This past Election Day, over 24,000 Champaign residents headed to the polls to vote on a referendum that would have built a new Central High School and renovated Centennial High School. Yet, instead of a successful vote affirming community consensus, the referendum failed, and in doing so, drew further attention to what has been a long, difficult, and — at times — erratic process. We live in a generous and thoughtful community that values education, so the failed referendum was less about the end goal as it was about the steps, actions, and words that were used to try to further that goal. The referendum failed because of a failed process.
To many of us, it appeared the critical location decision was pre-determined behind closed doors long before community input was sought and without proper evaluation of alternative sites. It was difficult to understand why Urbana High School is able to function well on a combined 23.5 centrally located acres, yet Champaign insists on using 80 acres of farmland on the outskirts of town. It was frustrating that when the Unit 4 board and administration did seek public input, it appeared to be more of an attempt to confirm the direction they had already decided upon — rather than a process to truly seek the best alternative. Perhaps the clearest indication that this was a failed process was those with opposing views — or a vision different than the administration and board — were publicly attacked and vilified. A bunker mentality was adopted by Unit 4’s leadership so creative suggestions were not regarded as helpful, constructive criticism. Insufficient explanations, an inconsistent message, a lack of transparency, and a lack of respect and civil dialogue plagued the process from start to finish — but it does not have to be that way next time.
Moving forward, we can build an inclusive, fact-driven, and respectful process conducted with integrity — one that will allow us to truly focus on our goal of a creating a better learning environment for our children. This is not to say that we must unanimously agree on the best plan for our schools, but the way that we develop that plan must be respectful of opposing viewpoints and earnestly evaluate all possible options. If we create a successful process, even those who disagree with the final decision will know that all options and viewpoints were fairly and honestly considered. This approach, regardless of the end result, will help to rebuild trust in our community leaders and will set the standard for how we conduct future discussions about important community decisions.
We must see the failure of the referendum as our opportunity to start fresh with an inclusive, open, and honest process. We are a generous community that values education; and we are home to a wide array of talented community members who have proven their willingness to donate their time and talent towards finding creative and innovative solutions. Let’s take advantage of those assets. This time, let’s tackle the challenge together with open minds and open hearts. To do so, I call on Unit 4 administrators and board members to lead the conversation in a new way. It is sometimes difficult to remember that true leadership is not about forcing the outcome you want; instead, true leadership is founded on humility, self-reflection, and consensus building. In that spirit, Unit 4 administrators and school board members must embrace a new type of process: one that engages our community in a respectful and honest dialogue and includes even the loudest voices of dissent. In this way, our community will draw on its collective strengths to create a plan that we can be proud of and that will serve our children and grandchildren for generations to come.
Joe Petry is the Champaign Park District Board President and a 2015 Mayoral Candidate in Champaign.