Wheaton-Warrenville, CUSD200 – Engage200

Community Engagement

– or –

           Community manipulation in support of a new pre-school

  • In 2013, the taxpayers gave a resounding “NO” to the Jefferson, Early Childhood center referendum.
  • In 2014, the district conducted six “Engage200” sessions (January 15, 2014 to June 18, 2014)
  • The stated purpose was to determine what the community wanted. They claimed it was not about Jefferson.
  • However, the district had hired Unicom-ARC as a consultant for this process. Unicom has a reputation of using the ”Delphi technique” to lead communities  to a desired result.
  • At Engage200, district presentations, the questions asked, and the make-up of the self-selecting community members all leaned towards the need for a new pre-school. It was not representative of the community as a whole.
  • May 2014, Superintendant, Dr Harris resigned. July 30, 2014, new superintendent, Dr. Schuler’s contract was approved.  Schuler, who had served on the LUDA (Large Unit District Association) with Harris, was recommended for the job by Dr. Harris.
  • On 1/7/2015 the Dailey Herald reported that Superintendent Jeffrey Schuler said “… and very clearly, early childhood education was a big theme in that Engage200 process.” Read it here.

But, is this true?  Or a manipulated process – a “Very well oiled machine” to deliver the “desired outcome?” 

Let’s look at the facts, which we have from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, or from being personally involved.  I am Jan Shaw.  I was a candidate for CUSD200 School board in 2013. I have made public comments at several board meetings.  I attended five out of the six Engage200 sessions. Mary Ann Vitone, who has been a CUSD200 watchdog for years, helped gather this data.

 

Jefferson referendum history:

Jefferson was built as an elementary school that had been closed due to lack of need.

CUSD 200 began using it again when the state mandated pre-school for  3 and 4 year olds with special needs.

As of 2013, all students qualifying for special needs early childhood education were receiving services and enrollment was relatively flat.

preK-enrollment-chart-1024x441

 

The District’s own architects designed a new early childhood center in 2007 at the same time as the Hubble plan.  Had Hubble been scaled back a little, both Hubble and Jefferson could have been built for what was spent on Hubble. Jefferson was not a priority until the school board decided to put a $17.6 million referendum on the ballot in 2013.

jeffferson-comparisons2-1024x234

 

The district planned to borrow the entire amount despite having received a $14.46 million grant in May 2012. The grant application dated back to 2003 and was for classroom additions to both high schools.

Jan Shaw, CUSD 200 candidate in 2013, stated that this money should be used for capital improvements prior to asking the taxpayers for any more money.  She recommended a “NO” vote on the referendum.
On April 9, 2013, the taxpayers gave a resounding “NO” to the Jefferson referendum.

 

Engage 200 – Community Engagement

In 2014, the district conducted six “Engage200” sessions (January 15, 2014 to June 18, 2014)

Hiring of Unicom-ARC

When we read that the district planned to hire Unicom-ARC, we did some web searches.  We discovered that Unicom-ARC had worked on two previous CUSD 200 referendums.

  • In 2002, Friends of the schools (a PAC) paid Unicom-ARC $18,250 for consulting.  That would be for the politics of selling the high school referendum.
  • In 2006, CUSD 200 paid Unicom-ARC $578.  The Hubble referendum was in February 2008.

We discovered that Unicom had a reputation for facilitating committees that arrive at a predetermined consensus.  And so, we asked board members to NOT hire Unicom-ARC!  On November 13, 2013, the board voted 5-2 to hire Unicom for $49,500 as consultants for conducting community engagement (Gambaiani and Mathieson voting No).

The description of the Unicom plan as reported in My Suburban Life sounded to us like the Delphi Technique.  See our previous write up on DuPageWatchdog.

Unicom-ARC’s website had been scrubbed, but http://www.illinoisloop.org/spinmeisters.html  has data
that they quote from Unicom’s site prior to the scrubbing.

Turns out that UNICOM-ARC is no run of the mill “research” company. In a description of itself that UNICOM-ARC posted on a directory of union shops (maintained by the Union Label & Service Trades Department of the AFL-CIO), they say, We are all-union communications and public relations firm that specializes in serving labor, non-profit and community-based organizations. Unicom-ARC is experienced in
media outreach, planning campaign strategy and developing effective messages through focus groups and polling …

The bulk of their business comes from school districts who hire them for the explicit purpose of spiffing up their image as a prelude to passing tax hikes.

…Since 1970, our INTEGRATED approach has helped the
UNICOM•ARC team build an 80% “win” record in 118 election campaigns…

Mary Ann Vitone put in a FOIA requesting copies of emails from the district regarding Unicom.  The district refused.  She contacted the Illinois Attorney General (AG).  The AG told the district that they must comply.

ILAG FOIA emails

 

There was one email set in which Erica Loiacono, Director of Public Relations, described Naperville 203’s sessions as a “VERY well-oiled ‘Machine’” and noted that they were working with Unicom-ARC.

very well oiled machine

 

In another, Superintendent, Brian Harris to board members Jim Vroman and Brad Paulsen confirming a meeting with Unicom to discuss the details of the process including the “desired outcome.”

desired outcome

 

Of course the invitations to attend and media coverage all said that they wanted the community’s opinion.   But, an email dated August 15, 2013 from board member Barb Intihar, mentioned the district providing “exact wording” so “to let him know we were not lying when we told him the effort would be broader than Jefferson.”

exact goal wording

 

Jim Vroman & Brad Paulsen were in charge of picking the steering committee.

steering commitee picks

To understand how the Engage 200 sessions were conducted, see “Illinois taxpayer says school districts use ‘Delphi Technique’ communication strategy to manipulate voters” which was published by EAG news on April 30, 2014 click here

Some school leaders respect the voters’ decision and carry out their duties the best they can without the additional revenue. Others, however, refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer and look for ways to wear down taxpayers in advance of another referendum vote…

According to various sources, the Delphi Technique works something like this:

Officials representing a school district (or some other government body) hold a community meeting to gather input from citizens about which policies the district should pursue. But instead of seeking genuine feedback, district leaders manipulate the discussion so citizens end up “recommending” the very policies that the leaders wanted originally.

After the input meeting, district leaders take the recommended plan of action – created  through audience manipulation – and put it on the ballot. The leaders effectively tell voters, “The community thinks we should proceed with that special building project (or tax increase, etc.), and anyone who disagrees with it is out-of-step with the majority.”

 

Having attended (and from FOIA’s for sign in sheets) we know that the self-selecting participants of Engage200 included many member of district staff, and pro-Jefferson-referendum individuals.  Every session began with a presentation from District staff.  Then each table was to discuss the evening’s questions and come to a “consensus.”  The presentations would contain nuggets of data to give the desired answer to the questions.  The questions tended to lean towards the need for a new larger pre-school and more money.  Our comments, even when others at the table agreed with them, were written down only when I was the scribe (I wrote everybody’s ideas down).  They did not make the final report.

Verbatim responses, the list of questions and the presentations can be found on the district’s website.  For session 5, Finances: click here.  Our table’s responses were unique in that we had ideas which were not in the presentation.  I was amazed to see them highlighted on the district’s web page:

engage200_ses5_verbatim_tbl22

 

Also see our comments from the last meeting.  The instructions were to review the draft… We had a great conversation and wrote only a few comments down (table 22) click here

engage200_ses6_verbatim_tbl22

Final Engage200 products are available  on the district web  click here

Note: Board Members Jim Gambaiani and Jim Mathieson both voted against hiring Unicom-ARC.  From the November 13, 2013 CUSD 200 Board meeting minutes:

The Board discussed the community engagement process and the recommended vendor. Member Mathieson stated that he supports community engagement but will be voting no because he would have liked to have seen more vendors considered. Member Gambaiani stated that he supports the goal 100% but differs on the process and cannot support the recommendation due to the cost. All other Board members support the recommendation.

Board members Jim Vroman and Brad paulsen took the lead in the Engage200 process.

Jim Vroman and Jim Gambaiani are both up for re-election on April 7, 2015.

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