Don’t bet against Hoover School
Another odd-numbered year, another school board election. As this September’s board election approaches, I’ll be one of the people continuing to question the wisdom of the current plan to close Hoover Elementary in 2019 as part of the district’s long-term facilities plan. I’ll be posting more soon to re-examine some of the arguments for and against the closure. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d write this quick, admittedly horse-race-style post about the prospects for reversing the closure. In short, if I were a betting person, I wouldn’t bet against Hoover staying open in the long run, for these reasons:
- Of the six board members who supported closing Hoover, only three now remain on the board. All three of those seats are up for election this year. It’s not clear whether any of those three board members will run for re-election. (I’m counting incumbent Marla Swesey as pro-closure; though she switched her vote on it at the last minute, she later made it clear that she supports the closure and is against revisiting the decision.)
- In the last board election, the one incumbent who supported the closure was defeated. The two top vote-getters supported keeping Hoover open, and 65% of the total votes cast went to pro-Hoover candidates.
- Every time the district has surveyed the public about the possibility of school closings—whether in the district’s randomized phone survey or in the multiple community workshops during the facilities plan process—the result has been roughly two-to-one opposition to closings.
- The Save Hoover group, through its petition and yard sign efforts, now has a list of nearly a thousand identified supporters of keeping Hoover open. That’s not only a sign of public support, but a great organizing tool as Save Hoover approaches the election season.
- Voters in other parts of the district have good reason to make common cause with Hoover. No matter how you slice it, closing Hoover costs a lot of money. The district will have to spend millions to build new capacity—for example, by building additions to existing schools—to accommodate the students who currently go to Hoover. That money could just as easily be used to add seats in parts of the district that have real capacity needs. (More on this point in future posts.) Moreover, voters in other attendance areas are likely to wonder whether the logic behind closing Hoover will lead the district to close other elementaries, too.
- Looming over the facilities plan is the eventual need to ask the voters for a $100+ million dollar bond, which would need 60% voter approval to pass. The district just can’t afford to alienate a large bloc of voters going into that bond vote.
Like on a lot of issues, what you hear from school officials and administrators about Hoover is very different from what you hear from ordinary voters. There are definitely people who would like you to think that the Hoover decision is set in stone, but that’s the kind of bravado that can evaporate overnight when election results come in. I think there’s a good chance it will.
Closing Hoover: Cost far outweighs benefit
When the school board voted to close Hoover Elementary, the board members didn’t articulate a clear reason for the closure. To some extent that’s still true, but over time the reasons seemed to come down to two. First, closure advocates argued that the district needed to close an elementary school to save operational expenses. Second, they argued that City High needs the Hoover land. I don’t think either reason stands up to scrutiny; in this post, I’ll focus on operational expenses, and in another post I’ll talk about the City High argument.
Before we talk about the cost of keeping Hoover open, it’s important to understand that closing Hoover costs a lot of money. If the district tears down Hoover, which can hold over 300 students, it will have to build that many new seats somewhere else. For example, while closing Hoover, the district also plans to build 330 seats of new capacity on Horace Mann and Longfellow schools, which will apparently cost somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million dollars. That’s money we wouldn’t have to spend if we kept Hoover open.
But keeping Hoover open does mean that we’ll incur annual operating costs. By combining three schools into two—which is essentially what the district would be doing by closing Hoover while expanding Mann and Longfellow—we can achieve some savings in operating costs, since, for example, we might be able to pay only two principals instead of three. But you quickly run into limits on what you can save this way: the great majority of operating costs are to pay teachers, and the students will still need teachers. Currently, Hoover has two full classrooms in each grade; there’s no reason to think that we could cut the number of classroom teachers simply by moving all the students to other schools.
So how much could be saved annually in operating costs if Hoover closes? Michael Tilley looked closely at the numbers and arrived at an estimate of $191,000. If anything, the real number might be lower, since Tilley did not factor in any busing costs. (One small corner of Hoover’s attendance area is not within two miles of any other school, and thus would be entitled under state law to busing, though it’s not clear to what degree that would affect total busing costs, or whether there would be other busing costs in addition.) If you doubt Tilley’s estimate, take a look at this (only slightly out-of-date) chart and see how you can squeeze much more than $191,000 out of closing Hoover School. (See pages 19 and 20.)
That’s just over 0.1% of the district’s annual expenditures. Of course any amount of money is important, but $191,000 is strikingly small compared with the roughly ten million dollar cost of replacing Hoover’s capacity elsewhere. Yes, I know, construction costs come out of a different “pot” of money than operating costs do. But that doesn’t mean it’s smart to spend ten million in construction costs to reap an annual savings of $191,000.
By comparison: this week the board voted not to cut discretionary bus routes, even though it would have saved $849,000 in annual operating expenses. The board (reasonably) decided that discretionary busing is important. Keeping neighborhood schools open is important too—and, as it turns out, doesn’t cost much.
Moreover, even if $191,000 were worth closing an elementary school for, there would be no reason to single out Hoover for closure. Hoover is larger than several other schools (which means it would cost more to replace its lost capacity) and is relatively efficient in its operating costs. In fact, the additions that the district is building onto Twain and Shimek bring them up to roughly the capacity that Hoover has now, which must mean that the district sees that as a workable size. Lincoln and Hills will be smaller than Hoover even after they receive their additions. None of these schools need to close.
Closing a school is a big deal. You don’t do it just to shave a tenth of a percentage point off your annual expenses, especially if it means borrowing ten million dollars for new construction. And if the district can’t resist that small annual savings, why would it stop at one school? It could save comparable amounts (or more) by closing other elementaries, until we’re left with only big 500-kid schools. If you eat that chip, it’s going to be real hard not to eat the next one, and the one after that. Is that what anyone wants?
We don’t have to choose between Hoover and Hoover East (but if we did . . .)
Some have argued that the district can’t afford to keep Hoover School open and still open a new school in the Windsor Ridge area (currently known as “Hoover East”). As a result, the argument goes, Hoover has to close so Windsor Ridge can have its school. This argument is wrong both factually and normatively.
First, there is no reason to think that the district can’t afford both schools. The cost of keeping Hoover open even after opening Hoover East is about $191,000 annually. (See this post.) No one has demonstrated that $191,000—which is about one-tenth of one percent of the district’s budget—is the difference between solvency and insolvency. If we have to start closing schools to reap such relatively small savings, we’ve got much bigger things to worry about than Hoover East. If we can afford to open Hoover East, we can afford to keep Hoover open, too. (We can argue over names later.)
There’s also no reason to think we can’t afford to build Hoover East if Hoover stays open. It’s true that keeping Hoover open means we don’t need to build as much new capacity elsewhere, but the greatest opportunities for cutting costs from the plan are by canceling some of the additions to existing schools. Horace Mann and Longfellow, for example, could still get their renovations, air conditioning, and multi-purpose rooms without adding 330 new seats to those schools (and 330 more kids being dropped off in the morning).
Moreover, it’s reasonable to think that there will be more development and growing enrollment on the far east side, so you can see building a school there as a sensible investment, even if it’s relatively inefficient in the short term. The areas around Mann and Longfellow are already densely populated and are not likely to grow significantly, so it makes little sense to put additions there.
So yes, Hoover East and Hoover can co-exist. But if the district were forced to choose, should it sacrifice Hoover for Hoover East? No. First, if operating expenses were so tight that we had to choose between them, it would make little sense to choose the much more expensive option. The district estimates that opening Hoover East will add $500,000 to our annual operating expenses. Keeping Hoover open will cost less than half of that. Moreover, Hoover East is likely to be underfilled when it first opens (as Borlaug was and as Alexander will be for years to come).
Even setting aside cost arguments, there are compelling fairness arguments. There is no reason why Windsor Ridge’s desires should be filled at the expense of some other neighborhood’s. Closing Hoover to open Hoover East would be a reverse-Robin-Hood transfer. The Hoover area is economically diverse and includes very affordable neighborhoods; in the one-third of Hoover that lies right across the street from the school, the median home value in 2013 was $137,000. Windsor Ridge is a significantly wealthier neighborhood. It would be simply wrong to take the school from the mixed-and-moderate-income neighborhood so the wealthier neighborhood can have it. It would also be one more factor that could turn voters against the eventual bond that is crucial to completing the facilities plan. In a district that has been struggling with equity issues, it would be a great step backward.
I’m always a little surprised when people argue that Hoover should be sacrificed so their own favorite project can move forward. For one thing, it’s an awfully unsympathetic stance to take. Second, it’s effectively an admission that the new project is fiscally precarious; the listener may just decide that it’s the new project that needs to be cut. It would make a lot more sense to recognize that we can preserve our neighborhood schools and still pursue new projects, too.
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.
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.
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.