[This is a slightly expanded version of my guest opinion that appeared today in the Press-Citizen.]
Four years ago, the Iowa City school board voted to close Roosevelt Elementary, a close-in school surrounded by affordable neighborhoods, and to build a new school on the far west side of town, near more expensive homes and areas still to be developed. The board closed the school against public opposition, and the resulting wound has not fully healed to this day.
Now the board is on the verge of making a very similar mistake, by closing Hoover Elementary to build a new school on the far east side. The Hoover attendance area is economically diverse, but the impact of the closure will fall most heavily on the neighborhood directly across from the school, between Court Street and Muscatine Avenue. It is a very affordable neighborhood with many young families. The median assessed home value in that neighborhood, which makes up about a third of the attendance area, is $137,000. The wide majority of homes there are assessed at less than $150,000. (I did the calculations myself on the Iowa Assessors website; feel free to check my work.)
That neighborhood is sustained by its proximity to Hoover. Expensive neighborhoods can afford to be farther from an elementary school. Less expensive neighborhoods, though, are likely to feel the loss of a neighborhood school more acutely. No addition to City High – especially if it involves putting a parking lot on the Hoover property – will make up for the loss to that neighborhood of its elementary school. Nor is it any consolation that those families might be shifted to Longfellow, Lemme, or Lucas; someone shopping for homes near those schools is unlikely to look in the neighborhood across the street from Hoover, since there are many closer, equally affordable neighborhoods. Moreover, it’s not clear that those families can be shifted to the closest school if Hoover closes, because the district’s diversity policy may preclude it.
At the “listening post” last week, it was quite something to hear people in that neighborhood being lectured to by people who live in $375,000 homes about how the effect on neighborhood home values does not belong in the discussion.
The Hoover closure is being justified on the grounds that it is too expensive to build three new elementaries without closing an existing one. In practical effect, this means that Hoover must be closed so a state-of-the-art school can be built in Windsor Ridge or other neighborhoods east of Scott Boulevard. We don’t know exactly where the school’s boundaries will be, but the neighborhoods that will benefit from being closest to it are almost certainly much wealthier than those across the street from Hoover. For example, the median home on Barrington and Arlington Streets, which run through the Windsor Ridge area, is assessed at almost $300,000. And developers of land in the area are likely to benefit greatly from being able to promise a nearby elementary school.
The board doesn’t have to pit these two parts of town against each other. Scenario 1c, which two-thirds of the participants at the community workshop preferred, would build three new elementaries, including one on the far east side, while still preserving our existing schools. It also has lower costs than the scenarios currently being considered. If the board wants to sustain its close-in, affordable neighborhoods – and avoid repeating the Roosevelt mistake – it has a way to do it.