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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23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Chris. I think I heard one thing differently. "That ship has sailed" and "I wasn't on the board then" are reflective of a silly attitude that once a decision has been made, it is bad/impossible to revisit it. I just don't understand that attitude, esp when you and others have shown that the original reasons for the closure are specious. I think it was very revealing when GH asked whether they had contingency plans for the bond failing to pass or the population around Hoover booming--and they clearly didn't.

Also, I know you are probably too diplomatic to comment on this, but I have to say I really resent the two "Rah! Rah! City High!" interlopers coming to give their two cents worth at the end (I believe their group has done quite enough already) and the unbelievable condescension of "I didn't get it...now I get it...now I understand." As if we would all agree with them if we only would agree to focus on the important thing: City vs. West. Because, you know, if City doesn't get that land, well, the bad thing will happen. (You know, THE BAD THING!)

Chris said...

Anonymous—Thanks for the comment. I agree about Townsend’s “ship has sailed” comment, especially given that the planned closure is still four years away, that four of the seven board seats are up for election, that none of the four incumbents appear to be running for re-election, and that, as a result, the new board will not contain any of the people who voted to close Hoover. My sense of Lynch’s comment was different, though: I don’t really blame him for pointing out that he wasn’t one of the people who voted to close the school, and from his comments about enrollment, it’s clear that he understands that change is possible.

As for the City High comment, I thought it was striking how little substance there was to it—no specifics at all about how closing Hoover helps City. As several people pointed out, anyone with kids at Hoover is going to have kids at City someday, and everyone wants City to succeed, but we’re all still waiting for any connection to be made to the closure. The best we heard was how important it was for the a school to have good athletic facilities—which City has. Do people really want to close an elementary school so that the high school baseball players won’t have to go to Mercer Park to play their games? It’s pretty hard to see how the future of education at City High depends on that.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this report, for those who couldn't attend! And thanks for continuing to highlight the speciousness of the "build the schools where the kids are" argument used as justification for Hoover closure. The kindergarten pre-reg numbers (as well as the population density data in your prior post) clearly and soundly refute that argument.

It's baffling, the disparity of arguments pro and con. The closure advocates seem to have no ability or interest in putting together an even remotely believable or convincing argument, whereas the Hoover advocates are rational and lucid, on-point and supported by actual data at every turn. I'm amazed at how tone-deaf the school board members must be, to have not yet reversed this ridiculously unjustified closure decision which defies community input. Their re-election attempts should be quite interesting.

Thank you for your leadership on the issue!

Chris said...

Anonymous #2—thanks for the comment. My wife likes to cite that line from Ed Harris’s character in Apollo 13: “Let’s work the problem, people.” I didn’t go in to last night’s meeting expecting an immediate reversal by the board members, but I think it was a good step toward getting the board to recognize how deep the concern is and how inadequate the explanations are. We’ve just got to keep working the problem, and we really need to seize the opportunity given to us by the upcoming board election.

Karen W said...

I guess I don't have a head for business, because I don't understand the business sense of acquiring land for City at the cost of about $3 million per acre.

Also, if it makes sense to close schools because students live in close proximity to other schools, why aren't we closing Garner too? Obviously, those kids could just go to Penn or Van Allen, right? Doesn't the proximity argument require decreasing enrollment throughout the east side combined with a number of half empty schools in close proximity to make sense?

Nick said...

Did anyone address where Hoover students would end up now that they're not increasing capacity at Longfellow and Mann?

Chris said...

Nick — Only in the most general terms. Lynch mentioned Longfellow and Lemme as possibilities, but that’s just based on proximity, not on any assessment of whether there will be room at those schools. Longfellow will be losing the Windsor Ridge kids, but even then it will be near or above its capacity. Lemme and Lucas are both currently above capacity. The district does plan to (eventually) add 125 seats to Lemme School, at the cost of $3 million, which would obviously be unnecessary if Hoover is kept open. But the bottom line is that they can’t say because they just won’t know what’s possible until they redraw the boundaries in 2016. It’s easy for people to say, Oh, we’ll just send them to the closest other schools, but as you point out, the reality is not necessarily so simple.

The same is true for the assertion that busing won’t be necessary; there’s just no way to know until there’s a plan. It’s also true, contrary to what the board members said last night, that at least one small part of the Hoover attendance zone does not appear to be within two miles of any other school, and so the district would be legally required to provide busing to those families.

Anonymous said...

Weird that Hoover was near or over capacity for so many years up until 2013 when most board members agreed it would close. And now Chris Lynch saying there isn't enough enrollment so it should close doesn't make sense.

I also don't get why a couple of people want to make City just like West. Some people like City because it isn't West. If City wasn't an option more people might leave.

The person who made a comment that basically the board needed to run the superintendent, not the superintendent run the board was right.

Chris said...

A local activist on Facebook is arguing that “Hoover needs $6.5M in facilities upgrades if it remained open.” As far as I can tell, this figure is entirely made up. The original facilities scenarios that kept Hoover open included $5.1 million for renovations to Hoover, and a good deal of those renovations (air conditioning, flooring and tile, electrical) have now already occurred, and came in under budget. Yes, some renovation would still occur, and presumably Hoover would get a multi-purpose room like all the other schools, but it certainly won’t cost $6.5 milllion, which is enough to build almost half an elementary school from scratch. Renovations on the existing schools were, after all, a major selling point for the public vote on Revenue Purpose Statement.

Any renovations due to Hoover have to be compared to the cost of tearing down over 300 seats of capacity at a time when district enrollment is expanding. The demolition of Hoover, together with the renovations already made to it, were estimated to cost $1.5 million (though the renovations came in under budget). The planned addition of 125 seats to Lemme, which is the next school east of Hoover, will alone cost $3 million dollars, and that replaces just a little over a third of Hoover’s capacity. (Compare the cost of renovating Lemme without the addition (here) with the cost of renovating it with the addition (here).) As the east side enrollment grows and the district runs out of seats again in the future, there will be 179 more seats to replace because of the loss of Hoover, and that will mean either building more additions like the one planned for Lemme, or building entire new schools (which will, of course, include multi-purpose rooms). Which will cost more: finishing the remaining upgrades on a perfectly usable building, or tearing down that building and building 304 seats someplace else?

Notice that when I talk about the costs of the closure, I provide links to back up what I’m saying, and I allow anyone to comment here if they disagree.

Chris said...

This same Facebook commenter is also claiming that it will cost $500,000 annually to keep Hoover open. This has been refuted repeatedly, and no one has ever provided any kind of link or cite for it. If this is the best people can do to justify the closure, Hoover's future is bright.

Again, there is no basis for asserting that the East Elementary cannot open if Hoover stays open. It's pure scare tactic with nothing behind it. If anyone wants to engage further about that issue and show why that's not true, I invite them to comment.

Anonymous said...

Lynch said he wanted more land for City High. If he gets it, where will traffic from a bigger City High go? Streets around City High are small and narrow. At least elementary students can't drive themselves to school.

Anonymous 4 said...

Thanks, Chris, for expose the outright fables being promulgated currently on Facebook and refuting them with hard facts. While no board members changed their minds last night, I think they got the message that the community is fed up with the way the district is conducting business and communicating with us. I think the bond might be in deep trouble, considering it requires a super majority to pass. It would be a shame if that happened in a great district like this one, but I can't say that it would surprise me. The administration's and board's relations with the community they serve have never felt worse to me, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Chris said...

Anonymous #3: Thanks for the comment. There has always been a contingent of people who have wanted more land for City. But no one can (or is willing to) say what they need it for. But it’s easy to confuse “more land” with “more students.” There is no plan to put more students at City High. There are currently over 1700 students there, which is way more than there should be. When the new high school opens, the plan is to bring City down to below 1400 students, and even after the planned improvements, the capacity of the building will be only 1593. This alone should refute any idea that City High needs more parking spaces. In any event, I agree; it would not be a good idea to greatly expand the number of students at City High, even if it had a few more acres to work with.

Chris said...

Anonymous #4 (I think I've miscounted and you're actually #5): Thanks for the comment. I do think the district has some work to do to repair its relationship with the community, and needs to be thinking about the Hoover closure in light of that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply. I assumed (wrongly) City High was going to get more students because of the plans for an addition.

I wasn't referring to parking but to road congestion around City High which is terrible now at certain times of the day. If City High is shrinking, why an addition there, especially with some kids now going to Kirkwood. Seems there should be higher priorities. And with City High shrinking, it shouldn't need Hoover.

Chris said...

Anonymous #5: Yes, I agree. The current plan would cut the number of students by over 100 (and by over 300 in the short term) while expanding the capacity of the building by 300 seats. But somehow they need 5.7 more acres of land that are situated where they don't even plan to put a building! But everyone's supposed to accept it without knowing what it's for, because trust us, it will somehow help "education"!

iclocal said...

Who are the current board members who voted to close Hoover? Just curious.

Chris said...

Iclocal -- Jeff McGinness and Patti Fields. At the meeting where the vote was taken, Marla Swesey explained why she was going to vote for the closure, then at the last minute, when it was clear that the closure would pass even without her vote, she switched her vote to "No." She later made it clear that she didn't support revisiting the decision. So for all intents and purposes, I count her as a pro-closure board member. Their terms are all up this year, and it appears that none of them are running for re-election.

The other votes to close were by Sarah Swisher (who chose not to run for re-election in 2013, Karla Cook, who was defeated for re-election in 2013, and Sally Hoelscher, who resigned from the board in the middle of her term last year and was replaced with Orville Townsend. Townsend's term expires this year, but he is not running for re-election.

Tuyet Dorau (now Tuyet Baruah) voted against the closure. She was re-elected in 2013 and her term will expire in 2017.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be so sure that McGinnis isn't running based on some more recent rumors. It's unfortunate given his work issues that he would stand a good chance of being reelected if it turns out to be true.

Chris said...

Yes, I've heard the same rumors. We'll just have to wait and see. No matter what, though, it will be a very different set of people on the board.

Anonymous said...

McGinnis is an unethical piece of garbage, if he gets re-elected then people are dumber than I could ever imagine. The obvious solution is for the Hoover folks to get together with the Coralville/ North Liberty folks and elect 4 board members that are going to take our children's education seriously and quit playing these games.

Chris said...

Anonymous – I don’t blame anyone for being angry about certain things that have occurred in the ICCSD. But I just don’t have the stomach to go after people on a personal level, especially board members who are just unpaid volunteers. I’m more comfortable focusing on school policies and practices (and there are major policy issues I’ve disagreed with McGinness on, as well as some issues I’ve agreed with him on). On the Hoover issue in particular, I think the more people focus on the policy arguments, the more they realize how weak the case for closing the school is. Or maybe I’m getting soft and it’s time to hang it up as a blogger, I don’t know.

Anonymous said...

It is reasonable to have a difference of opinion with someone,I have had a great deal of admiration and respect for people that I may not have agreed with. Ethics and integrity should however be non-negotiable especially for a board member that is in a position to influence the spending of millions of dollars of our money.