I attended my first Unit 4 School Board meeting last night. After the meeting, I received a phone call from Board Member John Bambenek who explained that yesterday's meeting was not your typical board meeting. If it were typical, I'd definitely be attending more as that experience was quite interesting and somewhat entertaining. I'm going to try and bring you up to speed and help give you some perspective on what's going on.
1. Let's Agree to Agree
Unit 4 is facing a capacity problem, especially in the high schools. Central and Centennial are at 103% capacity and are expected to reach 120% capacity by 2022. The conversation about where to build a new Central High School has been ongoing since 2006 and Unit 4 has provided a helpful website to explain the site selection and community outreach process. The first referendum this past November failed by a close margin of 52% to 48%. Afterwards the N-G reported that the board would be exploring "tweaks" to the failed referendum and that same terms was used repeatedly at last night's school board meeting.
2. Let's Agree to Disagree
While there are some who don't want to pay for new schools, there seems be a growing and vocal group of residents who are in favor of building a new school, but want to hold out for a better alternative than the north Champaign location. A new group has formed called REWIND (Responsible Education with Intention and Direction). The group is legitimately non-partisan and is advocating for infill development and a more comprehensive plan for their schools. I spoke with the group's Co-Chair Jon Rector and it is clear they are not opposed to building a new school. In fact, they have architects, attorneys, teachers, bankers, bloggers (I kid, Seth), doctors and others hoping to help find a better alternative. I find this interesting because most in this group are not your your typical political activists. This group of made up of some very odd bedfellows and has come together to advocate for their vision of a better community. As the referendum will almost certainly be placed on the ballot in the Spring, it will be interesting to see if this +/- 40-person group develops into an organized effort against the Interstate Drive site. Will they form a PAC, raise money, etc.? I guess we'll find out.
3. Let's Really Agree to Disagree
If you are in favor of infill development and a more comprehensive plan for school facilities, you are a racist. Doesn't that sound incredibly silly?! Representatives of the North End Breakfast Club addressed the school board and accused the REWIND group of being regressive and racist. I'll admit, the name of the group was not well thought out, but, really? After the January 2nd Tom's Mailbag article explained REWIND, they proceeded to do background research on the group leaders and attacked REWIND Co-Chair James Kurley as a racist because of insensitive Facebook shares on his personal account. Aaron Ammons followed up the first speaker and even suggested that someone like James Kurley has no place in the conversation as they attempted to smear a respected Doctor for advocating a more central Central HS. The flamethrower tactics employed by some of those within the North End Breakfast Club are sadly one dimensional. If you disagree with them, you're a racist. I understand these tactics are designed to intimidate people and discourage people from disagreeing with them, but how in the world did infill development suddenly become so controversial? Is this simply an overly defensive position because candidates are challenging sitting African American members of the school board? Or does this have something do with Craig Walker's desire to land the bond deal after he was actively involved in helping get several school board members elected? Whatever the reasoning, it certainly caused the North End Breakfast Club to press that button (it seems they only have one button).
I don't have any strong opinions regarding school location, but I respect why others do. It looks like the referendum will be a hot topic this election cycle while there is a full state of school board candidates to choose from. I'm not sure how REWIND will move forward (ha!), but I think it's awesome that new people are becoming engaged in the political process and (so far) are doing so in a positive and constructive manner. I hope the unfortunate attacks by Aaron Ammons and friends do not discourage others from making their voices heard in an important community decision. I appreciate the efforts of the school board as they work to address very big challenges and wish all school board candidates the best of luck as this might be a fun election to follow.