Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why I’m running for the school board

Yesterday I filed to become a candidate for the school board vacancy created by the resignation of Tuyet Baruah. The filing included over a hundred petition signatures, and although it wasn’t required, I made sure that I included at least four signatures from each of the twenty elementary school attendance zones in the district.

The vacancy that I am running to fill occurred only a week ago; it’s going to take me a couple of weeks to get a campaign fully in gear. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t already know me:

My name is Chris Liebig, and I have lived in Iowa City for nineteen years. This year, my wife Carolyn and I will have one child at Hoover Elementary, one at Southeast Junior High, and one at City High. I have been writing regularly here about local and national education policy for almost six years. In my day job, I teach legal analysis, writing, and research to first-year law students at the University of Iowa. (The opinions I express here are, of course, my own.) In addition to my law degree, I have an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Why I’m running:

  • Our district needs to be more responsive to what the community wants. Too often district policies—for example, the new school day schedule, or the dismayingly short elementary school lunch periods, or the continual talk of school closures—seem to descend from on high, without any regard to community input.

  • I want to keep all of our schools open. Closing schools when enrollment is expanding makes no sense and is needlessly divisive and expensive.

  • We should pay special attention to the needs of disadvantaged students and their families. In my view, those families are the best judges of what those needs are. We should seek out their advice and bring it to bear on district policy.

  • We need the voters to pass a bond to complete the renovations and new facilities in the district’s long-term plan. Passing a bond requires not cheerleading or groupthink but transparency, candor, inclusiveness, and critical thinking. Asking the voters to approve a bond that pits some neighborhoods against others, for example, would put the entire plan at risk.


  • Teachers and school staff have invaluable knowledge about what is happening in our schools and what might need to change. They should not feel inhibited for any reason from speaking publicly about the district’s policies and practices. I’d like to develop an employee free speech policy to ensure that school staff will feel free—and encouraged—to contribute publicly to the discussions about our schools.

  • We need sound, capable management from our administrators, but on policy issues the board should lead, not follow, the administration. The board is the only democratically accountable element in what would otherwise be an insulated and self-reinforcing system. It needs to speak up for the community and push back against proposals that don’t have the support of the public.

Having blogged here for so long, I’m a pretty open book. If you browse through old posts, you’ll get a sense of where I’m coming from. But I’m not interested in running for the board so I can impose all my idiosyncratic preferences on the district regardless of whether anyone wants them. Our best hope is a school system that reflects the ambitions and values of this community. I believe in the great potential of community-based, democratically accountable public schools.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

For what?

Supporters of the Hoover closure have argued that “City High needs the land.”

“For what?” people asked.

And asked, and asked, and kept asking, even two years after the closure vote.

Several Hoover parents at the listening post last month said that they could support the closure if they thought the benefit to City High justified it. But what was the benefit?

So at last night’s board meeting, one of the items on the agenda was how the Hoover land would be used after the closure. Here was the opportunity for the board to finally answer the question—“for what?”—and maybe even win some Hoover people over. So the district was ready with a persuasive response, right? Wrong.

The only way to answer the question, the administration said, would be to create the schematic design of what will go on the Hoover property, and to do that would cost as much as $484,000. And to do it before the bond vote, the money would have to come out of another source—probably the playground rejuvenation funds! So do people really want to know that badly?

When board member Tuyet Baruah asked why the board decided to close the school without knowing what it needed the property for, the administrators and her fellow board members fumbled for an answer. The other high schools have lots of land, board member Marla Swesey said. There was “the feeling of needing the space,” the district’s Chief Operating Officer said. No specifics.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think you have to spend $484,000 to identify the needs that led you to close an elementary school and take its 5.7 acres for another use. If all you can do is cite projects that add up to less than half an acre, then you haven’t explained why you need to close the school—whether you pay for a schematic design of it or not.

You’ve got to feel for the administration and board. If they don’t answer the question, people will be upset. But if they do answer it, people will also be upset—because the answer is so lame. What’s a district to do?
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The City High addition can’t explain the Hoover closure

Tonight’s board meeting includes a discussion of the plans for City High and how the Hoover land will be used after the closure.

This is a good moment to point out that there is a difference between the City High addition—which is mainly about classroom space—and athletics improvements. Some closure proponents would like you to think that Hoover needs to close so City can have more classrooms, but in fact the addition cannot explain the closure. Here’s why.

First, everyone agrees that the addition will not be built on the Hoover land.

At most, the addition might displace something (parking, tennis courts) that would then have to be relocated. But the addition will not displace much. The first phase of the addition is being built on top of the building and will displace nothing. The second phase includes six classrooms and cafeteria and library expansions. Six classrooms, plus accompanying corridors, takes up about .2 acres. Suppose the cafeteria and library expansions take another .2. That’s less than half an acre displaced.

Hoover’s property is 5.7 acres. Displacing four-tenths of an acre does not explain taking 5.7 acres and tearing down an elementary school. If the district really needed to take 7% of Hoover’s land for City, it could do that without closing the school.

So what will happen to other 93% of Hoover’s land? The most likely uses are an expansion (not just displacement) of City’s parking lot (at a time when its enrollment will be significantly decreasing because of the new high school) or a baseball field or stadium so the baseball team doesn’t have to keep playing at Mercer Park (oh the horror!) or both.

Parking and baseball, not classrooms. Is that a good enough reason to close and tear down a three-hundred-kid neighborhood elementary school?
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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Using math like this, how many more schools should close?

Still shaking my head at the superintendent’s analysis I quoted here. By using district-wide average costs, instead of the actual cost of running Hoover, and by pretending that relocating over three hundred students won’t cause any increase at all in non-teaching expenses at their new buildings, the superintendent concluded that it would cost $675,000 annually to keep Hoover open. The real figure is probably much closer to $200,000. (I say “probably” because I live in a district where information often has to be pieced together imperfectly by bloggers or on Facebook, rather than provided with any accuracy or transparency by our paid administrators.)

By substituting the average cost for the actual cost, the administration not only inflates the cost of running Hoover, it also understates the cost of running the new, much bigger schools that it has already committed itself to building. In my view, there’s no looking back on opening the new elementaries; the district should open them at less-than-full capacity and allow them to grow as neighborhoods are built around them. But the administration should be candid about how much it’s going to cost to run those schools.

Given the superintendent’s math, it’s little wonder that the administration keeps talking about closing more schools. Two great questions for school board candidates: Do you agree with the superintendent that we can save $675,000 annually by closing a school? If we can reap that kind of savings by closing schools, how many more schools should close?
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Friday, July 10, 2015

Is our district run by used car salesmen?

Since the school board voted to close Hoover two years ago, people have debated just how much it would cost in annual operating expenses to keep Hoover open. The most well-supported analysis I’ve seen is from Michael Tilley, who estimated in 2013 that the annual cost of keeping Hoover open would be just under $200,000. But no one knows with certainty, because the board never sought the information and the district never provided it to the public.

Recently, enough people have been raising the question that the superintendent felt compelled to respond. He sent the following message to a school board member:
Good morning.

I have been approached recently by several members of the community regarding the base line cost to operate an elementary building. They have asked this in relation to keeping Hoover Elementary open and opening the new east-side elementary school. After asking clarifying questions, I think I have the information that they are seeking and I wanted to share it with you first.

All buildings require the following staff: Principal, Teacher Librarian, Guidance Counselor, Building Secretary, Media Secretary, Custodian(s), and Maintenance. Averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the combined costs for these staff are approximately $475,000.

All buildings also require Regular Education Teachers, Special Education Teachers, and Specials Teachers. These numbers are dependent on the number of students in the building and therefore are not included in the above cost total.

All buildings have utility and supply costs. Again, averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the cost for utilities and supplies are approximately $175,000.

The combined total is $675,000. Please keep in mind that these figures are in 2014-15 dollars and will go up for next year bring the total for next year to @$700,000.

The bottom line in response to the questions asked is for the District to keep Hoover Elementary School open AND open the new east-side elementary would require a minimum of $700,000 in additional general fund expenditures every year.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Steve
The superintendent does not seem to care much about the district’s credibility. Here are all the reasons to question his analysis.

  • First, 475,000 plus 175,000 does not equal 675,000. The superintendent later corrected the arithmetic and revised his cost figure downward by $25,000. An excusable error, maybe, but funny how all the errors in his message tend toward inflating the cost estimate.

  • The superintendent’s reasoning is: The average cost of operating an elementary school is $675,000. Therefore it costs $675,000 to keep Hoover open. I would hope that most ICCSD students could spot the logical flaw.

  • Of course, the use of an average obscures the fact that bigger schools cost significantly more to run than smaller schools. For example, “All buildings require . . . a Guidance Counselor.” Except Hoover gets only 60% of a guidance counselor, since it shares its counselor with other schools. The superintendent makes no adjustment for that fact. How many of the other staff members that he identifies have less than a full-time equivalent at Hoover, and a significantly larger expense at bigger schools? You won’t find the answer in the superintendent’s message, which acts as if all elementary schools have the same number of non-teaching staff.

  • Is it really possible that the district would move over three hundred students to other schools without increasing the assignment of guidance counselors, custodians, support staff, etc., at those schools? That’s the implication of the superintendent’s analysis. It’s almost certainly not true, but it helps make Hoover look more expensive, so in it goes.

  • In fact, the district certainly knows what it spent on staff and other expenses at Hoover last year. It could easily produce that figure. There is no better basis for estimating what Hoover would cost in the future. That the superintendent chose not to disclose that figure, and to use a district-wide average instead, speaks volumes.

  • The superintendent includes $175,000 for “utilities and supplies.” Yet if Hoover closes, the students won’t disappear. Wherever they go, they will require additional heat, air conditioning, plumbing, and electricity. The need for “supplies,” whatever they might mean—cleaning supplies? paper goods for the bathrooms? books?—will also follow the students.

    The district is not planning to simply cram all the ex-Hoover students into existing spaces and make them share existing supplies; it is building new buildings to accommodate the district’s growing capacity. The new buildings include not only the new schools, but also the planned additions to existing schools, such as the planned 125-seat Lemme addition, which will be entirely unnecessary if Hoover stays open. Those new buildings will cost millions of dollars to build, which is a whole separate issue from operating expenses. But they will also, of course, require ongoing utilities and supplies.

    Maybe there will be efficiencies, or maybe not. (New construction, believe it or not, is not always superior to old construction.) But the superintendent doesn’t inquire. He simply counts the entire cost of utilities and supplies as if it will disappear if Hoover closes and the kids go someplace else.

  • Even the superintendent’s average cost figures are in the form of assertions; we’re supposed to trust him that they are accurate. But given how hard he is striving to inflate the cost of keeping Hoover open, how willing should we be to trust even those numbers?

  • Look at this document from 2011. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $306,878. Again, only a portion of that figure can be saved by closing the school, so Tilley’s $190,000 figure still looks pretty reasonable. But the superintendent tells us we can save $675,000 annually by closing the school.

  • Look at this document from 2013-14, just three years later, right after the board voted to close Hoover. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $420,152—a full 36% increase over the 2011 figure, right when it became in the administration’s interest to make Hoover look expensive. The lack of any consistency in how the numbers are broken down does not inspire confidence. In any event, if you only have $420,152 to work with, how are you going to find savings of $675,000?

The level of hucksterism in the superintendent’s message is just embarrassing. Does this administration care about providing accurate information so the board can make good policy decisions? Or does it just care about selling its own agenda, complete with Madison-Avenue-style puffery?
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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Linn-Mar or Liberty?

Some friends are contemplating moving and are considering the Linn-Mar and Iowa City school districts. They are particularly wondering about the quality of the high school experience in each district, as their kids are approaching high school age. If they move to the ICCSD, they would probably be in the North Corridor area and so ultimately at Liberty High, and I realize that it’s hard to compare Linn-Mar High with a high school that doesn’t exist yet. Nonetheless, they do have to make a decision. What say you, readers? Linn-Mar or Liberty, and why?
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Public meetings, not pep rallies

The latest version of the proposal to restrain community comment at school board meetings is at least not facially unconstitutional, so that’s a step in the right direction, I suppose. I like that it allows everyone to speak at the beginning of the meeting, rather than wait around for hours until the board reaches that particular agenda item. I’m not even against some limitation on how much a person could speak, though four minutes per person per meeting is too stingy. But cutting off all comment after an hour is awful. That means as few as fifteen people might be allowed to speak, no matter how controversial the agenda. (Yes, the board could entertain additional speakers at the end of the meeting if “necessary,” and if anyone waits around that long. But what are those speakers going to do, address issues the board has already voted on?)

If the board members want to make their meetings shorter, they should start by cutting the ceremonial photo-ops and check presentations, etc. Committees could submit their reports in writing in advance, and the board could discuss them only if there’s a need. Ditto with administrative PowerPoint presentations. Use the meeting time for things that actually require the presence of board members and the public together in a room.

Some board members are obviously tired of turning the mike over to the district’s critics. They seem to have realized (at long last!) that they can’t actually regulate the tone of people’s comments or prohibit harsh criticism, so the new solution is simply to cut the number of people who are allowed to speak. Yet on several issues—for example, Martin Luther King Day, the Raptor Visitor Management System, and the new bell schedule—the criticism at community comment seemed to make a difference in what the board did. If it can lead to better policy decisions, why cut it off?

School board meetings should be public meetings, not pep rallies, award ceremonies, or advertisements. The board shouldn’t see its job as managing the district’s image, which just comes off as manipulative anyway. Make good policy decisions and the image will take care of itself.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Report from the Hoover listening post

There was a listening-post-ish meeting tonight about the future of Hoover Elementary School, with school board members Chris Lynch and Orville Townsend responding to questions and comments from people concerned about the issues around the planned closure of Hoover. I counted about 70 attendees, including four school board candidates. I thought it was a good meeting. Here are some of the things I think the board members can take from it:

1. A lot of people are dismayed and upset by the Hoover closure and by the process that led to it, and continue to find the explanation of it incomplete and unconvincing. Lynch did his best to state some kind of rationale for the closure, but he also noted that he wasn’t on the board when the decision was made, so there was a sense in which he was trying to explain some other group’s decision. The audience reacted to each of the points he made with well-reasoned rejoinders, which was important for Lynch and Townsend to see. I know how strongly Lynch supports the larger facilities plan, and I have to believe that he wishes he had better answers to these questions.

2. People aren’t buying the district’s line that the elementary-age population of the Hoover area is declining. If there’s a decline in enrollment, it will be because of the closure, and it can be prevented by simply reversing the closure. Many speakers said that there has actually been an influx of young kids into their neighborhoods; that’s certainly true in mine, and Hoover’s pre-registrations for kindergarten next year are up significantly from this year. If the school stays open, there will be ample kids to fill it, no matter how the attendance zones are redrawn. (See this post.)

3. Several people (including me) spoke about how the district needs to recognize the effects of a school closure on the surrounding neighborhood and on the city of Iowa City. As one person said to me after the meeting, not every university town has the kind of thriving central neighborhoods that Iowa City has, and we can’t take them for granted. The school district should be proactive in supporting the neighborhoods in the core of Iowa City, the health of which has an effect on all of the surrounding areas.

4. Several speakers raised the teacher transition issue. Recently the administration told the teachers at Hoover that they would not be moved as a group to the new East Elementary School (a/k/a “Hoover East”) or given hiring preference there. This means that even the teachers who want to stay at Hoover until it closes will feel a lot of pressure to start looking for positions elsewhere sooner rather than later, since they can’t know whether anything will be available for them if they wait. This is a recipe for slow decline and death for Hoover, which, even if it closes, is still the elementary school for hundreds of kids for the next four years. The board members seemed relatively unaware of this issue and said that they would bring it back to the full board for discussion.

5. Some speakers raised the issue of the bond. To follow through on its facilities plan, the district needs to pass a $100+ million-dollar bond just a couple of years from now. It was clear that some people at the meeting were inclined not to vote for the bond if the plan included the Hoover closure—if not because of the closure itself, because they see the closure as part of a broader pattern by the district of dismissiveness toward community input. It was also clear that others at the meeting thought it was terrible that anyone would vote against the bond for that reason.

I don’t speak for the Save Hoover Committee, but I feel strongly that the group should be focused on the coming board election and should not take the stance of threatening a bond proposal that hasn’t even been drawn up yet. That said, however: You don’t have to be Nate Silver to know that the bond is less likely to pass if it includes a school closure. Please read that again: I didn’t say it shouldn’t pass, I said it’s less likely to pass. Some number of voters will be alienated by a school closure, and no amount of disapproving head-shaking will change that fact. Passing a bond is about putting together a coalition that will get you to 60% of the vote. It’s a negotiation with the community, and any clear-eyed supporter of the bond would approach it that way. Keeping Hoover open makes sense as good policy, but it’s also just smart politics for a district that needs to build that kind of coalition.

What can the attendees take from the meeting? I thought there were good reasons to be encouraged about the future of Hoover. Lynch, the chair of the school board, acknowledged that although the closure is part of the current plan, plans can change as circumstances change. He emphasized in particular that if the enrollment projections change, the board will need to reassess the plan. Although I think the board needs to scrutinize the enrollment projections more closely and needs to be proactive and not just reactive about sustaining its existing schools, I see Lynch’s statements as an opportunity, and I think there is good reason to believe that, over the next year or two, the district will realize that it needs to keep Hoover School open.
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Monday, June 15, 2015

Putting the schools where the students are

In my last post, I wrote about why it makes sense to open the two new east side elementary schools below capacity and allow them to grow as their neighborhoods become more developed. One of the main reasons to do so is that it those schools cannot be filled immediately without using very disruptive rezoning contortions.

One way to see why that’s true is to look at the district’s student density map. It’s worth clicking on that link and perusing the whole thing. But here are a few highlights. First, here is an overhead view of the area around newly-built Alexander Elementary:


On the density map, it looks like this:


(The numbers represent number of elementary schoolers in each square; the more students, the darker red the squares are.)

Here is the area around the future site of the East Elementary:


On the density map, it looks like this:


Here, by contrast, is the area around Hoover Elementary (shown at the same scale):


On the density map, it looks like this:


Not all of that area goes to Hoover, of course; it couldn’t possibly fit. But the maps give you a good idea of why there are so many schools on the central east side: because that’s where the students are. Zoom out the see the broader east side:


You can see that it won’t be hard to draw attendance zones to fill the existing schools (which I’ve marked with green squares). What would be hard is finding 500 kids to put at each of the new elementary schools (the purple squares), which would take some serious gerrymandering. The solution is to keep the existing schools open and allow the new schools to start medium-sized and grow into their capacities.

School board members have said that their goal is to “put the schools where the students are.” It’s hard to take that literally, given where they’re building the new schools; it makes more sense to see those schools as an investment in the future. In the meantime, the student density remains concentrated around the existing schools. The district will need to keep them—including Hoover—open.
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Saturday, June 13, 2015

The district will need Hoover even after the new schools open

Word has it that some of the families in and near Windsor Ridge are concerned that keeping Hoover open will prevent the district from opening Hoover East (which I’ll refer to here as the East Elementary School, to avoid confusion). It’s understandable that those parents would not want the rug pulled out from under them after being told that the new school will open in 2019 (though I would hope that they would sympathize with Hoover families who are threatened with the closure of their school, too). But they should not be concerned about keeping Hoover open. First, the East Elementary ship has sailed: realistically, it is too late to cancel that building even the district wanted to. Second, the district will continue to need Hoover even after the new school is open.

Some people have argued that the district can’t support Hoover and the new school, too. Financially, that is simply untrue, as I wrote here. But will there be enough enrollment to support that many schools? The answer is yes, for these reasons:

On paper, the planned 2019-20 east side capacity looks sufficient to handle the projected enrollment, even if Hoover is closed. But, as the district has repeatedly experienced, redistricting is not so simple. The two new schools each have a capacity of 500, but it is very unlikely that the district will be able even to come close to filling those schools at that time. Alexander, for example, is likely to remain underfilled for a good long while: it is simply going to be very hard to create districts that will put anywhere near 500 east side kids at that site, because the presence of several schools immediately north of it make the logistics so challenging. (And the district is even planning to add 100 seats of capacity to Grant Wood school, which is immediately to Alexander’s north!)

A similar problem is likely to arise at the East Elementary. There simply aren’t enough students in its immediate vicinity to fill it when it opens. The bulk of the student density is in the more central east side, in the established neighborhoods. It is easy to say “just rezone everyone,” but given the geographical distribution of students, the real-life logistics will be very hard.

But these are not terrible problems. It actually makes sense for those schools to open at fewer than 500 students and then grow over time. The whole rationale of building Alexander and the East Elementary was to remedy overcrowding in existing schools and to accommodate and spur expected development. If the district were to fill those schools to capacity at the outset, what would happen when the hoped-for development appears? With Hoover gone, the district would have no way to accommodate it, and would have to build more schools and additions—needlessly spending millions. It makes much more to sense to start those schools with enrollment under capacity and then grow into them.

If it’s true that Alexander and the East Elementary will open significantly below full capacity, then the overcrowding in the existing east side schools will continue, unless Hoover is kept open. Suppose the district puts only 325 kids at each of the new schools in 2019 (which is probably optimistic). Under the current enrollment projections, that would leave 2,635 kids to enroll at the remaining east side schools. But the capacity of those schools will be only 2,338. The most sensible solution to that overcrowding is to keep Hoover open.

And there’s another factor: the district’s projected enrollment figures do not include the kids in its preschool programs. That’s probably because preschoolers don’t have “attendance zones,” and can be shifted from one building to another if necessary. But they won’t just disappear, and it’s not feasible to send all preschoolers to the west side, even if there were space there. And (ironically!) preschoolers actually take up more space, because class sizes have to be smaller. So the actual expected east side enrollment is significantly larger than the district’s estimates make it appear.

Ultimately, a close look at projected enrollment should give Hoover families hope. It’s only a matter of time before the district realizes that life is much easier with Hoover open than with it closed.
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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cause and effect (or How to rationalize a school closure)

The Hoover closure continues to be the decision in search of a rationale. The few attempts to articulate one have a distinctly post-hoc feel to them. One of them is the idea that “there are too many schools close together without enough enrollment to support them.” To back up this assertion, closure proponents cite the district’s latest enrollment projections. Those projections show a precipitous thirty-four percent drop in the projected enrollment at Hoover, which would have, at one point, as few as 199 students!

Looking at those projections, you would think that a big chunk of Iowa City’s east side—an area filled with residential homes—was on its way to becoming a ghost town. Or is there another explanation?

Take a look at what Hoover’s enrollment projection looked like right before school board voted to close it (click to enlarge):


Yes, just two years ago, the district projected that Hoover’s enrollment would remain well above its capacity for the foreseeable future.

This year, almost two years after the closure vote, the district’s new enrollment projections for Hoover look like this:


That year when the district says that enrollment would be only 199? Right before the closure vote, that same projection was 376.

So you be the judge: Did the declining enrollment projection cause the closure decision, or did the closure decision cause the declining enrollment projection?
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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

So shines a good deed in a weary world

Note to my school district: There might be something wrong with your “good behavior” program if it can work only when all the kids are materialistic and acquisitive and when no one gets any ideas about sharing the wealth. I’ve known some kids who disliked PBIS enough to simply say “No, thank you” when offered a reward ticket. This kid goes a step further toward addressing the utter amorality of this “good behavior” program.

It’s still far from ideal that kids who don’t get reward tickets should have to depend on the philanthropy of a kid who gets lots of them—what kind of society does this model?—but given the choices this kid faced, good for him. So creepy even to put kids in that situation.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What is the future of these schools?

On the topic of this post, I think a lot of people have lost sight of just how much bigger Hoover is than some of the district’s other schools. Take a look at the capacity figures:


The district no longer has any plans to expand the capacity of any of those schools.

If the district is willing to close Hoover, there is every reason for people in those other attendance areas to be worried about the future of their schools.

I think the district should recognize that its existing schools are worth preserving, that it makes sense to use existing capacity before building expensive additions elsewhere, and that not all schools should be the kind of 600-kid mega-schools that the district is building farther out.
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Hoover school closure not an isolated issue

[This post appears as a guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today. I’ve added some links here.]

Last month, our school district’s administrators released several possible “updates” to the district’s facilities plan. All of the updates continued to close Hoover Elementary, and two of the three updates would have closed additional elementary schools as well.

District officials were taken aback by the coverage of the updates, which emphasized the possibility of more school closings. The “recommended” update closed only Hoover, they argued, not the other schools. The other updates were just “thought exercises,” the superintendent said.

But no one had to look very far for evidence that the administration is inclined to close more schools. During the facilities planning process two years ago, many of the scenarios included school closures, and some would have closed multiple schools—even though district enrollment is projected to grow. And, of course, the school board did vote to close a school, Hoover, even though the wide majority of the public feedback favored keeping all our existing schools open.

As the school board election approaches, the people who support the Hoover closure will try to convince you that Hoover is somehow unique. “We want to close Hoover,” the argument will go, “but don’t worry, we’d never want to close your school.”

But a candidate’s support for closing Hoover tells you something: it shows a willingness to close a school for less-than-compelling reasons. For there have never been convincing reasons to close Hoover. We were told that we can save money by having fewer, larger schools—but any savings is dwarfed by the millions it will cost to replace Hoover’s lost capacity. We were also told that City High needs the Hoover property for—well, for something, someday. (Don’t ask what.)

Anyone who finds those reasons convincing will have no trouble finding reasons to close additional schools, such as Horace Mann, Lincoln, Hills, Longfellow, and Shimek—all of which are significantly smaller than Hoover and thus cheaper to replace elsewhere.

The administration’s “updates” made it clear that the issue of school closings is not going away. If you think we should value our existing elementary schools, rather than close some and super-size others, you should ask this year’s board candidates where they stand on the issue.

And if the answer is, “I support closing Hoover but I’m against school closures,” you’d be smart to look for another candidate.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

School board adopts amended proposal for new school day and year

At the school board meeting tonight, many members of the public spoke about the administration’s proposal to change the school day and year. None of them were in favor of it. Most speakers—including at least one pediatrician and several high school students—focused on the harms of making teenagers start school at 7:45.

After hearing the community comment, several board members seemed reluctant to move forward with the change, especially given how little opportunity the community had had to learn about it. But the board was concerned about the collective bargaining implications of not going forward with the proposal, since the proposal was the basis of a tentative agreement with the teachers’ union about work hours. If the board did not go ahead with the change, it might then set negotiations back and have other bargaining consequences. The board went into a private session to discuss the bargaining implications with district administrators.

When they returned, the board members quickly approved a modified version of the administration’s proposal. The proposal was exactly the same, except that everything had been shifted fifteen minutes later. So elementary school will go from 8:45 - 3:45, while junior high and high school will go from 8:00 to 3:10. The school year will be 175 days long instead of 180; the summer break will be thirteen weeks long. As I understand it, time lost to weather cancellations will not be made up (unless it brings the total hours below 1080, which is unlikely).

Given the way events unfolded, I’m sticking with my initial hypothesis. My guess is that if the board had insisted on maintaining the current school day and the 180-day year, the union would likely have insisted on additional pay to compensate them for the longer year. That, in turn, might have forced the board to go through another round of budget cuts like those we experienced last year. Let’s hope that tonight’s discussion about cutting back the school year will be in lieu of a discussion about more program cuts.

I don’t blame the teachers’ union for negotiating the best deal it can get for its members, and I don’t blame the school board for facing reality if the options were limited. I appreciate that they were able to take some of the edge off the early start time. I do blame the Governor and the state legislature for preferring tax cuts and teacher leadership programs to general school funding.

The losers tonight? Teenagers, who will now start school at 8:00 instead of 8:05 or 8:10, though at least that’s not as bad as it might have been. Elementary schoolers, who will now have to add another half hour to the six hours they’re already cooped up in class, all in the name of “more time on task.” Working parents, who will have to line up three more weeks of child care over the summers (which probably means over $1000 per child per year). Members of the public, who learned about the proposal only a few days ago and never got the full story of what is driving the change. And, if my hypothesis is right, teachers, who might have preferred to work a longer year for commensurate pay, rather than three fewer weeks for presumably less pay.

Winners? I suppose the people and corporations who got the biggest tax cuts from the Branstad administration.
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What’s the real reason for the proposed change in the school day?

The more you look at the district’s proposal to change the school day, the less credible the rationale is. District administrators said that the change is “aimed at increasing instructional time for elementary students,” because “more time on task is great for our students.” But while it increases the total hours in school for younger kids, it also decreases the total hours for the older kids. That’s because the junior high and high school day will be the same length as it is now, but the school year will be at least five days shorter. In the end, it’s likely to be a wash, or even a net loss of instructional time overall. (I’ll put the math in a comment, below). This is not a proposal designed to increase instructional time.

My best hypothesis: there isn’t enough money to give the teachers decent raises next year, so the teachers sought a shorter school year instead, and this was the only way to pull it off. If that’s true, then the only alternatives to the calendar proposal are (1) to give the teachers little or no raise next year for the same work schedule as this year, or (2) to give them a raise and then go through another round of program cuts like those we experienced last year.

Those are all unappealing options, and the blame needs to fall primarily on the state for putting the district in this position. Governor Branstad and the Republican legislators have made it clear that they would rather cut taxes than fund schools. Democrats aren’t blameless, either, since they supported last year’s bill creating the “teacher leadership program,” which ate up the money that would have been available for school aid this year. (Many of them also helped pass Branstad’s tax cuts.)

For what it’s worth, the teacher leadership money means that many teachers will be getting additional pay next year. Basically, the state decided that (1) our most experienced teachers should spend less time in the classroom and more time teaching other teachers, (2) we should fund that teacher-leader program with the money we otherwise would have gotten as supplemental aid, and (3) as a result, we should have that much less money to pay the remaining teachers, to keep class sizes down, or to fund curricular programs. Thanks, legislators!

The superintendent’s proposal essentially shifts the costs onto parents and kids, by making the young kids sit through a longer school day, making the teenagers start school at 7:45 in the morning, and making parents pay for more child care coverage over the summer, which will now be thirteen weeks long.

What a mess. If my hypothesis is right, the state is pitting parents against teachers, and the stinginess at the state level is falling ultimately on the kids and their families.

At the very least, the district should be up-front and transparent about what’s really driving the issue. Maybe my hypothesis is wrong and something else explains this proposal, but it’s impossible to believe that it’s about “more time on task,” as the district has portrayed it—since it’s not likely to add any instructional hours overall.
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Friday, May 8, 2015

How not to schedule the school day

Our school districts’ administrators released the proposal to lengthen the elementary school day, and it’s pretty much as described in the update on my previous post. Elementary school would be half an hour longer, going from 8:30 to 3:30. Junior high and high school would be the same length as they currently are—seven hours and ten minutes—but would start and end twenty-five minutes earlier, running from 7:45 to 2:55. One consequence is that the school year would be five days shorter, ending on May 25 next year.

The only justification identified in the article is that “more time on task is great for our students.” “We’re able to provide them 30 more minutes of instruction each day.” What’s the logic there? More time in school is always better? No matter what the baseline is, and no matter how young the kids are? If that’s true, why end five days earlier? And why not have an eight-hour school day, or a nine-hour one? More is always better, right?

It’s hard to take the administrators’ rationale at face value. They seem unbothered, for example, by the fact that the new schedule results in thirty-three fewer hours of “on task” time for junior high and high school students. The real reason for the proposal may be that school staff prefer the shorter year to the shorter day. (The proposal was negotiated with the local teachers’ union, since it affects the work schedule.) But the calendar needs to serve the students’ needs first. There is no good reason to keep elementary-age kids in school for seven hours a day. And having teenagers start their day at 7:45 is plainly a change for the worse, educationally.

In any event, one thing is clear: If the elementary kids will be getting thirty more minutes “on task,” that means the district won’t be giving the kids even five more minutes for their measly lunch period.

According to the superintendent, lengthening the school day has gotten “a universally negative reaction from parents” in the past. Why, then, does the administration keep pushing the idea? Why does our administration’s agenda so often differ from what the community wants?
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Monday, May 4, 2015

How’s that again?

Last month, the school district decided to cancel the planned 180-student addition at Horace Mann school. Still, it’s worth remembering that many people told us we had to close Hoover if we wanted to add six classrooms here:


but were perfectly comfortable with the idea of adding seven classrooms here:


(The pictures are on the same scale.)
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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Update on the length of the school day

I think I’m slowly getting a better understanding of the issues around lengthening the school day. I’m probably still missing something; if so, please let me know in the comments.

As far as I can tell, the most recent 2015 district calendar will comply with state law even if there are no changes in the length of the school day. (See the math below.) If that’s true, then any proposal to make the elementary day longer isn’t being driven by state law, but by something else. Here are the candidates:

More instructional time. The administration may argue that elementary schoolers need more instructional time. I just don’t agree. They’re already cooped up in school for six and a half hours, which seems like more than enough, especially for kids as young as five. More isn’t automatically better when it comes to education.

The superintendent has argued that the district has the shortest school day in Iowa. But who cares? What matters is the total number of hours in the school year, and we’ll be meeting the same hours requirement as everyone else.

It’s true that adding a half hour to the elementary day would put us over the required number of hours. But the administration has reportedly stated that, because of the excess, we would not have to make up snow and heat days—which is inconsistent with the whole idea that we’re doing this to give the kids more instructional time.

More time for lunch. This leaps out as a reason to lengthen the day, but I have no reason to think it’s what the district is after. Under the proposed calendar, 22 minutes is about the longest we can give the elementary school kids and still meet the 1080-hour requirement (because lunch doesn’t count toward the hours requirement).

If the district were to extend the elementary lunch period to 25 minutes, it would have to add about three minutes to the school day under the latest calendar. (Alternatively, it could add a day or two of school.) To have a 30-minute lunch, it would have to add about seven or eight minutes to the day (or go about four days longer). I understand that any addition of time to the day can complicate the bus schedule, which has to work in conjunction with the junior high and high school days. But it’s hard to see how even eight more minutes for lunch can justify an additional half hour on the day.

Again, it’s not at all clear that the district would use the longer day to give kids a longer lunch.

A desire to make the school year shorter. Apparently one of the selling points for the longer elementary day is that we could make the school year five days shorter. I get how this might be appealing to school staff, but it does not strike me as a good enough reason to keep young kids in school for seven hours a day.

Money. Finally, I suppose it’s possible that a longer day (with a shorter year) could result in some kind of cost savings. Again, I’d just want to see those numbers.

The reasons for making the elementary day half an hour longer are even less persuasive if it means that we’ll have to start the junior high and high school day at 7:45. The current start time of 8:10 is bad enough for teenagers, who are notoriously not morning people. For what it’s worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that junior high and high school days start no earlier than 8:30, because of teenagers’ later sleep cycles.

We’ll know more when the district releases the details of the proposal. The key questions to ask will be: How is this an improvement on the current schedule? Is this being driven by what the community wants, or just by what the administration wants?

Here is the math I used to evaluate the most recent 2015 calendar:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Longer school day?

Updated below

I’m hearing rumors that the district is considering making its school day longer—the rumor is that junior high and high school would start twenty-five minutes earlier (at 7:45) and end ten minutes later (at 3:30). Caution: I have no idea whether there’s any truth to the rumors. When I asked the superintendent today if there were any proposals to lengthen the school day, he replied:
The District and the ICEA have been working through the collective bargaining process to create the necessary flexibility to move from a “days” calendar to an “hours” calendar. These discussions are continuing as there are several logistical hurdles to overcome. At the Board meeting last night we calendared a public hearing for May 12 so that we can discuss such a change, provided that we can overcome the logistical hurdles.
So it sounds like a change in the length of the day is at least a possibility.

As the parent of a teenager who already has a very full day because of school, I’d be very reluctant to make the school day any longer, and especially to start it any earlier. Teenagers aren’t known for being morning people. I also think there are diminishing educational returns from being cooped up in a school building all day, and that they start diminishing well before you get to 7.75 hours. I also wonder about the benefit of a longer school day when some kids at the junior high level are already being given multiple study halls because there aren’t enough classes to put them in.

I understand, though, that some parents might prefer a longer school day just for the child care coverage. That seems like a legitimate concern, though it may not be as much of an issue in the higher grades. Moreover, from the superintendent’s email, it sounds like a longer day would just result in a shorter school year, which would cause its own child care coverage issues. In general, if more child care coverage can be provided to people who want it without imposing it on people who don’t, I’d be in favor of that approach (which sounds less expensive, too). For what it’s worth, the superintendent has acknowledged that lengthening the school day has gotten “a universally negative reaction from parents” in the past.

In any event, if there’s going to be any change to the school day, we should hear the details well in advance of any scheduled public hearing on it.

And if the school day does become longer, maybe it’s time for the district to develop a homework policy? Here’s an example of one (from a district with a less-than-6.5-hour day and a 55-minute lunch period!).

UPDATE 4/30/15: Am now hearing some more details, though all still unconfirmed. One person tells me that the plan is to lengthen the elementary school day by having it go from 8:30 - 3:30, but to shift the high school and junior high day earlier without lengthening them (so school would go from 7:45 to 2:55). It remains unclear to me why anyone would want the older kids’ day to start earlier and end earlier than the younger kids’ day.

I’ve been unable to get any satisfactory explanation of how the state’s shift from counting days to counting hours requires any adjustment at all in our current bell schedules (as opposed to simply adjusting the number of days kids are in school). So far, it sounds more like this is just an opportunity for the administration to push its longstanding desire to lengthen the elementary school day, and that it’s not “prompted” by the switch to counting hours in any meaningful sense.

I’ll keep posting as I hear more about it.
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About those personal attacks

I’m not sure whether this is worth getting into, but the moderator of a local Facebook site on which school issues are discussed posted this today as a justification for excluding some people from access to the group (which counts a majority of the school board, as well as the district’s chief operating officer, among its members):


It’s a free country, and Eisele can run her site however she wants. But if she’s going to make accusations, she ought to at least link, so people can judge for themselves. By “contacting the employer of a person,” for example, I can only assume she is referring to this. Yes, if you write to the school district to disagree with something I said, I do have the right to respond, even if you are a school district employee.

As for “personal attacks” and “blatant lies,” maybe some links please? Reminder: It’s not a “personal attack” to disagree strongly with positions that people have publicly taken, and it’s not a “blatant lie” to say something that other people disagree with—especially since this is a publicly viewable site and anyone is free to post a response to anything I say here. When I get things wrong here, I’m happy to correct them (example here), but it helps if someone lets me know.

When I say something here, I say it front of everyone, and anyone can respond to it. Eisele makes her accusations on her members-only site, without substantiating them, and shields herself and her readers from any response from the people she’s accusing. Which approach is fairer? Which approach is likely to lead to a more informed discussion?
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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Elephant in the room

The eight writers of the letter described here are upset that the school board has cancelled the additions that it had planned to build on Longfellow, Mann, Lincoln, and Shimek schools, arguing that the decision shows a lack of commitment to the central core of Iowa City. “If we continue on the current course,” the letter argues, “we risk losing more of our core elementary schools, which would have devastating effects on our goal to strengthen the core of the city.”

I agree that the district shouldn’t reduce elementary school capacity in central Iowa City. But it would be easier to agree with this letter if the writers objected to the one school closure that the district is actually planning—Hoover. (My apologies if they do, but there is no mention of it in the coverage.) What do the writers have to say about supporting central Iowa City neighborhoods in that instance?

If these writers don’t oppose the Hoover closing, they are not only being inconsistent, they are undermining their own cause. There is no logical way to wall off Mann, Lincoln, Shimek, and Longfellow from the rationale for the Hoover closure. Even the idea of closing Hoover to benefit City High can apply to other schools, too, since any savings in operational costs could always be redirected to the high school. If Hoover should be closed for the greater good, why shouldn’t other, even smaller schools be closed, too?

Supporting the central core of Iowa City should mean keeping its schools open, not closing some and supersizing the others. If the district were to close Horace Mann but make up for it with large additions to Longfellow and Shimek, would these writers feel that central Iowa City was being supported?

By the way, a neighbor called me when this article appeared. “Eight people?” he said. “Almost nine hundred people signed the petition to keep Hoover open!”
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Why would Iowa City voters support this?



This tweet was County Supervisor Rod Sullivan’s reaction to the school board’s recent decision to cancel the planned additions that would have added 150 seats to Longfellow School and 180 seats to Horace Mann School. The additions would have increased the number of kids you could put at Longfellow by 58 per cent and at Mann by 76 per cent.

As I wrote last week, I disagreed with Sullivan’s support for the closure of Hoover School, which is about as far from a “bargain,” grand or otherwise, as you can imagine. But I agree with Sullivan that voters should be very concerned about the district’s treatment of central Iowa City.

I do disagree, though, about what supporting central Iowa City should mean. For example, I don’t think putting a 417-kid school at the busy corner of Dodge and Church Streets, on the smallest lot by far in the district, is a way of supporting the Horace Mann neighborhood.

To me, supporting the central core of Iowa City means standing up to administrators who want elementary schools to either be super-sized or be closed. It means recognizing that what is possible in outlying areas is not always possible or desirable in areas that are more densely populated or have smaller lot sizes. It means investing in all our existing elementary schools, not pitting some of them against others.

Sullivan is right that under the latest version of its facilities plan, the district is removing elementary capacity from the densely populated central core of Iowa City and building it instead on the outskirts. It’s as if the district is simply lifting Hoover School out of its affordable, close-in neighborhood and plunking it down in a pricier neighborhood on the edge of town. To drive the point home, they’re even naming the new school Hoover, and acting like that’s a gift to the people whose school they are taking. I have no idea why voters would support that and no reason to think they will.

I have no problem with planning for anticipated growth, but there is no reason to do it by closing schools in areas that are already densely populated. If you want to support central Iowa City, you can start by not closing its elementary schools.
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Everybody’s welcome here

You can imagine my bewilderment, as a starry-eyed new Facebook user, to find that I am, for undisclosed reasons, persona non grata at one of the local Facebook sites on which school district issues are discussed. (Insert sad emoji here.) It would be nice if that site, on which our district’s chief operating officer and at least one school board member regularly comment, were accessible to the entire public, but apparently I’m too hot a potato, or something. I think I’ll survive this blow to my social standing, if only because I didn’t have much of a social standing to begin with.

This post is just to reaffirm the policy of this blog: Anyone can read this blog and post comments here. I don’t spike comments that I disagree with, and never have. I moderate the comments because I get a lot of commercial spam—which usually looks something like this—and I do delete the spam. It’s also true that I won’t let you post under someone else’s name, as someone did earlier this week, though you’re welcome to post anonymously or using a screen name. I suppose I’d rule out violent comments or comments that run down people’s kids by name, etc., though I’ve never had cause to. But I don’t spike comments because I disagree with them, as a quick look through prior posts will demonstrate.

It is true, unfortunately, that Blogspot’s comment system is bug-filled and just generally sucks. Sometimes, you may have to post a comment more than once to be sure it goes through, though most of the time it seems to work fine. It sometimes takes me a while to check the email and approve the comments, but if your comment doesn’t eventually appear, please post it again. If it’s a continuing problem, let me know by email (the address is in the sidebar) and I’ll try to find a workaround.

On the Hoover issue in particular, I’d really like to hear the pro-closure arguments (and, yes, respond to them). It’s always seemed so strange how seldom anyone has publicly articulated the arguments for the closure, not just on this blog but anywhere. If they’re sound, they can withstand a public airing, no?
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

“In actuality, it probably WILL become a parking lot”

“Part of the ‘They’re going to use Hoover as a parking lot’ strikes me as quite disingenuous. In actuality, it probably WILL become a parking lot... but the current City parking lot will probably become some type of building. You are just trading spaces. It gets presented as ‘they just want to add parking,’ which I’ve never heard from any Board member or Administrator.”
                           —County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, who voted to close
                               Hoover as a member of the district’s facilities planning
                               committee, on social media (ellipse in original)

I’m actually a fan of Rod Sullivan’s, though I think he made a very bad call on closing Hoover. Anyway, he’s not the only person to make a statement like this one, and the statement deserves some scrutiny.

The statement assumes that people in the Hoover neighborhood are being unreasonable—even “disingenuous”—when they say that they do not want to see a parking lot in the space where their elementary school currently is. If only they could understand that it’s not an increase in parking, but just “trading spaces,” that will cause them to suddenly have a parking lot where their school now stands, then they’d feel much better, so it’s really not legitimate for them to focus on the parking lot.

Needless to say, this is not a fair treatment of people’s genuine concerns. Many people in the Hoover neighborhood are rightly upset that they will not only be losing their school, but also “probably” gaining an eyesore and a potential traffic nightmare. To suggest that they just don’t understand or are being disingenuous is a way of dismissing these very real effects on the neighborhood without addressing them.

And what about the assertion that City won’t be adding parking, but just “trading spaces”? In fact, City’s advocates have repeatedly argued that City needs more parking, not just relocated parking. As Sullivan must remember, one of the scenarios presented to the facilities committee included a 750-car parking garage at City, which administrators and at least one board member explicitly argued would be necessary if the City addition were built without closing Hoover. Since City currently has 590 spaces total, it’s very reasonable for people to conclude that a substantial part of the reason for taking Hoover is to add parking to City High.

Finally, do you know how much the City High addition will add to City’s footprint? About 8,400 square feet. That’s about one-half of one percent of City’s land. It would represent about 3% of the Hoover property. So it’s very reasonable for people to conclude that the addition—or whatever it displaces—cannot justify the taking of Hoover and its five acres.

I won’t call Sullivan disingenuous, because I think he’s acting in good faith. But he should have more respect for the very reasonable concerns that people have about the Hoover closure.

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Numbers: Half of the City High addition will go on top of the existing building, so it’s only the remaining six classrooms that will add to the footprint. I used the six classrooms on the northeast side of the building (which are relatively new construction) to gauge how big the addition would be. Each room is about 26 by 34 feet, and the hallways are 13 feet across. I erred on the generous side by assuming there would be hallways on three sides of the six classrooms. Round everything upwards and you’re at about 8,400 square feet. To get the approximate square footage of the City High and Hoover properties, I used this tool; try it yourself.
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Friday, April 10, 2015

Use existing space instead of building expensive additions


Guess which lot the district plans to build a 180-student addition on.

The district’s recently released possible “updates” to the facilities plan contain a lot of bad ideas—for example, one would close three more elementary schools—but one good idea: cancel the planned additions to Mann and Longfellow schools.

Horace Mann Elementary needs a thorough renovation, air conditioning, and a multi-purpose room, but it makes no sense to build a 180-student addition—increasing the school’s capacity by 76%—on the smallest lot (by far) in the district. As it is, there is barely room for a playground and parking on the Mann property. Adding 180 seats there—and another 180 kids getting dropped off in the morning—is madness.

It makes even less sense when the district is simultaneously planning to close a much bigger school on a much bigger lot less than two miles away. The point of the Mann addition isn’t to accommodate growing enrollment; it’s to absorb the loss of capacity caused by closing Hoover, and to move toward a vision of fewer, larger elementaries, farther away from where the students live. (Longfellow, too, needs renovation and improvements, but not the 150-student addition that’s currently planned and which is necessary only because of the Hoover closure.)

Yes, there’s a park next to Horace Mann. There has been some talk of taking the park for the school district, but it’s not at all clear that the district will be able to do that. (Would the neighborhood want that? Would the City agree? Would the park then be fenced in?) In any event, even with the entire park, the lot would still be very small, the drop-off and pick-up would still be a nightmare, and Hoover’s lot would still be almost twice as large.

Unfortunately, the district’s latest “updates” don’t keep Hoover Elementary open. They would cancel the Mann and Longfellow additions, but just to replace them with different additions onto other schools. One way or another, the district will have to build over 300 new seats of capacity if it displaces over 300 kids from Hoover. That’s a lot of money wasted.

At some point, the district is going to ask voters to approve a bond to pay for the projects in the facilities plan. Most of the projects are worthy, good investments. But people are naturally going to think twice about spending millions of dollars just to tear down one school and then rebuild the lost capacity onto other schools. The sooner the district comes to its senses about Hoover, the better for all the worthy projects in the plan.
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A great place for an elementary school

When I summarized the apparent reasons for the decision to close Hoover School, I left one out on purpose: the idea that “there aren’t that many kids in the Hoover attendance area.” This “reason” never made any sense, which is probably why you don’t hear it much anymore. When the board voted to close it, Hoover had more kids living in its attendance area than Mann, Shimek, Hills, or Lincoln, all of which had significantly smaller enrollments than Hoover. It was always a little strange to hear that Hoover didn’t have enough students, given that it has had two temporary buildings for years. Under-filled schools don’t get temporary buildings.

The argument was apparently based on the idea that Hoover was overcrowded only because it received SINA transfers from other schools. Yet even before Hoover started receiving SINA transfer students, it had more than 304 students—which is what the district now considers its capacity. Afterward, Hoover did have more transfers than other schools, but not an extraordinary number. Even when you don’t count the SINA transfers, Hoover had more than 304 students in 2012-13, right before the board voted to close it. And early indications are that next year’s Hoover kindergarten enrollment will be one of its biggest in years.

But the best refutation of the “not enough kids” argument is the fact that the district plans to add 330 seats to Horace Mann and Longfellow schools at the same time it is closing Hoover. That’s just about as many kids as go to Hoover. That’s not because there are suddenly more homes around Mann and Longfellow—those areas, like the Hoover area, are already filled with homes and are unlikely to grow. It’s because when you close a school with over 300 kids in it, you then need to build over 300 new seats somewhere else.

The only way to understand what is actually happening is that the district wants to move toward having fewer, larger elementary schools, farther on average from where their students live. The board decided it could save a little bit on annual operating expenses by, in effect, consolidating three schools into two—though the new construction would cost millions. At the same time, it planned to build two new 500-kid elementary schools on the edge of town. The idea was that the 500-kid schools would be more efficient to operate. Yet now the district tells us that even ten years from now, the first of those new, big schools will have—you guessed it—just a little over 300 students. So much for efficiency.

Hoover sits in an area that is already densely populated. There are enough kids nearby that the entire attendance area lies within two miles of the school. This means that no one in the attendance area qualifies for a bus, so the district saves money. It’s also in an economically diverse neighborhood, and its presence helps that neighborhood thrive. It makes perfect sense to have a school there.

For more information on how operational efficiency doesn’t correlate with enrollment size, see Michael Tilley’s posts.

Last-minute update: Now the district’s administrators have released several proposals to “update” the facilities plan, one of which would close three more schools. Some of them would cancel the additions on Mann and Longfellow, but would expand other schools instead. Either way, the Hoover closure forces the district to spend millions to add capacity elsewhere. It’s not clear whether the board will accept any of these updates; until they do, the plan is still to add 330 seats to Mann and Longfellow. But these “updates” are yet more evidence of the administration’s desire to shift toward having fewer, larger elementaries, farther from where people live.
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City High doesn’t need Hoover School to close

As I wrote last week, the district’s fiscal justifications for closing an elementary school don’t stand up to scrutiny, and its reasons for singling out Hoover for closure make even less sense. But the Hoover closure has always been about something else, too: the long-standing desire of some City High advocates to take the Hoover property for City.

Ultimately, the question of whether Hoover should close so City can have more land hinges on how much you value the presence of the neighborhood’s elementary school. Some people might support closing Hoover no matter how small the benefit to City, because they just don’t think closing an elementary school is a big deal. But suppose you think (as I do) that our existing elementary schools are important and shouldn’t be closed cavalierly or without a compelling reason. Is City High’s “need” for the property nonetheless so great that it would justify closing Hoover?

Here’s why I think it isn’t:

  • No one has identified how the Hoover property would be used to benefit City. Under the current plan, City won’t use the building itself; there’s money designated in the plan to tear the Hoover building down, and no money designated to build anything in its place. How can taking Hoover be a compelling “need” if no one can tell us what it is needed for? What’s the big secret?

  • One argument is that City won’t have room for its planned 300-student addition unless it can take the Hoover property. But everyone agrees that the addition won’t go on the Hoover land, and no one has identified how the Hoover property will be used to accommodate the addition. Moreover, the district has twice released scenarios in which the City High addition would be completed while Hoover is still in use, which directly contradicts the idea that the addition can’t happen without the closure.

  • We don’t even know whether the second half of the City High addition will be built, because its completion hinges on 60% voter approval of a very large bond. The district may face an uphill battle passing that bond, especially if it needlessly alienates a big chunk of the central east side.

  • City High’s enrollment is about to get significantly smaller. The district will soon have three large-enrollment high schools instead of two. If enrollment is divided evenly among the three, City could have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 or 1300 students. That’s a funny moment to be arguing that City suddenly “needs” five more acres of property for unspecified uses.

  • The most likely possible uses of the Hoover land are as a parking lot or a site for athletic fields. Depending on where the City addition is built, it might displace some tennis courts, or a softball field, or existing parking. Also, City High currently uses the baseball field at Mercer Park, and some would like to move baseball back to the City premises. If you think these are compelling needs that justify closing a neighborhood elementary school—and spending millions of dollars to do it—we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Let’s just say that that will be one incredibly expensive baseball field or parking lot.

  • By the way, if moving a couple of tennis courts onto Hoover’s field is all it would take to keep the school open, I’d happily support the idea. Hoover’s field is big enough to hold three tennis courts and still have room for nine more, without even encroaching on the blacktop. Closing the school and taking all five acres because of a few tennis courts makes no sense at all.

  • Unless City High plans to annex all the private homes between First and Seventh Avenues, West High will always have the bigger front lawn. Liberty High will always have the bigger parking lot (and it’ll need one, too, since it won’t be located in the middle of a densely populated walkable neighborhood, as City is). These aren’t badges of inferiority. Neither is having City’s baseball field over at Mercer, where its swim team also practices. City shouldn’t aspire to be exactly like West High or Liberty High. It has its own unique character, and its location in a thriving, close-in neighborhood is one of its strengths.

So sure, there will always be people who want the Hoover land for City High. (One of the members of the facilities planning committee told me that Hoover had to close because City High might need the land “fifty or seventy-five years from now”!) But you need a much more compelling case to justify closing an elementary school.
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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Horace Mann, Lincoln, and Hills now on the chopping block, too

Today our school district’s administration released several possible “updates” for its long-term facilities plan, one of which would close Horace Mann, Lincoln, and Hills Elementaries in addition to Hoover. Another would keep Hoover open as a Pre-K center and relocate City High’s tennis courts and/or softball field to nearby Chadek’s Field.

I’m going to have to spend some time with the proposals to understand them fully. But here are some of my initial reactions:

1. These proposals just confirm that the logic of the Hoover closure leads naturally to the closure of other elementaries, too. The district needs to make a decision about whether it wants to close small and medium-size elementaries—often the ones closer in to downtown—and shift toward having enormous elementary schools on the outskirts of town. All the public feedback collected during the facilities planning process tilted heavily against that strategy, but the administration seems determined to move full speed ahead in that direction. Anyone who wants to support keeping all of our existing elementaries open should sign the petition here.

2. Anyone who cares about keeping a thriving, livable, walkable, sustainable core to Iowa City needs to recognize the threat that these proposals pose. You don’t keep a city livable by closing its closer-in elementaries—which often serve economically diverse neighborhoods and help those neighborhoods thrive—and shifting instead toward mega-schools in pricier new developments on the outskirts of town. (Some of the proposals increase the size of the new elementary schools from 500 students to 600.)  That’s why local sustainability advocates like Supervisor Mike Carberry spoke up against the Hoover closure to begin with; the problem will only be compounded if more schools are to be closed.

3. If the district is going to argue that schools closings are justified on the grounds of reducing annual operating expenses, people should keep in mind just how small that savings is likely to be.

4. One of the proposals would keep Hoover open as a Pre-K center. Isn’t that an admission that City High doesn’t “need” the property, which was one of the whole justifications for the closure to begin with? (Maybe that explains why no one could ever identify how City would use the land.)

5. The updates all talk about discontinuing the use of Hoover as an elementary school “no earlier than 2017-18.” The current plan calls for Hoover to close in 2019, so these plans would accelerate the closure.

6. This is what elections are for. If these proposals put the issue of school closings front and center as we approach this September’s board election, then they serve at least one good purpose.

7. I have to admit, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for immersing myself in the details of these proposals. It seems impossible to keep up with the administration’s changing rationales about what the district “needs.” Do they mean anything they say? The one consistent theme has been the desire to close schools that are closer-in (plus Hills) and build much bigger schools on the periphery. So let’s get that issue discussed. And, when our board election gets going, let’s hear where our candidates stand on that question.

Clarification, 5:00 p.m.: The proposals themselves do not specifically refer to the use of Chadek's field, but the district's chief operating officer, David Dude, said on social media that the final option "incorporates a variety of concepts that may or may not have been considered in the past--including... purchasing some city property south of CHS to accommodate outdoor facilities displaced during CHS expansions"--which appears to be a reference to Chadek's Field.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Democrats block Smarter Balanced

State Senate Democrats announced last night that they would block the Smarter Balanced Assessments in order to ensure the availability of adequate state supplemental school aid for years to come. This clip from the press conference is really incredible. That’s the kind of party that can start winning statewide elections again.
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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This dog won’t hunt

I came across this from a PowerPoint on Smarter Balanced’s item design (from page 29):



Call me crazy, but I think you can dog someone to take a run with you and then go for a swim and later doll yourself up. In other words, four of the five words can be used as both verbs and nouns, but the kids are supposed to mark the “correct” answer. (There is no indication that the question was coupled with any passage that actually used the words, and even if it had been, that’s not reflected in the wording of the question.)

Questions like this, apparently, are what will give us “incredible precision in identifying skills that students have mastered,” which is why we should pay top dollar for Smarter Balanced. I feel sorry for the teacher whose job evaluation depends on her students’ scores on this kind of test. I feel sorry for the kids, too.

The question reminded me of Tom Hoffman’s post describing a hopelessly written Pearson test question. As Hoffman wrote:
Not only can the teacher not easily ignore these exercises, there is tangible risk in teaching students to question or critique them too closely, as this would be likely to lead to students answering questions “incorrectly” on standardized tests.
So the lesson is “Don’t critique the test too closely.” Brought to you by Smarter Balanced.
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