Needs to Change

As every single one of my Peoria readers knows, District 150 wants to cut 45 minutes out of the elementary school day to save $645,000ish, or 1/2 of 1% of their budget. Not a big impact on the budget, but obviously a huge impact on the children of Peoria. (See Diane Vespa's ongoing coverage.)

District 150 is wickedly difficult to run. I get that. It's operating under catastrophic budget issues left to it by Kay Royster and the Aaron Schock-led school board. (Seriously, people, do not give him power over federal taxing and spending. SERIOUSLY.) There's a shortage of qualified superintendents in Illinois, and nationwide. (If Paul Vallas is available, Peoria, GRAB THAT MAN WITH BOTH HANDS AND DON'T LET GO.) Almost 3/4 of District 150 students -- 69.3% in 2007 -- are low-income. A third of them (30.1%) move every year. Out of 14,000ish students, 686 are reported as chronically-truant, but I don't think that number tells even half the story: You talk to teachers in the district, and you hear kindergarten teachers talking about KINDERGARTENERS who are truant because they're at home caring for even younger children! These are problems the district can't do much about, other than the legacy budget issues.

But District 150 is making a botch of it left, right, and center. It would help immeasurably if the School Board and administration of District 150 would address the following issues:

OPENNESS: Operate under an openness policy. It seems to me that the District leadership has developed a defensive posture, which appears to be a combination of 1) a desire to discuss sensitive (but public) matters behind closed doors to avoid controversy; 2) a sense that, because sensitive issues are kept private, citizens "don't understand" the issues and so should accept the leadership at its word; and 3) a dislike of coming under criticism. There's also a history of crap PR-driven "justifications" for decisions the District leadership has made. As many have cited, the District in the past claimed we needed to spend more to expand the elementary school day to achieve educational excellence. Now the District claims we need to contract the elementary school day to achieve educational excellence. And that whole Glen Oak Primary debacle was full of misdirection and confusion.

Solutions: Bring it all out into the open, kiddos. District 150 is a public body and the public has the right to run it. LET US. Be honest. Don't feed us a bullshit line about shorter school days leading to educational excellence. Tell us the budget is in dire straits and we have to make tough choices -- whether that choice is a tax referendum, closing certain schools, jettisoning administrators, shortening the school day, or just fiddling while Rome burns. That choice is OURS, not yours, and you might be shocked how many District 150 parents and taxpayers understand the concept of "tough choices."

Understand that your history of closed-doors and misdirection and PR-babble is going to take time to overcome, and only openness, forthrightness, and honesty will do that -- and that includes making a SHOW of honesty as well as actually being honest. You must avoid even the appearance of half-truths or secret knowledge or generalized obfuscation.

(Also, if criticism makes you publicly defensive, neither school administration or public office is the proper place for you to be. Be defensive at home to your spouse or dedicated sounding board. You answer to the public at work, and the public is critical. Which brings us to:)

ANSWER THE PUBLIC: There's enormous frustration in Peoria about the refusal of the School Board and administration to address issues of public concern, instead focusing on the leadership's latest concern -- which has come to mean, in the public mind, the leadership's latest harebrained scheme. Administrator top-heaviness is one notable issue; the entire Glen Oak debacle was another.

Solutions: Answer public concerns. If that means you have to hold an extra school board meeting, or Hinton sits down at a "listening session" every month for a year, then that's what it means. We employ you. We have a right to answers to OUR concerns. Hinton made $202,390 for 2006-2007; the median household salary in Peoria is $40,276. We have two associate and one assistant superintendents. ALL of our high schools have failed NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress measures. ONE THIRD of our schools are in school improvement status under NCLB (9 of 30: Manual High School; Sterling, Trewyn, and Lincoln Middle Schools; Loucks-Edison, Tyng, Harrison, and Garfield Primary Schools; and Roosevelt Magnet). It's not unfair for parents and taxpayers to demand justification for the administrative salaries and the number of administrators in District 150 when our district is failing so badly. Are all those administrators worth their feed? I realize school administration, particularly in a district with the challenges District 150 faces, is a complex and difficult job. However, it's up to the administration to make its case persuasively to parents and to answer their concerns. When we're down to cutting 45 minutes from the elementary school day to save a paltry $645,000, when we've come to the point where we can't even afford educational TIME, I think whether we can afford our present administration is a totally legitimate question, particularly when the administration has failed to deliver important objectives.

CONSULTANTS AND OTHER ODD EXPENSES: How many do we need, seriously? Isn't making educational decisions what we pay four superintendents for? Haven't the past several basically told us things that were either common sense or that we already knew?

Solutions: Consulting itself is an issue, but it also stands in for a larger issue of non-instructional expenses not directly related to running the school's physical plant, and the need for those expenses to be justified to taxpayers.

If the consultants are adding value that justifies what we're paying them, the district needs to make that case persuasively to parents and taxpayers. And for the consulting that's necessary, couldn't some of it be provided pro-bono locally? We have multiple colleges locally with education departments with talented professors with a lot of expertise in these problems. We have the Great Yellow God (I say that affectionately), Caterpillar, which has Six Sigma experts out the wazoo and has shown willingness in the past to work with local governmental bodies and lend its expertise and/or snowplows. Heck, we have at-home moms with kids in the district who were high-powered attorneys, PR professionals, consultants, corporate planners, accountants, etc., before opting to stay home. Why aren't we drawing on that resource? We have retired professionals invested in the community. What about them? And for consulting that must be outsourced to specialists, how much of the work (data gathering, etc.) can we do in-house? Will they work with us to cut those costs to the bone?

BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line is this: I don't want to move. I like living in Peoria. I like living south of War Memorial, where there are sidewalks (in questionable repair, but sidewalks) and neighborhoods and I can walk to most things, instead of up north in car-focused subdivisions (not neighborhoods) where you must drive everywhere. I believe in public schools; I don't want to have to opt out of the public system or move to get my hypothetical children an adequate education.

There are great teachers in District 150; I serve with some in the Junior League, I know others socially. There are great students in District 150, too: I get them in my classroom at ICC, so I feel uniquely well-suited to say, "Heck yes, District 150 can provide a great college-prep education." But what we don't have is a great District, and I'm so afraid that the failing District will drive out the great teachers and take the great students down with it. It's time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It has to change. It's time to change.

And if they won't change?

Throw the bums out.


Billy Dennis said...

Great advice.

They won't take it.

Prairie Celt said...

Eyebrows, congratulations on a wonderful article. Hopefully, this will be picked up and read by many Peorians.

Based on the blog coverage of the Monday night meeting, it appears the group was counseled not to rock the boat too much because it might make the city look bad.

No matter how much opposition this group raises and how hard they fight, it is the recommendation by the Administration, and the ratification by the BOE, of this proposal to shorten the primary school day that makes the city look bad.

This nation was founded in dissent - if the early patriots had not dissented, our national anthem might still be "God Save the Queen." Our citizens should always be wary when an individual or group tries to stifle dissent and criticism. That is true, even in Peoria, Illinois - don't let that happen now.

At a recent BOE meeting, Hinton became angered by criticism voiced by some members of the audience. He seemed quite affronted that anyone would think he doesn't have the best interest of the kids at heart. His recommendation to shorten the school day certainly makes his words ring hollow. How is it in the best interest of the children of Peoria to reduce the amount of time they receive educational instruction?

To Hinton, his administrative team, and the BOE - don't talk the talk if you aren't willing to walk the walk.

Diane Vespa said...

Outstanding perspectives and an outstanding post. (except for the comments about Aaron Schock Lol)

The children of Peoria thank you, and your hypothetical children thank you!

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

regarding D150's abundance of consultants -- there's an old maxim that "If you're not part of the solution, there's money to be made prolonging the problem" -- which seems to be exactly what these folks are doing.

b said...

On a separate note that you might find interesting did you know that the 225 district now operates 4 yes FOUR swimming pools between 2 schools and that they are planning on putting up cell phone towers on the theatre for an extra stream of revenue because they blew through their bond issue funds?