I had the opportunity to attend the West Bend School District’s Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) meeting a couple of nights ago. If you would like to see the raw videos of what happened, please check our Judy Steffes’ YouTube channel and look for the CFAC videos. Steffes is a member of the committee in her role as a citizen and taxpayer, but she was also the only member of a media outlet to attend. Thankfully, she recorded most of the meeting so people can be involved even if they can’t attend.
Before commenting further, let me remind you of my bias going into the meeting. I believe that the school board really wants to push a referendum to get money to replace Jackson Elementary and make substantial expenditures on the High School. To that end, they hired a firm, Bray Architects, that specializes in running a biased process to end at that result. I can’t say that my beliefs were disproved by participating in the meeting.
The flow of the meeting was relatively simple. The first half of the meeting was just a recap of the previous meeting and some additional information. Then we took about an hour to tour some of the key infrastructure elements in the building. The focus this meeting was on “behind the scenes” items like the boiler room, server room, etc. The next meeting will tour classrooms and learning areas. After the tour, the CFAC members broke into small groups to discuss and respond to specific questions from the facilitators.
Here are of my observations in no particular order of priority or importance:
- I am incredibly thankful for the members of the community who participate in these things. They are long, often boring, and require a lot of personal time and effort to participate. Same goes to school board members. Two of them, Joel Ongert and Tonnie Schmidt, attended the first half of the CFAC meeting and ducked out during the tour.
- The above nature of these kinds of process also skews the participation. People with a direct interest in the outcome – like district employees, relatives, etc. – are more likely to make the personal sacrifice to participate. The membership of the committee reflects this systemic bias.
- That being said, there were some excellent questions and excellent discussions. For example, in discussing buildings, one of the CFAC members mentioned that the test results disclosed at the School Board meeting earlier this week did not seem to correlate with the age of the buildings. In other words, some of the best results came out of the oldest buildings. She asked if there was a general correlation between building age, etc. and educational outcomes? The answer, by the way, is no. Once basic thresholds of space and safety are met, the rest has little impact on outcomes.
- The entire process reminded me of a maxim that Mark Belling frequently touts. Namely, you can only react to the news you know. Let me explain… the tour took us to the server room which serves as the hub in a hub-and-spoke network for the district. I’ve seen a lot of server rooms and this one wasn’t great, but there wasn’t anything surprising. Clearly it was located in a less-than-ideal location years ago without much thought. It lacks a raised floor and industry-standard cooling, but it’s fine and I’ve seen a lot worse in private companies.The tour guide explained that there is a large hot water unit above the room that would essentially shut down the district if it leaked into the server room. OK, good to know. At the end of the meeting, the CFAC small groups were asked to list the “items in most need of improvement?” What made the top of the list? The risk of the server room being flooded, of course. The small groups largely just parroted the concerns and perceived risks from the district employees back to the Bray people running the meeting. But as you can see, now those concerns and risks have been laundered from employees’ concerns to citizens’ concerns. When presented to the public, these concerns will be labeled as coming from the CFAC.
- Going to the point above, some of the great questions from some of the committee members highlighted the difference between theoretical risks and real risks. For example, when asked during the tour of the server room if the server room had ever actually flooded, the answer was that it had almost flooded once in the last five years. Watch this video about 2:15 in. And then later in the meeting, an audience member went into great detail about other mitigation techniques that could be used to prevent flooding. Watch this video about 1:45 in. In short, while there is a theoretical threat of the server room flooding, it hasn’t ever happened in anyone’s memory and there are some simple things that can be done to prevent it.
- Going back to the way the meeting is designed to get a specific result, once the tour was complete and the CFAC members broke into small groups, the two questions they were asked to respond to were, “What surprised you the most?” and “What items were in most need of improvement?” As expected, the responses were a reflection of what district employees told them during the tour.
- At least at the high school, the district facilities staff seems to do an excellent job. All of the equipment look well maintained and on a regular maintenance/replacement schedule.
The process continues in a couple of weeks. The next meeting on the 25th, the CFAC members will get a briefing on the latest trends in school design, a lesson in School Funding 101, and a tour of the educational areas of the building. The design of the meeting is intended to show CFAC members how neat new schools look, compare that to our “old crappy” schools, and show how there isn’t any way to build new cool stuff within the confines of the existing budget.
I encourage the committee members to continue to ask tough questions. When presented with a theoretical risk, they should ask questions like, “has that ever happened?” and “what can be done to mitigate the risk?” That way, they can discern if it is a serious concern or not. Also, I encourage committee members to figure out if and how any suggested proposals tie into improving educational outcomes. As I said, once the basic standards of safety and space are met, how do buildings correlate to better education? Frankly, I’d rather hire and pay for great teachers than build different-looking buildings.