Taxpayers? What Taxpayers?

When the Batavia School Board makes decisions, it doesn’t care one bit what the people who must pay for their pet projects think. When 8,627* voters, by a margin of roughly 3-t0-1, tell the School Board “no” to borrowing $15 million in bonds for capital projects and saddling taxpayers with the cost, do you think they would listen? NO!

On Jan 12, the Board voted to seek $12 million in bonds for capital projects from the federal government through the state. Since there is some competition for the bonds, they may not get them. But why seek them when the voters said “no”?

Then on Jan 26, the Board by unanimous vote approved artificial turf for the football stadium. The turf includes crumb rubber infill, which has raised concerns because of a possible link to cancer (along with excessive heat, turf burns, environmental impact, concussions, knee injuries, etc.). The board believes that the thin layer of cork composite they will spread over the rubber is enough to safeguard the kids.

The Board would not consider a referendum to ask the taxpayers who must fund $600,000 of it initially (with hopes of reimbursement of $300k over the next 3-5 yrs), nor the parents whose children must play on it (they want to use it for P.E. classes), if they want the turf. Over 220 citizens signed a petition requesting a referendum. Many others wrote to the Board. But if 8,000+ citizens’ voices were ignored, why would a few hundred matter?

Oh, and this is just the start. The spending spree has just begun. After they put in the turf, they will want to upgrade the bleachers, pressbox, and lighting ($1.43 million), because they can’t have new turf in old surroundings. Wait and see……

Then there’s the taxpayer-funded preschool that they just approved (cost to taxpayers: over $30,000/yr) and the upcoming discussion of full-day kindergarten that seems to have strong support on the Board (cost to taxpayers: $680,000 1st year, $560,000 every year following).

Never mind there is no money for all this. Even the committee they put together to prioritize and recommend capital projects for the next 4 yrs on Jan 12 recommended AGAINST installing turf. But the Board had its mind made up. Let no one stand in their way. Taxpayers be damned.

 

*Kane County + Aurora Election Commission results

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Council Cured, School Board Worsens

The Batavia City Council has recovered its sensibilities. In a 11-3 vote, they decided to find a final $150,000 to cut from the budget so they wouldn’t have to raise property taxes.

However, the Batavia School Board has become more deaf. Not only did they approve the maximum tax levy increase, but they approved a $56,000 design proposal for artificial turf. They didn’t heed the request of resident Sylvia Keppel to put the turf to referendum. Nor did they seriously consider the reasonable options presented by Board member Chris Lowe to split the design contract with the Boosters 50/50, and to set an amount that they must have in hand before proceeding to install the turf. The deafness no longer applies only to average citizens.

There is a petition to the School Board to request the artificial turf be put to referendum. If enough people sign it, maybe the collective voices will be loud enough for the aurally challenged School Board.

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The Fever is Spreading

It’s not just the School District anymore; the City has caught the tax/spend fever. They’re even using the same rhetoric: “We have to tax all we can now in case we can’t raise taxes later.”

Governor Rauner’s proposal to freeze property taxes unless lifted by citizen approval through referenda has sent too many City Council members into taxing/spending spasms. What last week sounded like a hopeful, well-reasoned Council that was looking to spare taxpayers whatever burden they could, turned this week into a taxing frenzy. The end result, with 7-3 votes on most matters, were increased taxes on just about everything: property tax, liquor tax, gas tax, electricity, water, sewer, leaf and brush pickup. Of the broad list of possible spending cuts presented last week by Finance Director Peggy Colby, only one item, $30K for 2 electronic fire house signs, was cut.

What the School Board, and now the City Council, are forgetting is that even if there is a tax cap/freeze in place, all it would take to lift it, if need be, is a referendum. As longtime watchdog Yvonne Dinwiddie has often told both bodies, if there is a genuine need, the people of Batavia have always been generous enough to vote for it. Or maybe it’s not that they’re forgetting about the possibility of referenda, but that the caps are a convenient excuse, and fear is an effective tool……..

Speaking of the school board, get ready for another maximum tax levy increase allowed by law (+.8%, the CPI for the year), and… ARTIFICIAL TURF IS BACK! Not letting a resounding referendum defeat stop them (“it was about the debt,” they say), the school board will vote Tuesday on contracting for a design proposal for artificial turf in the football stadium (design cost, $56,000). The previous estimates for installing artificial turf in the football stadium were nearly $2 million. All the “improvements” they want for the stadium total $4.8 million. And that doesn’t include the cost to replace the turf every 8-10yrs at a cost of $500,000 each time (that’s over $50,000/yr if they were to save for it). Never mind the increased health and safety risks associated with artificial turf.

If the school board thinks they have enough money sitting around for artificial turf, let them instead cut the levy and give the taxpayers a break! At least put the turf to referendum.

As for the City Council, please get well soon.

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Wait and See

John Dryden’s first regular board meeting (5/26/15) on the Batavia Board of Education was encouraging. He asked many good, intelligent questions. He voted “abstain” on a vote that followed what were, in my mind, inadequate answers to his questions. He voted with Jon Gaspar against the new fees for K-5 for Chromebooks or tablets for every student, questioning the wisdom of 1-to-1 technology. And he jumped right in with a campaign idea to look at reforming the “lane” system that puts teachers into higher paying “lanes” for completing extra college courses, which contributes to the excessive teacher salaries in Batavia.

His suggestion was to limit applicable courses to those in a teacher’s field of study. But Gaspar, also a retired teacher, said that would be tough for a teacher like himself who taught shop (not too many graduate level shop courses). Another idea that was brought up was limiting the educational establishments credits would be accepted from. The board directed Administration to look into options.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

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Why Not Dryden?

Why should Batavia voters vote GRO–Gabriel, Rechenmacher, Olache–for Batavia School Board Tuesday, April 7, and not Dryden?

The following came out of an email discussion with a concerned voter:

While I did agree with John Dryden on the issue of the survey that got him in the news last year, and I admit he could be entertaining to watch if he were on the board, I have deep reservations about electing him to the school board.

I would characterize him as a bomb-thrower with a personal axe to grind. He’s likely to be divisive, and on his own can accomplish nothing. Remember that of the remaining board members, 3 of the 4 voted to sanction him. And Dryden has bashed the current board enough that there is a good chance there will be hard feelings all around.

He’s also running not for the taxpayers as much as for the teachers. He said in a Daily Herald endorsement interview that even if he can’t afford to live here in retirement, education is worth it. I would disagree. So do all 3 candidates of GRO. Education should not drive from their homes those who built the schools. Increasing expenditures have not led to a correlation in higher test scores.

While Dryden speaks against administrators’ salaries (a valid point, one that GRO shares), he made more than 1/3 of them. Dryden ended his career with a base salary of more than $90,000 ($112,00 with benefits)–that was his compensation for 2013-14, the last year on record. When teacher union contract negotiations roll around in 2017, where will his allegiance lie?

On a political level, I know a parent whose child was in Dryden’s class the beginning of this school year, before Dryden retired, who said Dryden told the kids he was a socialist. He also said Dryden didn’t “make”, but certainly “suggested”, his students watch a video that questioned whether it was really Muslim terrorists who were responsible for 9/11, or was it a government conspiracy — a video the dad shut off, saying “that’s enough.” The video was pushing propaganda without a balanced counterpoint.

If you look at the website, ratemyteachers.com, some of the reviews from 2012 and earlier (before he made news) say things like:

“He is crazy. He offers extra credit ALL the time which is why it’s easy to pass his class. But if you don’t agree with his opinion on anything he mocks you and makes fun of your beliefs. He forces you to think socialism is great and taxes will help the economy…. he’s a crazy hippy.

“Mr. Dryden is one of those people where you either love him or you hate him; there’s no middle ground. Overall he’s a good teacher, but if I can take one thing out of his class that i learned, it’s that no matter where or when you are in history, everyone and everything SUCKS….. Also, he doesn’t really teach history so much as he preaches politics.”

he doesnt realize how one sided he is .. he is so libral that it annoys me so much”

You may question whether his promotion of socialism is all just hearsay, that maybe some students over the years heard him wrong, but who does Dryden choose for the one current leader who most inspires him in his Daily Herald candidate questionnaire? Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont who is a self-described socialist.

To some, Dryden’s political bent may not matter. To others, it gives insight into his thought processes. If you choose him to represent you, will he represent you as you would like to be represented?

On a philosophical level, I question the way he taught, undermining parental authority. Critically watch the radio interview he did after retiring.  Starting at 27:54, Dryden says, “I don’t know of a single authority figure that liked anyone to think critically….” His derision applies equally to school administrators and (some) parents. At 29:23, Dryden discusses, in a mocking manner by the end, the pushback of some Fundamentalist Christian students to his ideas. There are ways to teach children how to think critically, a necessary skill, without disparaging the religious faith and authority of families.  How might Dryden’s attitudes carry over to the school board if he were elected? 

Dryden demonstrates disrespect in other avenues too. Witness his farewell letter to his students: “So, I’m going to run for the Batavia School Board of Education next April, and if I win a seat, I’m going to make bean soup [of the bean counters]. I’m going to fight and claw and thrash out space for teachers to teach….” Those “bean counters” are the administrators and school board members that he would have to work with, were he to get on the school board. One can respectfully disagree without resorting to name calling.

You can see in his letter that in the end, the reason he retired was that the school district told him he had to submit his teaching materials for approval. There is specific policy for what materials are acceptable and unacceptable, a procedure for approving non-text materials that are regularly used in the classroom, and guidelines for materials that are timely, based on current events. That policy is there to protect the children and uphold the values and mores of the community (one of the stipulations). There have been complaints about Dryden over the years. The district, at last, tried to hold him accountable. He refused to comply and instead chose retirement. As a board member, how would he treat the rules needed to keep the district running smoothly?

Why might Dryden be appealing? Dryden has a theater background, and it shows. He’s smooth. He was very calm and measured at the beginning of the League of Women Voters forum recently. But by the end of the forum he was calling schools that have served students where public schools have failed, “stupid”, and speaking against Governor Rauner, saying he wouldn’t support anything Rauner does for the next 4 yrs. (Then Bill Gabriel, the next to answer, trotted out Rauner’s plan to give $300 million more to education, highlighting Dryden’s shortsighted prejudice.)

When Dryden claims the board needs a retired teacher, he neglects to mention that it already has one–John Gaspar. How many former teachers do we need on a 7 member school board elected to represent the taxpayers? (They already have a union to represent the teachers.)

What the school board really needs are people who can think critically, can evaluate the numbers, know education, know proper procedure, will dialogue respectfully with the community, and will represent the taxpayers. Gabriel, Rechenmacher, and Olache are those people. They complement each other phenomenally. Bill Gabriel has a background in financial mathematics; Ron Rechenmacher is also a numbers guy (an engineer at Fermilab), and excels in understanding procedure; Michelle Olache works well with people as a social worker, and understands education as a home educator. Together they make a fantastic team, and if all are elected, you have a better chance of getting positive change.

You can see their website at GRObatavia.org

If you have any doubts about them, please take the time to talk to them and ask them questions. They meet 6:30-8am Mondays at McDonald’s, Wednesdays and Fridays at Panera.

To his credit, John Dryden certainly has valuable insights into the workings of Batavia High School. But I don’t think that’s enough to warrant a seat on the school board. I do hope he will share his insight with GRO if they are elected. They certainly would listen.

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Vote GRO

Bill Gabriel, Ron Rechenmacher, and Michelle Olache, forming the team GRO Batavia, have a website at grobatavia.org . It’s well worth looking at. Besides their platform of “First Class Education, Sustainable Future, Lower Tax Burden, Greater Transparency, Community Dialogue, and District Accountability”, they have a Commentary section that includes detailed graphs of the growth in taxes and administration.

Gabriel, Rechenmacher, and Olache are the only 3 candidates for school board who believe education funding cannot be without limits (reported by the candidates from a forum held by the Daily Herald). The others believe that education is so important that it’s OK to tax as much (and more) as Batavia currently does, even to the point that candidate and former teacher John Dryden said the taxes may mean he may not be able to retire here–but education is worth it.

GRO Batavia candidates think school district spending needs to be reigned in so that valuable members of the community, especially those who have roots here, will not be forced from their homes.

As the last school board election was won with 1200 votes, it is imperative that people get out to vote. Too few people voting means we get more of what we’ve had–an irresponsible Board of Education. Every Batavia School District 101 resident who wants to see reform start at the district needs to vote, and vote GRO.

One or two of the candidates getting elected will probably not make much of a difference, but if all 3 get elected, all they need is to sway one current member of the school board to get us on the right path.

Election Day is April 7. Early voting starts March 23. Vote GRO!

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Batavia Should Consider Itself Lucky

Batavia should consider itself lucky that it got the River St. arch for a mere $118,000. It could have been worse. Just look at what Altamanu, the designer of the arch, did to….er, I mean,…for Chicago’s Fulton Market District. That arch cost Chicago’s taxpayers $500,000. So you see, Batavia got a bargain.

Why isn’t that comforting?

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An Effective City Council?

Tuesday night the Batavia City Council did something amazing: they listened to the people, they asked questions, they thought for themselves, they pushed back against Staff (and the Mayor), and they did good. They did their jobs representing the citizens of Batavia.

Now, it shouldn’t be amazing that an elected council does its job, and really it isn’t for this current council. They make good decisions the vast majority of the time, but most of their decisions are mundane, ordinary, nuts-and-bolts decisions. Tuesday was different.

The first topic of interest they shined on was the school and park districts’ requests for increased impact fees on developers. The districts gave no justification for the large increases. Mr. John Pitz, longtime resident of Batavia, developer, and former school board member (first elected 37 yrs ago), submitted a list of 11 questions that should be answered before any increases are made, along with a letter (starts p. 20) explaining the history and purpose of Batavia’s impact fees. Says Mr. Pitz:

It would be prudent for the City to request that the School District and Park District provide:

  1. an audit as to how the Ordinance dollars, collected from year 2000 to present, were spent by the School District and the Park District
  2. how future Ordinance dollars will be spent by the Districts
  3. the anticipated residential construction over the next 5 years
  4. enrollment figures, for elementary, middle, and high schools, for the last 6 years
  5. the school population number that would trigger the construction of a new grade school, a new middle school, or a new high school
  6. the location of where the school(s) would be constructed
  7. the time line for deciding a new school is required
  8. time to develop plans for a new school
  9. time to construct a new school
  10. how the construction would be financed
  11. why the Ordinance is required

This information would assist in evaluating the effectiveness of the Ordinance and in determining whether the Ordinance is required.

John Pitz was there to give his comments at the start of the discussion. He said those fees were meant to buy land to build schools, but now with Batavia land-locked, there is little room left for the number of houses that would require new school buildings, especially at the acreage increases the schools requested (80 acres for a high school!).

Mayor Schielke vehemently disagreed, more upset than I’d ever seen him.

Aldermen asked what happens to the money they collect. Staff reported it goes into a separate fund in City accounts and checks are written from there to the appropriate districts. They used to ask for receipts for work done, but not any more. Aldermen didn’t like that. The request by Pitz was enacted by the Council and the matter was sent back to the Boards for answers.

THEN they got to Houston St. City Administrator Bill McGrath and Staff gave a history of the different proposals for the Houston St. Streetscape Project. They said a plan had never been agreed upon. Alderman Susan Stark questioned that assertion. They insisted there was no decision. Alderman Marty Callahan then proceeded to read from the Oct. 8 City Council minutes, including the roll call vote to accept Houston St. Option 1. *slam*

Calm, reasoned discussion followed. In the end, they stuck with the approved plan, Option 1, a sensible plan with separate bike and walking paths, with a strip of concrete between them, but with the addition of some islands for greenery/trees in the strip, between the lampposts. No funky swooshes or obstacles or mixing of bikes and pedestrians.

–A good, and long, evening

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Houston St. Streetscape Goes Psychedelic

Just when you thought the River Street arch monstrosity was one-of-a-kind, I’ve got news for you: if the City Administrator has his way, Houston St. will be….well,….I can’t really describe it……you just have to see it. Go to the 1/20/15 Committee of the Whole (COW) agenda item #4 Houston Street Update: http://www.cityofbatavia.net/content/articlefiles/13448-15-01-15%20Houston%20Street%20Design%20Status.pdf

Don’t bother reading it at first. Just scroll down to the drawings. No, those blue markings are not there as indicators. Yes, they (City Administrator Bill McGrath and “Staff”) would like to put some sort of blue coating in some psychedelic patterns on the ground. And yes, they purposely want to put obstacles in people’s paths as they try to walk down what should be a sidewalk.

The final design that was approved months ago by the City Council was a practical, slight redesign of the street and adjacent space, adding trees along Houston St. and a bike path next to a sidewalk from Island St. up the hill to Rt. 31 (right now the sidewalk ends suddenly in the middle of the hill). They shot down the architect’s poorly thought out elements like a depressed bike path with curbs on both sides (a nightmare especially for children on bikes, or maybe a new water feature during heavy storms!) and going from diagonal to parallel parking (it would have eliminated some of those already too few parking spots). Here’s the original plan that was approved with some modifications as mentioned above: http://www.cityofbatavia.net/content/articlefiles/9674-Houston%20St%20Concept%20Plan%20and%20Section%204%2020%202012%20Final.pdf

The design they had approved was reasonable, as the street itself needs major work with resurfacing and what lies beneath the street. Adding some trees, better lighting, and a pedestrian connection to Rt. 31 while the street is ripped up anyway is OK. Though I personally would prefer to keep the right turn lane at Houston and 31 instead of replacing it with a new sidewalk (there’s a sidewalk on the south side of the street people can use), I’m not going to argue about it.

Then in December the fireworks started. Bill McGrath wanted to bring the architect back in at a cost of $15,000 to supposedly work out some details with the engineer. Several aldermen got very upset. They had gone over the plans for months and months and had settled on a design. Former alderman Steve Vasilion was adamant that he had asked McGrath when the plan was approved if the city’s engineers could handle the modifications, and that McGrath had said yes. Alderman Susan Stark firmly verified what Vasilion said. So why did they need to bring back the architect?

McGrath insisted there were details that required an architect and that the aldermen were not architects and therefore were not capable of making good decisions regarding Houston St.  McGrath pretty much told the aldermen that they were stupid. Now maybe the aldermen don’t use their best judgment when they trust Bill McGrath, but that doesn’t make them stupid. And there WAS an architect on the City Council–Steve Vasilion. Now, less than a month later, Vasilion has been forced to resign, specifically because he is an architect with his own business. Suddenly someone perceived a conflict of interest between Vasilion’s job and serving on the City Council (it should be noted that Vasilion always recused himself on votes where he had any interest).

So the aldermen asserted that this architectural firm, Altamanu (I’ll comment on this name later), would be contracted only to give aid to the city engineers in carrying out their approved plan. You’ll be able to see in the minutes from the COW meetings after they’re approved Tuesday how the battle played out. It was made very clear to Bill McGrath that the City Council did not want a new rendering of a plan. But McGrath disobeyed Council orders and commissioned the drawing of this blue nightmare that’s on the agenda.

But wait! There’s more! “How much will all this cost?”, you’re probably asking. If you now go back and read the top part of the document, McGrath says, “The estimate of probable cost cannot take place until a concept is arrived at.” In other words, “You have to pass it so you can find out what’s in it.”

Please, if you care about preserving the historical appearance of Batavia and especially how your tax dollars will be spent, contact your aldermen. Each ward has 2 aldermen (except for the Vasilion vacancy). Ward maps and email addresses can be found here:
http://www.cityofbatavia.net/Content/templates/?a=692 . Before you hit Send, take a deep breath and remember that the aldermen didn’t come up with this idea, Bill McGrath and Altamanu did.

Now back to Altamanu. The first thing that popped into my head from 4 years of high school Latin when I heard that name was “other hand”, as in “the one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing”. Manus = “hand”; alter = “other” (as in alter ego). But alter isn’t technically correct, as it keeps the “r” as it declines. The proper word that fits here is altus = “high”, as in altitude. The endings even agree in the ablative case:  alta manu = “high hand”, or more loosely, “upper hand”. While the name of the company was actually derived by combining parts of 2 last names, I can’t help but think Altamanu got the “upper hand” on the Batavia City Council (and us taxpayers) twice now–the first time when they designed River Street, and now when they got thousands of dollars for a new design the Council did not want.

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A Ray of Hope

An exciting 3-person team will be on the ballot April 7, 2015 for election to the Batavia School Board:  William “Bill” Gabriel, Ron Rechenmacher, and Michelle Olache. Three seats are up on a board of 7. Eight candidates have filed.

This team was recruited by Batavians for Responsible Government, and became official when Ron Rechenmacher, who had filed as a candidate for both School Board and City Council Ward 6, withdrew from the aldermanic race today.

Even if all 3 of the team were to be elected, that would still not be a majority of the school board, so there is no guarantee the 3 could accomplish any reforms. But there would be a chance for real change in the way the school board/district operates if they could draw just one of the sitting board members to their side on important votes. And it would set up a positive situation for 2017 when the other 4 seats would be up for election.

Below is the press release issued by Mr. Rechenmacher:

December 31, 2014

Rechenmacher to focus on school board; withdraws from city race

Batavia, IL—Batavia resident Ron Rechenmacher has filed papers to withdraw from Batavia’s Ward 6 aldermanic race, leaving his name on the April 2015 ballot as a candidate for the Batavia Board of Education.

On December 15th, Rechenmacher had filed for two ballot positions, knowing he would have to withdraw from one or risk being taken off of both.

“I wanted to be certain that my ward would be adequately represented in the City Council,” said Rechenmacher. “With the empty seat in Ward 6, that was my primary concern. Seeing that another candidate had filed and having met with him, I feel comfortable that I can now turn all my attention to the school board.”

Rechenmacher was recruited by Batavians for Responsible Government to form a team with candidates Michelle Olache and Bill Gabriel to run for the three available school board seats.

“Mr. Rechenmacher was initially interested in a position on the City Council,” says BRG spokesperson Sylvia Keppel, “but since he has been made aware of problems at the school district, he has jumped in with both feet, attending school board meetings and researching documents. While each of the team’s candidates can stand on their own, their individual strengths complement each other to form a phenomenal team. One of Ron’s strengths is his understanding of procedure and structure. He clearly understands the function of the board and knows the way to effect change is through policy.”

The team approach to running for school board is a novel one in Batavia. The team’s members share a common platform of lower taxes, more transparency, respect, and effective education. Rechenmacher thinks that the current school board doesn’t listen to the people.

“Parents have concerns about the quality of their children’s education. Teachers have concerns about their working environment. The community has concerns about how tax dollars are being spent on education. There needs to be dialogue. That’s not happening now,” Rechenmacher said. “I hope to change that if the people of Batavia do me the honor of electing me to the school board.”

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