Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Good News, Bad News -- Could the Winds be Shifting on the D181 Board of Education?

As we listened to the 12/8/14 BOE live stream last night, we heard a D181 Board meeting that in our opinion was a perfect example of the good and bad that exists in the administration and on the board. It also provided a possible peek into how the board might function after next Spring's BOE election when, as we anticipate, there will hopefully be a shift on the board majority -- away from a rubber stamping board to one that will push for data and accountability, in particular in the area of curriculum and all things that will affect our children.

To begin with, this is the first meeting in a long time at which all seven board members were present, something that should be the norm, but as we all know, has not been.  So we begin by saying THANK YOU to our elected officials for all showing up to do their job.   There was only one opening public comment, but we want to commend the student who spoke on the importance of human rights and asked the administration to set up a celebration of human rights during the next school year.  We wholeheartedly support this suggestion and are proud of this student for speaking out.

Now a quick rehash of the worst and best moments of the meeting.  We won't give a blow by blow because we believe community members need to start listening to the meeting podcasts, if they are unable to attend in person, and keep current with the district issues. Click here to open the podcast.

1.  The annual audit report.

The key point made by the presenter was that there were "no material weaknesses" in the district's finances discovered during the audit and that the district's financial records are well maintained.  That is good.  What is bad is that there was not a single board member question asked about the audit following the presentation.  While we are confident that board members such as Heneghan, Garg and Clarin read the audit, we don't know if the same can be said of the rest of the board members.  This board meeting was their only opportunity to discuss the review conducted by the auditors, and it was quite disappointing to us that they chose to breeze right over this important presentation and conduct no meaningful discussion.

2.  Discussion on the Excess Money in the Debt Service Fund.

Mr. Frisch reported to the board that there are between $1.4 and $2.1 million in excess reserves that have accumulated in the bond and interest debt service fund.  (Click to open report.)  The board discussed the need to further research the cause and exact amount of the excess reserves and a possible abatement back to the taxpayers in the future, or using the excess to fund the purchase of working cash bonds that can be spent on the operational side of the budget.  The good:  As Mr. Turek pointed out, this issue was put on the agenda after it was flagged by Mr. Heneghan as a topic the full board should be discussing, not just the superintendent's finance committee.  The bad:  For the first time that we can recall, Mr. Turek attempted to, in our opinion, throw the past administration "under the bus" by suggesting that it was the past administration's fault that committees haven't provided information to the board and that the new administration would try and get a handle on it in the next few months. (Begin listening to Podcast at 0:30:15.)  While pointing the finger is a good thing, especially if it leads to positive change, we find it hypocritical of Mr. Turek to blame Dr. Schuster's administration.  After all, Mr. Turek has served as the board president for two years and been closely involved in setting board meeting agendas.  There has been nothing stopping him at any time from asking Dr. Schuster or Dr. White to have members from the various superintendent committees present reports to the BOE.  COME ON MARTY!  Time to assume some of the responsibility yourself.

3.  Learning For All Plan Review Cycle discussion:

This was the part of the meeting that most impressed us.  During Dr. White's report, the board finally conducted a meaningful discussion regarding the three month "cycle" Dr. White proposed reviewing the Learning for All Plan, starting with a Macro level history and review of the plan in January, an overview of key terms and components in February and a discussion on current and future work in March. Mr. Turek said this proposal would allow for  "socializing the plan" over three months.  Say what?

Thankfully, the majority of the board did not agree and in a nutshell,  shut down this ridiculous drawn out "cycle" that would have wasted everyone's time.  Instead, most of the board members agreed to follow Mr. Heneghan's lead in suggesting that what the administration should actually create is a written document that describes exactly what the plan is.  Mr. Henghan emphasized that three years into the plan, such a document still doesn't exist.  He suggested that the report describe all of the elements of the plan before the board discuss the future.  Mr. Clarin furthered this request by pushing not only for a qualitative report but one that will also include quantitative data that addressing whether the students  actually learn more under the LFA plan than they did before it was rolled out.  Ms. Garg agreed and suggested the report provide the analysis of data that should have been collected over the last three years.  Ms. Vorobiev wanted the report to include what is happening in the schools right now, suggesting that perhaps a request for quantitative data was too big of an ask to do now.  Mr. Nelson agreed that a report was warranted stating that it is time the administration gets past the "concept level" of the LFA plan and begins to delve deep into the execution level of the plan in order to decide what is and isn't working and determine for those aspects that aren't working if we really want to keep "slamming our head into the wall," versus trying something different. (Nelson: Podcast 45:40.)

We think Mr. Clarin hit the nail on the head when he  he said it is "kind of a shame on our part that that we are sitting here 3 years into the learning for all plan are still trying to develop conceptual ideas. I mean, we should have that information by now and nothing against [White] or [White's] administration but it just seems that we keep coming back to the same thing.  We want to understand what this is all about but we are into it for three years already.  We should understand what it's about by now." (Clarin:  Podcast 46:32.)

In the end, Dr. White agreed to create the "seminal" document and bring it back to the board for discussion.  Kudos to the Board for doing the right thing and not just agreeing to a cycle that to use Turek's phrase would just "socialize"the plan.  Thankfully, the rest of the board was more thoughtful and finally realized that a narrative report that does more than paint a bunch of bubbles is needed.  Now the only question is who in the administration will write the report?  Obviously it should not be Dr. White, who only joined the district six months ago.  In our opinion, this task should fall on Dr. Schneider's shoulders since he is in charge of the Department of Learning and was intimately involved in the development and roll out of the plan.  We wish we could have seen his expression -- if he was even at the meeting -- when Dr. White agreed to create the report.  Frankly, if Dr. Schneider was present at the meeting, we are shocked that he remained silent and had absolutely nothing to contribute to this critical curriculum discussion.

We hope the BOE is ultimately presented with a report that addresses all of the questions they asked last night, and that they and Dr. White use the report to not only improve the curriculum, but to also identify any administrators in the district who perhaps should be held accountable for the problems everyone has identified over the last three years, or who perhaps are so weak in their current performance that they should not have their contracts renewed next Spring.

Last night's discussion on the Learning for All Plan was a refreshing change from the past rubber stamping attitude by the board majority.  We don't know exactly what swung some of the board members to push for substance rather than continue to accept fluff and bubbles, but whatever the cause, we are grateful.  Perhaps they realized that with a board election next spring, a "new majority" may take over the board that will push for data analysis and meaningful reports.  Time will tell.

4.  The Tax Levy:  In one sentence OPTION B was approved by the BOE.  Option B will set the levy rate at CPI (1.5%) plus collect an additional $210,000 to cover the projected 2015-2016 deficit.  The board voted 6 to 1 to approve, with Mr. Clarin voting NAY after urging the board to also levy for new construction and protect the district's programs from any negative impact that possible senate approval of Bill 16 might have.  THANK YOU MR. CLARIN for advocating for maximizing the levy, as allowed under the Illinois Tax Cap law.  We had hoped more members on the board would agree with your position.  At least the board voted for a higher levy than the administration previously presented to them in November -- the 1.5% CPI only levy.  While the administration tried to explain why it waited until the last minute to present the board with three options, blaming falling oil prices for a lowering of the projected CPI next year that will cause a deficit in our budget, we aren't convinced that there were not "anti-tax" forces at work in trying to limit the options.  We can anticipate that the D181 BOE vote last night and Mr. Turek's vote with the majority, will displease the anti-tax elements in Clarendon Hills that D86 BOE member Corcoran is affiliated with.  We can only hope that Mr. Turek's vote will cost him Clarendon Hills C4H4 votes.

We also need to point out that we are extremely disappointed in Mr. Nelson's explanation of why he would not vote for the maximum levy, suggesting that since he no longer has kids in the district, he better understands the position of similarly situated community members who he believes are being driven out of the district by increasing taxes.  Really, Mr. Nelson?  So your kids are gone and you no longer want to ensure the same excellent programs for future students that your kids had?  Please rethink your position, or at least watch what you say, because it was quite offensive. (Nelson:  Podcast: 1:19:20.)  Thankfully, Nelson has chosen not to run for reelection and will not be around next year when the board votes on the next levy.


There were a few other agenda items discussed, but the above matters were the most significant.  Again we urge all of you to listen to the full podcast.  As we approach the Winter Break, we plan to post a few more "Daily Reasons" why Mr. Turek should not be reelected, and then take a two week hiatus to enjoy the holidays with our families.  So stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting last night. So was Kurt Schneider. He sat stone faced as the Learning For All Review plans were discussed by the board. At no time did he contribute to the discussion or offer any suggestions.

HMS Parent said...

The BOE should insist that Schneider write the report. White should be scratching his head wondering why Schneider hasn't done so already. After all, it would have been a good move on Schneider's part to educate his new boss and person who promoted him to provide him with a single document that would bring him up to speed on the curriculum situation in the district. Dr. White -- doesn't the fact that there is no existing report tell you something about the current curriculum administrators? It should.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr. Nelson can move. For the better part of two years, he has been an absent board member. He shouldn't have been allowed to cast a vote on the tax levy.

Anonymous said...

Turek is pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Is there an echo in here?

I've been jumping up and down since the LFA plan was rolled out three years ago and practically screaming that a PowerPoint is not a plan! There was no guiding document as to what is in the plan. Ever!

Now three years into this mess the board is finally waking up? Shame on all of them for being asleep at the switch.

Too little too late. Vote them all out this spring.

jay_wick said...

I sympathize, at least a little, with Mr. Nelson regarding the trend of some folks to consider moving as soon as their children are done with school.

The demand that taxes place upon home owners is, however, not unique to our district. In fact, a cursory examination of tax bills as a function of home value reveals Hinsdale to be slightly slightly less burdensome than the portions of CH served by the district. Additionally one could argue that the trade-offs of Oak Brook, that does perhaps offer a slightly more favorable tax situation, but has no direct access to Metra, far more limited resident oriented retail and an altogether different experience for even teenagers that need to drive / be driven most everywhere continue to hamper its desirability for families compared to the good walk-ability of Hinsdale / Clarendon Hills. I don't mean to leave out the important part of Burr Ridge that is served by the district -- it too offers a quality of life that typically does require more driving...

The issue of how the BOE has been a steward of finances must be based on the reality of what has transpired. Four of the BOE members (Nelson, Yeager, Heneghan & Turek) must bear responsibility for not just the most recent teacher's contract, which as Mr. Frisch's report finally clearly states, is responsible for increased costs to the district of 3.3% for 2013-14 and 2.6% for 2014-15, but also fallout from the previous agreement. There is little reason to believe the BOE did not realize these increases are much greater than any expected Consumer Price Increases. It is very likely that the district's compensation did in fact lag behind peer districts after the unprecedented "zero step / zero lane / zero COL" contract that the teachers agreed to when the economic landscape was much more uncertain.

The BOE has largely been silent as to whether these facts entered into the thinking behind the current contract. If fact, given that Clarin and Vorobiev led the most recent negotiation perhaps Nelson, Yeager, Heneghan or Turek failed to provide "continuity" that would have helped reach a more sustainable financial position.

It is undoubtedly a challenge to align the schedule of budget approval with statutory requirements for the levies as well keeping track of the how two counties earmark funds for bond payment but BOE members like Nelson and Yeager that touted their depth of understanding for these matters have so little to show for their promises it is no wonder they are not seeking re-election.

It is also telling that instead of BOE committees, chaired by elected members, the BOE allowed the previous superintendent to use the less transparent method of organizing such things as 'advisory' only to her. While Dr. White now treats these committees as governed by the more honest Open Meetings Act, the legacy of obfuscation seems to live in on in delaying the release of information that would enable BOE members to make decisions about the financial demands facing the district. The promise of "zero based budget", or a line-by-line understanding of where the district funds go, seems to largely have been unmet. Without this kind of accountability, departing district level staff has been allowed to leave with more compensation than was agreed in the BOE policies through waived tuition recapture and even subverting of State laws designed to reign in pension give-aways...

These expenditures come with no evidence of the district delivering a better experience to more students. Instead, the offerings of the district have largely been more limited, the performance as measured by standardized tests has declined and even the degree of rigor has arguably not keep pace with not just our peer districts but has sunk compared to districts that have previously been less desirable. Along with this lack of leadership the growth in both numbers and salary of district level staff has been most troubling -- the hallmark of incompetent leadership is paying more and getting less.