Monday, April 06, 2009

Honesty, Transparency, Accountability

Tomorrow, April 7, is the big day -- municipal elections, where I get to punch my own name on the ballot, which I'm anticipating will be kinda cool. I've been endorsed by the Peoria Journal-Star (endorsement). I just wanted to reiterate, briefly, some of my primary campaign positions. (Much of this comes from my prior post, here.)

The most crucial thing that I would like to focus on, if elected to the school board, is student achievement. That's a broad topic, and an easy thing to say, but it's clearly at the heart of what we all want for the students of District 150, and it's the purpose of the system. It's why we pay the taxes into the system. The District isn't a babysitting service. It isn't a jobs program for administrative cronies. It isn't a feeding trough for consultants. Its purpose is to educate, and District 150 should be a first choice, not a last resort. We have excellent students -- I teach some of them at ICC. We have excellent teachers. These students can achieve if we can only create the environment for them to do it. Some of the policies I would pursue include:

Free teachers to teach, as much as possible. Miring teachers down in red tape or forcing them to spend more time administering discipline than teaching is not a recipe for achievement. Obviously, there are constraints that neither the schools nor the district can change -- NCLB, for example. But within those constraints, the Board should do everything possible to create an environment where teachers can teach with a minimum of interruption and distraction and a maximum of support from principals, administration, and the Board. Micromanaging the classroom, however, is an inappropriate behavior from the School Board; teachers are professionals whose professional competency should be respected.

Create an alternative school for disruptive students. The small number of students who create real disruptions and discipline problems should not be allowed to continue disrupting the learning of those around them. At the same time, expulsion is an unattractive option, as it leaves students who are most in need of education and direction without resources to improve their lives. An alternative school -- a good alternative school, whose focus is to reintegrate the student into the mainstream and provide an excellent education until that's possible -- is necessary. Removing these seriously problematic students from the classroom will allow them to get the focused attention they need, and the other students to focus on their studies in a safe environment conducive to learning. This would be a high-cost initiative, but providing the high schools and junior highs the ability to staff a room five days a week for an "in-school suspension" as a first step is NOT a high-cost initiative, and can be effective intermediate step -- we can create one room for the high schools, one for the junior highs, at a centralized location for the cost of one superintendent salary.

Focus on "the next step" after high school. I've heard a lot of enthusiasm from current and retired teachers about improving both college prep and vocational education opportunities. Specifically, create a comprehensive college prep curriculum open to all high school students (if located at one school -- Richwoods has the most comprehensive current program -- we can cluster APs and college prep classes in the mornings and emulate suburban Chicago models where students are bussed to one school for morning APs and then back to their home school for the afternoon) and work with the unions to create a direct-entry vocational program for the skilled trades. The trades are graying, Peoria has great skilled-labor jobs available, and my plumber makes more than I do. This wouldn't be a throwaway voc-tech program, but a serious academic endeavor preparing students for demanding skilled jobs. (Bonus: Plumbers and electricians can't be outsourced or off-shored.)

However, we need to commit to programs and stick with them -- District 150 has done quite a bit of "we'll try this, no wait, now that," picking up programs and discarding them before they have a chance to work. There is no perfect program, and there are probably a variety of methods that will work to improve student achievement. But none of them will work if they're implemented for a year and then dropped; this creates confusion and waste.

A second set of issues, and ones that the Board is probably able to influence more directly, revolve around governance and communication. In recent years, there hasn't been a great deal of openness and communication from the School Board or the administration about various decisions. Stories change constantly -- "A longer school day is good for students, except when it isn't." I don't think anyone in Peoria is under any illusions about the financial status of the District, and that that constrains the District's options. It's up to the School Board to be open and honest about that, to set priorities, and to say, "Yes, that would be nice, but we can't afford it." It's up to the Board to be a voice for taxpayers and to demand accountability from the administration -- and that includes justification for expenses such as four (now three) superintendants and various consulting fees.

The simplest way to begin with the dire budget situation is to divide expenses into three tiers -- Tier I is everything that directly affects students and their education (instructional time, classroom size); Tier II is anything with indirect effects on students; Tier III is everything else. Tier III gets cut first, end of story. Tier I is cut last, if at all. Any expense on Tier II or III that wants to stick around is going to have to provide massive justification for its existence at the expense of any Tier I core functions.

The picture is less clear and less easy for buildings and maintenance, but a similar scheme can be considered. I also believe the District should consider performance contracting, a state program which updates buildings to increase their energy efficiency with no capital outlay -- the outlay comes from the state and the contractors, who are paid back out of the energy savings over time. The cost-savings take some time to appear (as they're initially paying back to capital outlay), but there is no capital outlay and the program is particularly effective with older, historic buildings that tend to be well-build, well-insulated, and nicely adaptable to modern energy efficiencies.

The closed culture of the Board and Administration has created an atmosphere of distrust. There are issues where the Board and District are legitimately constrained from public discussion -- issues that fall under FERPA, or various personnel matters that are legally private -- but this constant refusal to openly discuss issues that are open has created a situation where Peorians are no longer willing to believe the District when it says, "Trust us."

While one vote on the School Board can't change District policy alone, one person on the Board CAN communicate directly and honestly with constituents, and that would be one of my primary aims.


On a personal note, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's vote, I've really enjoyed running for the Board -- meeting so many people in Peoria who are so deeply invested in the future of our city, talking with my opponents, and really learning how much local democracy matters. It's been a real education for me, seeing this part of a functioning democracy from the inside, and by and large it's been a heartening experience -- watching America work the way it's meant to work, with people of good will working hard to improve their communities. Whatever the outcome, I am enormously grateful for that experience.


Nitish said...

Though I don't live in Peoria (I'm in Champaign-Urbana), thank you for running! School boards all over the country need more members like you.

Diane Vespa said...

Break a leg, girl. Just kidding, well, no, not really. :)

Chase Ingersoll said...

Congrats. I am hoping that your blog will be a first row seat into what is going on at Dist 150.