Saturday, December 28, 2013

A thank-you to Southeast Junior High

From my friend Doris, a frequent commenter here:
For your blog if you can find a place to post it:

Dear Chris,

More than once on this blog you have acknowledged, to your credit, that because you don’t have experience raising special needs children, some of the concerns you raise may not adequately reflect the experiences of families that do have non-typical learners. Ours is such a family. As we are not participants in organized religion, my approach to giving thanks tends to fall on the secular side. And so here, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to use your blog as a venue for offering some public thanks to all the wonderful faculty and staff at South East Junior High who have made this school year a very good one indeed for our two children—and particularly our child with special needs. Like you, I make no claim that our experience is representative of the experience of other South East families. But from the first time we went over to South East last spring, to get the ball rolling on the process of shifting our children from a small group homeschool program into 7th and 8th grade, respectively, we’ve been treated with courtesy and good cheer by a variety of people who have gone out of their way to help us and our children make it work. In more than one comment on your blog I have criticized a “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” driven attitude that can result in a quite miserable educational experience for children who, for whatever reason, struggle to keep up with an unrealistic pace. I’m not saying that South East is perfect, but in our experience thus far the “vibe” we have been getting is that, like us, they think the best approach is to treat our special needs child as a capable and complicated individual (albeit one with endearing foibles) and to operate with a flexible attitude toward the process of figuring out which accommodations she needs to help her learn and thrive. It’s been good, basically—better than we would have thought possible going in. I have no idea what North West and North Central are like—fine schools, presumably—but so far I’d have no reservations recommending South East to parents of special needs learners in search of a local public middle school. Here, too, I’d like in particular to thank our child’s South East LRE teacher, Mr. Josh Chambers, for all his help this fall. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve dashed off an email about some problem that has cropped up, and typically by the next day he has written back to let us know he has handled things.

Ultimately I guess what I am trying to say is that they teachers and staff over there actually seem to like our special needs child just as she is, and they seem committed to helping her succeed in her own way, not in a way mandated by federal law.

Thanks, too, to you, Chris, for all the work you put into running this extraordinarily helpful blog. I marvel at your dedication and value all the insight I’ve gained.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Chadek’s Field

View of City High, looking east. Chadek’s Field is on the right.
(Click to enlarge.)

One of the main reasons offered for closing Hoover School is that City High needs the land to expand. Specifically, the planned addition to City may displace an outdoor athletic facility such as the tennis courts or softball field, and some would prefer that City not have athletic facilities off-site (such as at Mercer Park, a mile and half away). Others have argued that City will need even more land eventually, though no one has specified why. The district has asserted that “We can’t expand City without this,” and that “Adding Hoover alone is not even really enough.” Closing Hoover and rebuilding its capacity elsewhere may seem like a big expense, the argument goes, but it’s worth it to enlarge the City property for these unspecified future uses.

How can we take those arguments seriously, when the school board is doing nothing to explore the purchase of Chadek’s Field—which is by far the cheapest way to expand City’s footprint?

Chadek’s Field is the informal name for a five-acre undeveloped parcel that sits just two blocks south of the City High property. It is roughly the same size as the Hoover lot. The Chadek family has been looking into selling the property. The neighborhood would prefer that it not be developed with housing, but that it remain a green space, and the Chadek family (at least one of whom lives in the neighborhood) has tried to accommodate that preference, despite getting other offers. They have explored selling the parcel to the city for use as a park. At one point, the Chadeks were seeking $560,000 for the property, and there was a proposal that the city would chip in half the amount, with the remainder being raised privately. But the city was unable to agree on the price, and it’s unclear where that proposal now stands.

Compared to closing Hoover, which will cost over ten million dollars, buying Chadek’s field would be very cheap, and even more so if it were part of a joint venture with the city. It would be one of the least expensive items in the district’s long-term plan. It would be far less controversial than the district’s plan to expand Mann Elementary by 76%, which also depends on negotiations with the city. And it would be cheaper than buying up other surrounding properties, since the Field has no houses on it.

City High’s tennis courts would take up less than a quarter of the Chadek property; the same is true of its softball field. If the district were to buy Chadek’s Field, the neighborhood would get its green space, City High would get room for its athletic fields, Hoover could stay open, the Chadeks would get their sale, and the district could save millions of dollars by not having to rebuild Hoover’s capacity somewhere else.

Even if the district does close Hoover, shouldn’t it be working to acquire this property? Under the district’s own logic, City will always need more land. It could buy eight whole blocks around Chadek’s and still not be as large as West or the new high school.

The opportunity to buy this property won’t last forever. How can the district ask the voters for millions to close Hoover when it is not pursuing this inexpensive, neighborhood-friendly way to expand City?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Imperfect storm

At last week’s school board work session, board chair Sally Hoelscher explained that there was no one big reason to close Hoover School, but rather a “perfect storm of multiple reasons.” But Hoelscher and the board majority cited only three such reasons: (1) Hoover needs a lot of renovation work, (2) City High “needs” the land, and (3) operational costs will be too high if an elementary school is not closed.

It is hard to see how these reasons, even taken together, justify closing Hoover. All of the older schools need a lot of renovation; that was one of the main reasons the voters passed the Revenue Purpose Statement in February. The estimated cost of renovating Hoover ($5.1 million) is comparable to what the district is spending to renovate several other schools. The renovations to Twain, for example, were estimated at $5.8 million; to Longfellow, $5 million; to Mann, $4.8 million; Shimek, Lucas, and Lincoln, $4.1 million each. (Those figures don’t include the cost of planned classroom additions.) And of course it is far cheaper to renovate Hoover than to tear it down and rebuild its capacity elsewhere, which will cost over ten million dollars.

As for City High’s “need” for the land, it has come down, at best, simply to the difference between keeping some outdoor athletic spaces—tennis courts and/or a softball field—on-site rather than off-site. (Or, at worst, to the desire for more parking for City.) And there are opportunities to keep those fields only two blocks from City, at a cost far lower than closing Hoover, but the district hasn’t even explored them. Michael Tilley discusses that trade-off more here.

What about operational cost? The pro-closure board members would have us believe that the operating cost of keeping our current schools open is unsustainable, that the number of schools that must be closed is exactly one, and that Hoover is the logical choice to close. But in fact, no operational cost argument can justify singling Hoover out for closure, since it is not a particularly small school. Its 304-seat capacity (according to the consultants) is significantly larger than that of Longfellow (258), Twain (252), Shimek (239), Mann (237), Hills (189), and Lincoln (187). Hoover will be larger than some of those schools even after those schools get their planned additions.

Moreover, no one has identified the operational cost of keeping Hoover, or any particular school, open. We’re told that the district puts the annual cost of operating one additional school at $500,000, but that’s not the question. The district seems determined not to recognize that if Hoover stays open, we don’t need to build as much new capacity elsewhere. So the cost of operating Hoover has to be offset by the cost of operating the new buildings constructed to house 304 kids. The plan is to expand Mann and Longfellow by roughly that amount. Won’t those additions have heating and air conditioning costs? Electricity costs? Water and sewage? Maintenance? An accurate cost calculation would also have to account for any increase in busing caused by the closure of Hoover. Since Hoover runs no gen-ed buses (except the one for SINA transfers), that number can move in only one direction. As it stands, the voters are being asked to spend over ten million dollars to close a school for the sake of saving a much smaller, unspecified amount in annual operating costs—and without any good reason to single out that particular school.

This is hardly a “perfect storm” that can justify closing an elementary school. Is there any reason to think the public has been persuaded by the board majority’s arguments?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My glass is half empty, so yours should be too

If you aren’t reading Michael Tilley’s blog, you’re missing some of the best commentary out there on the facilities plan and other local school issues. Today he disputes the argument that equity requires all three high schools to have equal athletic and parking facilities, even if there is no connection to benefiting the students who are least well off, and even if it comes at the cost of closing a neighborhood elementary school, and even if we have to make other high schools’ facilities worse to achieve it (as I saw argued today on Facebook).

Michael is right that equalization at any cost is “equity run amok.” Moreover, it never seems to occur to some of City High’s “supporters” that City might actually have some advantages over West High and over the future new high school, and that some of those advantages might be related to its physical surroundings. After all, thousands of people freely choose to live in the area around City—because they like it. I live right next to City, and I love the neighborhoods around it. I like that City is easily walkable for so many people. I like its proximity to downtown. I like that City has an elementary school right next door. I like that the junior high is easily walkable from City. I’m not bothered by the fact that a few of City’s athletic facilities are located near the junior high; I think that has benefits for the neighborhood, too.

This is nothing against the west side or the North Corridor. Different people choose different things. But I chose the east side because I like it. If I were at West, I’d be envious of some of the things City has. What I don’t get is why some of City’s supporters are determined to see every difference between the two as a badge of inferiority. Why are they so sure that the balance of advantages and disadvantages always tips in West’s favor? And how does that stance help City High?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Election activism turns out to be meaningful

When the Save Hoover group publicized which school board candidates supported keeping Hoover open, some people told us that we were being naive, that the candidates would just tell us what we wanted to hear and then forget about us after the election. We were especially warned not to trust the west-side candidates, Tuyet Dorau and Chris Lynch; west-siders would never pursue the Hoover issue once elected.

At tonight’s school board work session, two board members pushed for a discussion of the Hoover closure: Tuyet Dorau and Chris Lynch. Dorau said that the board should be concerned that the Hoover closure does not have community buy-in, especially since the district needs public support to pass the necessary bond. She said that the closure will cause families to flee the neighborhood. She recognized that the closure costs a lot of money that could be used for better purposes. Lynch said that the community has made it clear that the board’s rationale for the closure isn’t sufficient. He said that the board should be more concerned with building community buy-in for the bond vote. He suggested putting the closure on hold and moving forward with the rest of the plan.

Brian Kirschling, the third candidate elected this year, was sympathetic to concerns about the process that led to the closure. He told me after the meeting that aspects of the closure did not meet his criteria for acceptable school closures. But he said that he did not think that the December 10 meeting was the right occasion to reconsider the closure, since the issue at that meeting is whether to adopt the phasing plan, not whether to change the master plan itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that Lynch and Dorau are in complete agreement with the Save Hoover group, and I’m not commenting at all on their approach to other issues. And I’m not writing off the possibility that Kirschling could vote to keep Hoover open at some point in the future. All I’m saying is that the new board members acted exactly as you might have predicted from their statements during the campaign. When voters succeed in getting candidates to take positions on specific issues, those statements mean something. Candidates are unlikely to casually toss them aside at the first opportunity, and couldn’t do so without paying a price.

The work session made it clear that a majority of the board—Marla Swesey, Sally Hoelscher, Jeff McGinness, and Patti Fields—is unwilling to reverse the decision to close Hoover. Those board members are the four whose seats come up for election two years from now. Given the outcome of this recent board election, I’m very encouraged about the prospects for change in the next one. Let the 2015 campaign begin!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How to trivialize equity

“No building left behind” should be our school district’s policy, according to Jean Jordison’s guest opinion in yesterday’s Press-Citizen. Jordison argues that the district should not build new schools without simultaneously bringing older buildings up to the standard of the new ones. “I find it hard to accept any plan that puts an older facility ‘on hold,’” she writes.

Nowhere does the essay mention that Jordison herself has been a prominent advocate for closing Hoover Elementary.

Her failure to mention that fact, or to mention Hoover anywhere in the article, parallels the approach of most of the school board. At last week’s board meeting, speaker after speaker objected to closing Hoover, but when the board deliberated, it was as if none of those speakers even existed. Five of the seven board members did not even utter the word “Hoover.” When Tuyet Dorau said that the board members need to be honest with themselves and the public about their reason for closing Hoover, no board member responded. (At another point, Chris Lynch did mention that he had concerns about Hoover; maybe he will raise them when the discussion continues at the next meeting.)

The board members did start to discuss the challenge of getting the public to approve a $120 million bond, however. Message to the public: “We won’t respond at all to your concerns and your arguments, but we do want your money.” Not a great slogan for a bond campaign.

I believe that Jordison and the board members are so silent on the topic of Hoover because they know that the arguments for the closure are unconvincing. Worse, the closure trivializes the concern for equity that both Jordison and the board have made their top priority. The superintendent has made clear that the Hoover property will be used, at best, to relocate athletic fields displaced by the City High addition. The only equity goal achieved by the closure is to ensure that City students won’t have to walk farther to their softball field or tennis courts than students at the other high schools do. For this, the board wants to close an elementary school and spend over ten million dollars to rebuild its capacity elsewhere. (I wonder if even this tennis court cost ten million dollars.)

Our district has some genuine disparities among its schools that shout out to be addressed—for example, the concentration of kids from low-income families into just a few elementary attendance areas. It’s going to be hard enough to get the public to address those concerns, through both approval of a bond and acceptance of a redistricting plan. Jordison and the board members just make that task harder, and undermine their own credibility on the issue, by associating those real concerns with “distance-to-tennis-courts equity.” No wonder they don’t want to talk about it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why pick this battle?

There are now 635 signatures on the petition to keep Hoover and all the schools open. The petition not to use Hoover as a swing school, which was circulated primarily to current Hoover parents, has 285 signatures. Those petitions started only two weeks ago, and new signatures continue to come in on both. (You can sign them here and here.)

In the world of local school governance, six hundred people is a lot of people. The Revenue Purpose Statement, for example, passed by only 733 votes this past February. I remain mystified why the school board would pick this particular battle. There is so much they hope to accomplish over the next ten years—not only on facilities, but also on redistricting and pursuing the diversity goals—and they can’t possibly do it without public support. Ignoring public sentiment about school closings will just make their other, far more important goals harder to achieve.

Some board members have expressed a sense of urgency about finally “doing something.” But if they really want to make changes, shouldn’t they want those changes to be sustainable? If they “do something” without any regard to public buy-in, only to find their changes undone by the voters in future elections, they will have accomplished nothing but wasting several years. If they want lasting change, how many hundreds of people can they afford to alienate?

Reminder: Closing Hoover costs over ten million dollars

One of the district’s main goals, in its facilities planning process, was to address overcrowding in its schools, many of which (including Hoover) currently have so many kids that they need temporary classrooms. Yet the school board ultimately decided to make closing Hoover part of its plan. Closing a school, of course, makes it harder to address overcrowding. Because it is closing Hoover, the board needs to build that much more capacity elsewhere. Its plan, for example, builds additions at Longfellow and Mann elementaries that together cost almost $16 million – over and above the cost of the renovations and air conditioning that everyone agrees those schools should get. Even if you discount the $3.5 million that it would cost to renovate Hoover if it were kept open, the closure is costing roughly $12 million—while adding no new capacity at all.

That twelve million dollars could be spent on real needs—for example, on projects that actually add elementary capacity. (Or it could be saved entirely.)

It costs twelve million dollars, it adds no capacity, it will delay and endanger other projects in the plan, it hurts the surrounding neighborhood, it violates the expectations raised by the Revenue Purpose Statement vote and the clear public preferences expressed at the community workshops, it makes it harder to pass the necessary bond, and it closes a school that is ideally located to meet the district’s diversity goals without running a single bus. Why does anyone think this closure is a good idea?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Will the school board vote to move forward with the Hoover closure?

At its meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) night, the school board will discuss—and possibly vote on—the superintendent’s proposed time line for the district’s facilities plan. The proposal would close Hoover Elementary as of 2019. If the board approves the plan, it would be taking one more step toward making the closure a reality (though it would still be years off and could change).

The proposed time line was made public four days ago. There was a school board “listening post” on the issue tonight, but only one board member (Tuyet Dorau) was there to listen. I was surprised to hear that the board might vote on the plan at tomorrow’s meeting; given the scale of the plan, the number of issues involved, and the fact that the plan depends on public approval of a $120 million bond, I’d expect the board members to give the plan a particularly careful vetting and to make more of an effort to ensure public buy-in. But they might; we’ll see.

If the board does vote on the proposal, tomorrow could be the most important night for Hoover until the 2015 board election, and of course a very important night for many other issues as well. If you’re local and feel strongly about the plan, come to the meeting and speak up. Please also consider signing the petition to ask the board to keep all our schools open, and the separate petition to ask the board to reconsider using Hoover as a transitional space (“swing school”) for other schools when they are being renovated.

The meeting is at 6:00, Tuesday, November 12, at the Educational Services Center, 1725 North Dodge Street, Iowa City.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Two petitions on the facilities plan

The Save Hoover group has started two petitions about the facilities plan. The first asks the board to keep all our schools, including Hoover, open. The second asks the board to reconsider using Hoover as the transitional space (“swing school”) for other schools when they are being renovated. You can read and sign them by following those links.

The superintendent is now saying that he will present an amended version of the plan that does not use Hoover as a swing school and that returns to the board’s original plan of closing Hoover no earlier than 2017-18. That’s a big improvement over the superintendent’s initial proposal (which I described here), and a nice demonstration of the fact that policies can change if enough people speak up about them. But the superintendent says that the amended plan is a work in progress that could change; I wonder how many more “amended versions” we will see. The more people who sign the petitions or contact the school board about the issue, the more likely the district will reconsider the proposal.

A quick recap of some of the reasons to sign the petitions is available here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Superintendent’s proposal would unfairly burden Hoover kids

This is a letter I emailed to the school board today.

Dear Board Members,

The superintendent’s facilities and redistricting time lines are a lot of information, and it will take a while to process it all, but I wanted to raise some immediate concerns about the treatment of Hoover kids under his proposal.

1. The proposal would close Hoover before there is any available space to put Hoover’s kids. Although Hoover’s attendance area will be eliminated at the end of 2015-16, the redistricting time line does not indicate which schools will be redistricted to take in Hoover’s students. It states that Hoover is the only school being rezoned in 2016 – but the Hoover kids have to go somewhere.

The most likely candidates – Longfellow, Lemme, Lucas, and Mann – will not have the capacity to accommodate Hoover’s kids. Mann is projected to be 18% overcrowded, and Lucas to be 24% overcrowded, at that time. Longfellow and Lemme will have lost some students to the new southeast elementary school, but will still be unable to accommodate 350 students from Hoover without being significantly over capacity.

2. The proposal would use Hoover as a swing school for school populations that are much larger than Hoover’s capacity. Hoover’s capacity is 304, but Lucas is projected to have 471 students when it uses Hoover in 2016, and will have even more if it has absorbed some of Hoover’s enrollment. Longfellow will also have way more than 304 students when it would be using Hoover as a swing school in 2017, since it will presumably have absorbed much of Hoover.

The enrollments at Shimek, Lincoln, and Mann are small enough to fit into Hoover’s space – but they are also small enough that two of them could fit simultaneously into the new 500-student elementary school (if they could be renovated simultaneously). The initial plan to use the new elementary as a swing school makes more sense than using Hoover.

3. Under the proposal, Hoover families would have to go through redistricting three times in five years – first when the school closes in 2016, then when east side schools are redistricted again in 2018, then when they are redistricted again in 2020.

4. In sum, the proposal takes Hoover kids, moves them to schools that are even more overcrowded, then, in many cases, moves them back into an overcrowded Hoover as a swing school, then makes them go through redistricting again not once, but twice.

The difficulty of closing Hoover during a time of overcrowding is one of many reasons the board should reconsider the closure. The closure is bad for the ICCSD, which needs Hoover’s capacity, and the proposed treatment of Hoover’s kids afterward just compounds the injury.

Thanks for your consideration..

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Update on the facilities time line

The superintendent presented his proposed time line for the projects in the facilities master plan tonight. Until it is approved by the board, it remains just a proposal. The board is scheduled to consider and possibly vote on the plan at its November 12 meeting.

The full presentation is here. There is much more in the plan than I can possibly absorb tonight, but here are a few quick thoughts.

1. The superintendent proposed that Hoover’s attendance area be eliminated as of the fall of 2016 – a year sooner than the board had permitted. As far as I could tell, this was the only aspect of his entire proposal that departed from what the board approved in July (other than an inadvertent omission of an elementary school addition). Hoover would then be used for five years as a “swing school” to accommodate students from elsewhere whose schools were being renovated. Then, after the 2020-21 year, it would be torn down.

2. Under the superintendent’s proposal, the district would ask voters to approve a $119 million bond in 2017 – as I understand it, all at once. This means Hoover’s attendance area would already have been eliminated before we know whether voters will approve the bond that will fund the new capacity. As a strategy for preventing the Hoover closure from being an issue in the bond vote, this is understandable (though cynical). But if the bond is not approved, the district may not be able to build the capacity it is counting on to make up for the loss of Hoover, and may wish that it had kept Hoover open. This is a good reason to put off the closure until after the bond vote, rather than accelerate it.

3. The superintendent’s proposal eliminates Hoover’s attendance area as of 2016, but does not redraw any other school’s attendance areas at that time. How is that possible? The Hoover kids won’t just disappear.

4. The board’s initial plan was to use the newly built elementary school as the swing school, rather than Hoover. The superintendent proposed to use Hoover instead, since it is closer in size to the schools that need to be “swung.” I don’t understand that: under the plan, Longfellow and Mann will both be over 400 students; Lucas will hold 381, and Shimek will hold 339. The district claims that Hoover has a capacity of 304. How is it a suitable swing school for those schools?

If the answer is that those schools won’t be resized until after their stay at the swing school, why not, and how is that possible? Again, the 350+ Hoover kids will have to go somewhere, and will almost certainly be going to some of those schools, pushing up the number of kids who would then have to use the swing school.

5. How many times will Hoover kids be redistricted? Under this proposal, the first time would be in 2016. Just two years later, the schools where they will probably end up – Longfellow, Lemme, Mann, and Lucas, as well as Shimek – will be redistricted again. Two years after that, those same schools will be redistricted again! On top of that, some Hoover kids will have to move in and out of a swing school during that time. Under this proposal, woe to the kindergartner who starts Hoover next year.

6. The City High addition – which we were told repeatedly couldn’t happen without the closure of Hoover – would begin construction in 2015 and be completed by 2021. In other words, the entire addition would be built while Hoover is still up and running as a swing school. The superintendent said that this would be very uncomfortable until City could finally get the Hoover property – but when asked how the Hoover property would be used as a result of the addition, he said he didn’t know. The continued evasion on that question becomes more and more glaring as the rest of the plan is fleshed out in such fine detail.

7. We’re told, for the first time, that Hoover’s use as a swing school will cost $6.5 million – a number not included in the master plan.

8. The superintendent said that the Mann addition was scheduled relatively late to give the district more time to negotiate with the city over possibly expanding Mann’s (very small) lot. I assume this would mean taking some of North Market Park for the school. This strikes me as a potentially controversial proposal: what if it there’s no deal? By that time, the superintendent’s plan would already have closed Hoover; if Mann can’t be expanded, we’ll be short of capacity again.

9. My main reaction is that it would make more sense to find out whether the public will approve the necessary bonds for new capacity before discontinuing a school, and before starting any large projects that will need bonds to be completed; otherwise the district is counting its chickens before they’re hatched. It’s also just dismissive of the public to wait until the plan has already been half-executed before asking for approval of the bonds. Rather than risk trying to convince the public that the plan is a good one, the superintendent wants to wait until the public is over a barrel, with projects half-completed, and then ask for the money. Disappointing, though not surprising.

Not much time to blog for a week or two, but I’m looking forward to others’ commentary on the plan – will try to post links in the comments here.

Anticipating the facilities time line

At tonight’s school board work session, the superintendent will reveal his proposed time line for projects in the facilities master plan. I’m very curious to see how he balances all the competing goals, and especially to see how he handles the planned closure of Hoover Elementary.

Under the master plan, Hoover can’t close before 2017-18. But it’s hard to see how it could close even that soon. The district has projected that the east side will be about 600 kids overcrowded by 2017-18 unless new capacity is built. If Hoover were to close that year, that number would rise to about 900. If Longfellow or Mann is out of operation for a year (as planned) due to renovations, that number would rise to about 1150. Will the district really have 900 or 1150 new elementary seats up and running – on the east side alone – within four years? If not, closing Hoover would only worsen the overcrowding problem.

And of course there are many other projects in the plan competing for priority in the time line. Some of the most immediate need for new capacity is in the North Corridor, to alleviate existing overcrowding at Penn. The plan also contains improvements (air conditioning!) at existing schools, and improvements and new capacity at the junior high and high school levels, including a new high school. Unless we’re about to enter into an unprecedented frenzy of construction and renovation, it’s hard to see how the district could have 900 or 1150 new elementary seats on the east side within four years. And why should it, when Hoover is available and can house at least three hundred students?

But, from this school district, one expects the unexpected. We’ll see . . .

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Require bonds for the new capacity, not the improvements

Next week, the superintendent will propose a time line for the projects in the facilities master plan. I’m certainly curious to see which projects he will recommend to go first, and which will have to wait. But what I’m really curious to know (and I don’t know if we’ll find this out next week) is which projects will require new bonds.

By all accounts, the district is about $100 million short of what it would need to fund its entire long-term facilities plan. As a result, many of the projects will require bonds. Those bonds will need to get 60% approval at the polls – never a sure bet, as the proponents of the county justice center can attest.

I hope the district will state its criteria for deciding which projects will proceed with existing funds and which can’t happen without bonds. It’s a complex issue, but in my view, basic improvements to existing buildings – such as air conditioning, overdue maintenance, accessibility renovations, and the construction of gyms/cafeterias/multipurpose rooms – should not require bond votes. It makes more sense to require bonds for some of the new capacity construction, especially to the extent that those projects are controversial and particularly expensive.

By my (very rough) calculations, the district plans to spend about $104 million on improvements, and about $148 million on building new capacity. Some of the new capacity is urgently needed; it might make sense, for example, to go ahead with building the addition at Penn and a new east side elementary without first seeking a bond vote. But the capacity projects that are more expensive, more controversial, and less immediately necessary should be the ones that are subject to bonding.

As for the time line, I’d take the same approach: The improvements are needed now, and in many cases are years overdue. Much of the new capacity is not.

I can’t deny that my criteria would help the case for keeping Hoover open. Hoover can’t close until there’s enough new capacity to relieve overcrowding and absorb the almost four hundred kids from Hoover. If any of the bonds for new elementary capacity get voted down, Hoover will have a new lease on life. But there’s good reason the closure should hinge on bond votes: it’s an expensive luxury compared to the urgently needed projects in the plan. In any event, their effect on Hoover aside, I can’t think of any fairer set of criteria.

The board members have some hard choices to make – partly because previous boards avoided making them – and I don’t envy them. As I understand it, even the improvements alone would have to be spread out over time, because the money is not available all at once. There’s no perfect answer. I’d love to know other people’s thoughts about how the time line should proceed and which projects should need bonds. Post a comment!

Don’t fence me in

The fence posts in the picture above appeared suddenly a week or so ago, surprising the Hoover School staff and students. Apparently the district is determined to fence in the last remaining opening to Hoover’s grounds, as part of its “safety and security enhancements.”

Never mind that sixty years have gone by during which the district never thought we needed a fence there. Never mind that the plan is to leave the gates unlocked at all times, which would seem to defeat much of the purpose. Never mind whether the Hoover community wants the fence. (No one asked.)

The hill on the east side of the fence has been the local sledding hill for as long as anyone can remember. The fence will make it hard to sled on much of the hill. The principal has asked the district if anything can be done to preserve the sledding; word has it that the district might move the fence back a bit. Of course, if the school closes as planned, the sledding hill may be history anyway, especially if the land is used as a parking lot.

“It looks like a prison,” one kid said after last year’s new fence went up. Yes, it does.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Divisive plan is divisive

This is an email I sent to the board tonight in response to the email sent by a parent from the Mann attendance area that I wrote about here.

Dear Directors and Superintendent Murley,

I was forwarded a copy of the email [a district parent] recently sent to the board. I am the person who said that I had yet to hear of anyone in the Mann neighborhood who wanted to dramatically increase the number of kids the school would hold, and now I can no longer say that. But although [that parent] asserts that many others agree with her, neither I nor the district has any way to know whether her opinions are representative of people in that neighborhood and attendance area. I wonder whether the district has any plan to assess how Mann’s families and neighbors feel about enlarging that building to hold 76% more kids.

I notice that [the parent] is a teacher at City High. I want all of our teachers to be able to speak their minds freely on school issues. I do wonder, though, if teachers who don’t agree with the closure of Hoover would feel as comfortable expressing their opinions openly. From what I hear about the teachers at Hoover, the answer is no. I wish that were not the case.

In her email, [the parent] wrote that “it is imperative for individuals not to attack other schools.” I’m puzzled by that comment. If a Hoover parent argues that we should keep all the schools open and cut back on additions, that’s an attack, but if Mann or City High parents argue that Hoover should be closed so their schools can have new additions, that’s not? I think it’s a better idea not to see substantive arguments about the merits of the long-term plan as attacks on anyone.

In any event, if families at different schools feel that they have been pitted against each other, it is because of the board’s choices. The board had the option of keeping its existing schools open and planning its new construction accordingly. That was the option that the public supported at the community workshops. Instead, it has divided the district against itself at a time when it’s about to embark on even more controversial decisions. I believe that an approach that is more responsive to public input would better serve the district.

My letter in reply to [the parent] is here.

Thanks for your consideration.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Should Hoover be closed so Mann and Longfellow can become dramatically larger?

Today I heard via email of a parent at Mann School who supports the proposal to increase the capacity of that school by 76%, so I can no longer make the statement I made last night that I have yet to hear of people in the Mann community who support the addition. I continue to question how widespread that sentiment is, though, especially if people know that the additions are coming at the expense of closing a school elsewhere. This particular Mann parent had written to the school board last night to express her disagreement with me, stating that “it is imperative that individuals not attack other schools.” That prompted this response from me:

I’m the person who spoke at the meeting last night and said that I haven’t heard families from the Mann and Longfellow neighborhoods and attendance areas say that they wanted to dramatically increase the number of kids at those schools (as opposed to just getting needed renovations like air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms).

I appreciate hearing about someone in Mann’s attendance area who wants the addition. But I wanted to get in touch with you just to say that I do not think that I am “attacking” Mann or Longfellow by questioning the additions and by questioning whether they have the support of those communities.

The only reason those additions are necessary is that the district is closing someone else’s neighborhood school. When Mann was in danger of being closed, I saw Mann parents speaking at board meetings about the importance of preserving existing schools and the neighborhoods they serve. I agreed with those parents, and I was (and still am) against closing Mann or any of the district’s existing schools. I’m also completely in favor of making the improvements at those schools that were part of Scenario 1c, such as adding air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms.

But by closing Hoover and adding almost the same number of seats to Longfellow and Mann, the district is essentially consolidating three schools into two big schools. I don’t see how it helps the kids at Mann to bring 180 more kids in, or how it makes it a better school, or how it benefits those schools’ neighbors. As I see it, it is simply a plan to close a school and move toward having fewer, larger, farther-away-on-average elementary schools. I don’t think there is majority public support for that approach. The scenarios that included those additions (which were always accompanied by school closings) were not popular at the community workshops. In any event, by questioning that idea – because I want to keep all our existing schools open – I certainly don’t mean to “attack” either of those schools.

I’d be very interested to talk with you or anyone at Mann or Longfellow about the long-term plan. I think the school board should make a real effort to survey those communities to see how they feel about adding so many more kids to those schools. If it’s true that those communities support the additions, that would be important to know. I might even be persuaded that those particular expansions make sense. But I hope you’ll understand that, to a Hoover family, it’s hard to see how those additions (as opposed to just the necessary improvements) aren’t just the district’s way of closing Hoover School.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Frequently unanswered question

The district has posted its responses to frequently asked questions about the Hoover closure. There’s a glaring omission from the list: What will the district do with the property?

Remember, the district’s long-term plan allocates millions of dollars to replace Hoover’s capacity elsewhere, including on two very questionable proposals to super-size Mann and Longfellow schools. Yet nothing in the plan (or in the FAQ) answers the most basic questions about what the Hoover property will be used for, or what that use will cost.

How can you make a “long-term plan” for a piece of property without having any idea what you will do with that property, what you will spend doing it, or what benefit you will get from it?

The FAQ repeatedly asserts that the property will be “needed” for the expansion of City High. So how? How can it be a “need” if no one can articulate what City will use it for?

What’s the big secret?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Our “grassroots” educational system

When I’m lucky, my readers write my posts for me. From a reader email:
From an article in The Gazette about Saturday detention:

“I am in favor of supporting what the principals need for their buildings,” said Ann Feldmann, assistant superintendent for the Iowa City schools. “What we don’t want to do is create a program and force it upon our buildings. It has to be a grassroots sort of program.”

Too bad they don’t feel that way about PBIS.
Good point. My kids’ education has been an uninterrupted story of programs foisted on their school from above. Moreover, “grassroots” can’t just mean high-level administrators deferring to lower-level administrators in a system that’s almost entirely insulated from what the community itself wants. Who are the real grass roots?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Welcome, parents!

Our district is about to implement the Raptor Visitor Management System in all its schools. The system, which cost the district $40,000, is designed to enable schools to “keep unwanted visitors out and track those they allow in.” If you want to go into a school, you’ll have to present a government-issued photo ID. The staff will then use the Raptor system to run a background check on you. If you pass the background check, you’ll be issued a badge with your name, photo, and destination on it. If you’re a “potential threat,” though, “the Raptor system sends instant alerts to designated officials, including administrators and law enforcement, via email, text messaging and/or page.”

The Raptor system is part of our district’s many recent “safety” upgrades. I wish I understood how it will make my kids’ schools safer. I can see how it will deter convicted sex offenders from checking in at the front desk, but I don’t see how it will accomplish much else. My guess is that it will be widely ignored, like the current sign-in and sign-out procedure. If not, waiting in a long line of parents undergoing background checks will certainly change the experience of attending school concerts, book fairs, and holiday parties.

A reader writes:
For some parents of our most vulnerable and marginalized children, this seems like it would be a massive disincentive for the kind of parental involvement that could make their school a more welcoming place. If I’m an illegal immigrant, for example, will I be joining my child for lunch, or coming to their school play, if I have to scan a gov’t issued ID? What if I’m a convicted felon (I’m not, by the way!), and don’t want to go through the shame of having the school secretary, and my child’s teacher, know that fact?
The company advertises that the system can “screen for individuals with restraining orders, custody issues, suspended or expelled students, known gang members, or for any custom alert,” though the district tells me it will be used to screen only for sex offenders. Nonetheless, I agree with this reader that Raptor can only be a deterrent to parental involvement. Judging from the company’s website, that’s practically the system’s goal, since all outsiders are potential threats. From one post on the site:
From front door vestibules to visitor management, any adult trying to enter that school would have no doubt that they are being watched and deterred from doing harm on campus. Delays are key, according to security consultant Paul Timm. . . .

Visitor Management is simple and costs a few hundred dollars. It’s a security measure that most kids never notice, but adults will find invasive. And let me tell you- if you’re attempting to get near my kids while they are sitting in a classroom or cafeteria, you had better count on being stopped, watched and recorded every step of the way.
Why are the most authoritarian social trends so quick to find expression in the school system? All security measures are worth whatever they cost and whatever must be sacrificed, regardless of whether they are likely to be effective, because otherwise DANGER! I’d offer to sell the district some magic amulets to ward off evil spirits, but I guess that wouldn’t be very Twenty-First Century of me.

Related post here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Closing Hoover will delay and endanger other facilities projects

Closing Hoover Elementary will delay other needed projects in the district’s long-term plan, and may prevent some of them from happening at all, for two reasons.

First, it’s very expensive. If you tear down over three hundred seats of capacity while enrollment is growing, you have to rebuild them elsewhere. At the same time the district is planning to tear down Hoover, it’s planning to spend over fifteen million dollars to add roughly the same number of seats to Mann and Longfellow. If Hoover stays open, that’s fifteen million dollars that could go toward other projects, improving other schools. (Granted, some of it may have to go toward improving Hoover – but at most a third of it, and many of those improvements are supposed to occur even if Hoover eventually closes.)

Keep in mind that the district does not have enough money to do all the projects in its plan. It would have to get voter approval for about $100 million in bonds to do them all. Moreover, school boards come and go, and plans can change. Any project that gets put off may never happen at all.

Second, by tying the Mann and Longfellow improvements (such as air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms) to large capacity additions, the plan almost guarantees that those schools will have to wait much longer for the improvements. This is partly because the price tag is so much higher; the district can afford only so many big-ticket items, and can’t do all of them at once. But it’s also because the capacity additions can’t happen until there is a place to put the kids during the year that it takes to do the renovations. We’re already overcrowded, so there won’t be any place to put those kids until a lot more additional capacity is up and running elsewhere.

Without the capacity additions, Mann and Longfellow could have their air conditioning relatively soon. With them, they’ll have to wait for years, and they’ll have to wonder if the money and political support will still be there when their turn arrives – all so they can make their school populations dramatically larger, which is not something I’ve heard any families from those schools clamoring for. And other schools may have to wait longer for improvements, too, because the Hoover closure will be crowding out the funding.

Prioritizing the projects in the plan is going to be a hard, controversial process. Closing Hoover just makes it that much harder.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Neighborhood’s dilemma

I’ve now posted twice to question the proposed additions to Mann and Longfellow schools. I want to reiterate that I’m not trying to pit Hoover against Mann and Longfellow, or to deprive Mann and Longfellow of the renovations – such as air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms – that I completely agree they ought to receive. Just the opposite: I’m objecting to the way the school board’s plan pits those schools (not to mention Shimek, Lincoln, and Hills) against one another.

The plan, in effect, coerces Mann and Longfellow families into accepting dramatic increases in the number of kids at their schools, out of fear that otherwise it will be their school that gets closed.

There is no reason any schools should be put to that choice. Ours is a thriving, growing district. The board can afford to keep its existing schools open and full, especially if it builds only as much new capacity as it needs. It should not force a fewer/bigger/farther-away elementary school model on a public that doesn’t want it. The board should be the community’s advocate, not its adversary. To quote Phil Hemingway at the Hills candidate forum (again): “District actions can fill or empty any school. The board should stop this constant threat.”

An addition is not always an improvement

As our school board makes decisions about how to proceed with its facilities plan, I hope it will recognize the difference between improvements and capacity additions.

By “improvement,” I mean installing air conditioning, doing overdue maintenance, building multi-purpose rooms in schools that need more common space, and upgrading for accessibility. By “capacity additions,” I mean building or expanding classrooms so a school can hold more students.

Improvements are, on their face, improvements. Some might be more urgent than others, but they all indisputably make the buildings better. Adding capacity to a school, though, does not necessarily make it better. A capacity addition needs a justification other than “bigger is better.” Many people, in fact, prefer to have their elementary-age kids in smaller institutions, where the adults are more likely to know each kid.

I’m not saying additions are never a good idea, just that they need a reason. For example, if the board wants to make Twain Elementary into a magnet school that would draw students from other parts of town, it might make sense to add capacity there.

But what, for example, is the rationale for adding capacity to Mann and Longfellow schools? How do those proposed additions make those schools better? Even though Mann has a particularly small lot and borrows a nearby park for a field, the board’s plan is to expand the building to hold 76% more kids. Is that an improvement? Do the current Mann families and neighbors even want that? (See this post.)

Of course, some capacity has to be built somewhere as enrollment increases. But that, standing alone, can’t justify additions to Mann and Longfellow, because the plan is simultaneously subtracting almost the same number of seats by closing Hoover. The additions aren’t increasing capacity; in effect, they’re just consolidating three schools into two big ones. The only apparent justification is the cost savings of a shift toward having fewer, bigger, farther-away elementary schools. Whether the benefits of that shift outweigh the costs is a value judgment. Isn’t that exactly the shift that people rejected, by an almost two-to-one margin, at the community workshops?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Update on Save Hoover

Now that the school board election is over, where does the Save Hoover effort stand?

The short answer is: full speed ahead. It would have been great to elect our chosen candidates, but, from the perspective of revisiting the Hoover decision, there are a lot of positive signs coming out of the election. First, the mere fact that six of the nine candidates supported keeping Hoover open is a good sign, and is evidence that nobody really thinks that the public is on board for closing a school on such a flimsy rationale. Two of those six, Tuyet Dorau and Chris Lynch, were the top vote-getters in the election. Moreover, there are signs that two of the remaining three candidates – including Brian Kirschling, who was elected – may be having second thoughts about the closure. The one incumbent candidate who voted for the closure, Karla Cook, came in fifth place and was defeated, only two years after winning by a large margin. All of that has to play a role in the new board’s assessment of whether the public supports the closure.

As the board moves forward on facilities issues, it will be forced to make decisions in which the potential closure plays a role. Every time that happens, we’ll be there to remind them why it makes sense not to close Hoover. In particular, the board will soon have to confront the fact that it has only so much money to work with, and that it has to prioritize the projects in the long-term plan. In that context, I think it will become clear that closing Hoover (and rebuilding that capacity elsewhere) is at best a very expensive luxury. Will the board really choose to spend ten to fifteen million dollars on that project, at the expense of other projects in the plan?

I’m hopeful that if we keep making good arguments and reminding the board of public opposition to the closure, we can get the board to reverse the decision. But we have to think of it as a continuing project and keep advocating as strongly as we can.

I can’t thank people enough for all the support they’ve given and continue to give to the Save Hoover effort. If you’d like to be on the Save Hoover contact list, please email SaveHooverIC [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com. I’m hoping people will be willing to keep the Save Hoover yard signs up, though I understand that not everyone wants a sign in their yard forever. If you’ve lost your sign and would like another, let us know. If you’re ready to take yours down and are willing to donate it back to the cause, please let us know that, too.

I’ve also added a “Follow by E-mail” link in the sidebar to the Save Hoover website; if you fill it out, you’ll get notices by email of new posts to that site. (I have one on this site, too. I’ve subscribed to other blogspot sites this way and it has not caused me to receive any unwanted spam.)

One more project: A lot of people have written to me to say why they support keeping Hoover open, and many have forwarded me the letters that they’ve written to the school board. I would like to collect letters like that and post them on the Save Hoover site. If you’d like to add to that collection, please send your letter to the email address above.

Thanks again!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Live-blogging the election results

Consider this your source for nerdy commentary on the school board election returns as they come in tonight. Last time around, the numbers came in so fast that I could barely keep up with them; maybe the high turnout will slow things down a bit this time. You can see the results faster here, but then you’d miss all the commentary!

I’ll be posting updates (below) about individual precinct results when I find the time. The precinct map is here; you can compare it with the elementary school attendance area map here.

The top three candidates will be elected. The final results are:

Candidate Votes Percentage*

3738 43%

3121 36%

3041 35%
Hemingway 2936 34%
Cook 2671 31%
Barron 2563 29%
Lewis 2392 27%
Geerdes 2019 23%
Tate 659 8%

*The third column won’t add up to 100% because every voter can cast up to three votes.

Kirschling on Hoover

Over the past few days, a handful of people have criticized this blog and the Save Hoover group for suggesting that school board Brian Kirschling is in favor of closing Hoover School. Notably, this group does not include Brian Kirschling, who at any time could have left a comment disputing that characterization.

So, just as a reminder, here is how we reached the outlandish conclusion that Kirschling supports closing Hoover. In late July, I asked him “If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any elementary schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?” His response:
The short, honest answer to this question is yes.
He then said that “looking ahead,” he would apply a set of seven criteria to any school closure. He never said he would apply them to schools that the board had already decided to close.

Three weeks ago, the North Corridor Parents group asked him, “Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?” His response:
This decision has been made, and I was not on the board. I question whether it is good practice to overturn decisions of past boards.
He then said that “looking ahead,” he would apply his seven criteria to any school closure. He never said he would apply them to schools that the board had already decided to close.

On August 25, he spoke at the meeting of board candidates with Hoover parents. He said:
I was not part of making the decision, but the decision has been made.

I think that one of the ways we can restore trust, because it’s sorely lacking, is to actually work to follow through on a plan that has been passed and to take the opportunity to move forward and commit to the future of our district.
He again talked about his seven criteria, and again did not say that he would apply them to schools the board had already voted to close.

Ten days ago, the Save Hoover group recommended voting for Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, and Sara Barron as the best way to maximize the chance of keeping Hoover open. Based on the statements above, its endorsement stated that “Candidates Karla Cook, Brian Kirschling, and Jason Lewis all favor closing Hoover.” It distributed its recommendation widely, including at board candidate forums. Never once did Brian Kirschling dispute the group’s statement about him, as he easily could have done.

For what it’s worth, Kirschling is supported financially by many of the same people supporting Karla Cook, who voted to close Hoover as a board member, several of whom have vocally favored closing Hoover.

Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Polling place information

Polls are open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday, September 10).

This is a good time to check on your polling place. Polling places for some people have changed this year. You can find yours here; be sure to go to your “school precinct,” not your “regular precinct.” If you live in the Hoover attendance area, you can also find your polling place using this map (click to enlarge):

UPDATE: As commenter S Marie points out, people who vote at City High will have to go to the auditorium this year, not the space between the gyms as they have done in the past. Also, many people who have voted at City High in years past now vote at Mercer Park (see the map above).

Why I’m voting for Phil Hemingway

I’m voting for Phil Hemingway because not voting for Phil Hemingway was one of the mistakes I made in the last board election. Instead, I voted for candidates who seemed more amicable and politic, who Played Well With Others. What I’ve learned in two years is that people who appear to play well with others are quite capable of producing terrible policy. In fact, I think they’re even more capable of it, since “team players” are often the people least likely to ask the uncomfortable questions that sometimes need to be asked. Our current board is great at policing the “respectfulness” of members of the public (such as Hemingway) who speak at the public comment periods, and the board majority is a tremendously collegial team. As a result, they passed a long-term facilities plan that closed an elementary school in the face of clear public opposition, that allocated a hundred million dollars more than the district has access to, that probably will result in overbuilding and possibly further school closures, and that alienated a big chunk of the public whose votes would be needed to pass the bonds the plan depends on. Playing well with others is overrated.

If Hemingway had gotten ninety more votes last time, it would have been him, rather than Patti Fields, deliberating on the facilities plan, and I believe we would have seen a different, better result – even if a few people might have had their sensitivities offended by that blue-collar-ish guy who uses colorful language at board meetings. The “respectful” atmosphere that the current board has cultivated has served only to shield it from the disaffection and anger that people feel toward the board and the district. Even the alarmingly low approval rate of the Revenue Purpose Statement – 56%, less than what it would take to pass a bond – didn’t stop the board from further alienating the public by proposing a school closure that was never mentioned during the RPS campaign and that was opposed in all the public input that the board gathered. What does it take to pierce this bubble?

So yes, I’m no longer interested in electing candidates whose strength is that they seem diplomatic and collegial. I want board members who will scrutinize the information they receive, ask challenging questions, and break up the groupthink. I want board members who will push back against the administration. I want board members who can see beyond the small group that happens to have their ear. I want board members who think that fifteen million dollars is actually a lot of money. I want board members who value, and not just tolerate, public input.

Hemingway has now spent years as a board watchdog, and has accomplished as much in that role as some people have as board members. Yes, he will give people a hard time when he thinks he needs to. Sometimes he’ll be wrong, and sometimes he’ll get outvoted. A person like that is much more valuable than another nodding head. In the end, vigorous dissent and disagreement result in better policy, even if it gets a little hot in the kitchen.

It’s time to put this guy on the board.

Why I’m voting for Gregg Geerdes

I’m voting for Gregg Geerdes for the simple reason that so much of what he says makes sense to me. He says, for example, that the board should have based its long-term facilities plan on the money it actually has access to, rather than an additional hundred million dollars that it can get only through bond approvals. He says that the district should not have asked the voters to approve the Revenue Purpose Statement (RPS) before developing its long-term plan (he’s right; I was wrong), and that having done so, it should not have approved a plan that included school closures that were never discussed during the RPS campaign. He says that the district should prioritize its funding needs in light of its limited money, and that tearing down a school while enrollment is expanding, only to rebuild that capacity at great cost elsewhere, is a luxury we can’t afford. He says that the district should start building the new high school and one east-side elementary school (near Windsor Ridge) right away, and that the opening of the new high school may make it unnecessary to build a 300-student addition to City High. He says that Hoover should remain open, and that as a result there is no immediate need to build a second new elementary on the east side. He supports the diversity goals and believes (and I agree) that the redistricting that will accompany the opening of a new elementary school will enable the district to make substantial progress toward those goals without doing anything outrageous with school boundaries. He believes that closing Hoover and opening a new 500-student elementary school on the southeast side would naturally create pressure to close Hills Elementary. He is the only candidate to emphasize that the board can’t just do whatever it wants, regardless of whether there’s public support for it, if it ever hopes to get the 60% approval needed for new bonds. He says that the district needs to regain the public’s trust, and that to do so, it needs to be more honest and fair with people.

These are sensible positions, and they are also disarmingly candid. Not everyone likes being told that they might not get the new construction that they wanted in the long-term plan. None of the other candidates have identified any items in the plan (other than the Hoover closure) that they would de-prioritize or eliminate. But prioritizing does make sense and will be necessary, and it’s only fair to tell the voters how you would do it. The long-term plan that Geerdes describes makes much more sense than the plan that the board approved, and his candor about it is a good sign for his ability to reestablish people’s trust in the board. I wish all the candidates spoke as clearly and as sensibly about the district’s future.

Why I’m voting for Sara Barron

One of the qualities I want most in a school board candidate is a willingness to push back against the administration and its consultants and against the groupthink that too often takes hold on the board. Sara Barron has it. The entire 250-million-dollar facilities plan, including the closure of Hoover, is based on capacity numbers so unrealistic as to be fictitious. Yet the current board members (and several of the board candidates) have swallowed them whole without any skepticism whatsoever. Barron, more than any of the candidates, has pointed out the flaws in the consultants’ capacity determinations and said that the one of the first things the board should do is revisit them. That alone is enough to set her apart.

She has pushed back against other outside pressures as well. Opposing the Hoover closure put her at odds with an influential group of east-siders who want that property for City High; looking at the campaign contribution reports, it looks likely that that stance cost her thousands of dollars in funding. She lives in southeast Iowa City, sends her kids to a school with a free- and reduced-price lunch rate of 70%, and has made intra-district equity a major theme of her campaign. Yet she criticized the district’s diversity policy when it was being debated, rather than just signing on to anything with the word “diversity” in the title. Even at the meeting between Hoover families and board candidates in late August – a naturally friendly audience for her – she ended up in an extended disagreement with some of the Hoover supporters on the question of whether other candidates should have opposed the Revenue Purpose Statement. (She supported it.)

I’m not going to agree with everything Barron (or anyone else) does if she’s elected. But I like that she thinks for herself and can’t be pushed around. I like that she has her focus on the broader public, not just the loudest voices (yes, including me) or the most popular clique (not me!). I like that she recognizes and values the role schools play in a neighborhood, and understands that the board should be more than just an efficiency-maximizer. She is doing, as well as I think someone can, the things that a decent candidate ought to do: confronting difficult issues; taking sensible, meaningful positions; and treating people courteously to boot. I wish we had more board members like that.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Election night blogging alert

Make this your destination for nerdy commentary on the election results Tuesday evening (unless you prefer nerdy tweeting, which will be here, but which you can also follow in the sidebar of this blog). If it’s anything like last time around, the results will all be in by about 8:30.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Imaginary data

Karla Cook on the Hoover closure:
Yes, I was one of the people who voted to close Hoover . . . . One of the things that struck me was that Hoover has two-hundred-and-some students living in their district right around the area and that would be like one grade per building, and as a teacher I think that’s kind of tough to do, to have all thirty students and you have no other ways to deal with that, to just have one class in first and one class in second, one class in third.
What is she talking about? Last year, Hoover had 361 general education students. There were two classes per grade, and the average class size was 26. Even without the 71 transfers from “schools in need of assistance,” Hoover would have had 290 students, not to mention the approximately 30 kids in special ed and preschool classrooms. There are enough students in the area that the long-term plan – which Cook voted for – would add 330 seats of capacity to nearby Longfellow and Mann, not to mention that it would build two additional east side elementary schools. Yet somehow Cook has decided that Hoover is on the verge of being a ghost town.

For an antidote, here is Phil Hemingway at the last candidate forum:
District actions can fill or empty any school. The board should stop this constant threat.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What is leadership?

I’m sometimes surprised by how people use the word “leadership.” During the facilities planning process, there were people who urged the board to “stand up and lead,” which, translated, was usually a fancy way of saying that the board should do what that speaker wanted instead of what most people wanted. Similarly, this week, we hear members of Congress urged to “show courage,” which, translated, means that they should disregard the clear will of the public about whether to start a war.

I don’t think a leader is someone who obtains public office and then imposes his or her own preferences on an unwilling public. I think it’s a person who successfully persuades the public of the wisdom of a particular policy, using reasoned arguments.

Look at the sea change that occurred in public attitudes toward gay marriage. Who were the leaders? Not the politicians who climbed on board only after it seemed too politically risky not to. The leaders were the people who worked to change public opinion on the issue, and succeeded. Most of them were not public officeholders.

What I most want for the school system is for it to reflect this community’s values as much as it can. I would trade all of my other policy preferences for that one. (I wonder how many of our school board candidates share that view.) I’m sure I would still be unhappy with some of the community’s choices, but I can live with being outvoted in a democracy, and I can always keep trying to persuade people.

What bothers me most about the Hoover closure is the way it has been forced on an unwilling public by “leaders” who did not succeed in persuading people of its wisdom. To me, that’s not only wrong, it’s unwise, because big changes that aren’t supported by the public are likely to be unsustainable. As candidate Gregg Geerdes has repeatedly pointed out, the school district cannot alienate its constituency and then expect to get sixty percent approval for a bond.

I know of no evidence whatsoever that this community wants to move toward closing elementary schools and having fewer, larger schools that are farther, on average, from where people live. I see lots of evidence to the contrary. A commenter here wrote, “I do not believe that small schools are the way of the future in our district.” If that commenter can persuade the public of that view, more power to him or her. Otherwise, I see no reason that the “way of the future in our district” should be anything other than what the community wants it to be. Are there school board candidates who disagree with that?

Five reasons to care about the Hoover closure

[This post also appears in the Press-Citizen today.]

Hoover Elementary is just one of many schools in our district, but its closure would have implications for everyone. Here are five reasons everyone should care about the proposed closure:

1. Responsiveness to public input. At the district’s community workshops and in responses to the district’s survey questions, the public repeatedly made its opposition to school closings clear – by a roughly two-to-one margin. If the board is willing to stray that far from public input on this issue, what will it do on the other difficult issues, such as redistricting, that it will face over the next four years? And without the public’s trust, how does the board expect to get the 60% approval it needs to pass the bonds that will be necessary to fund its plans?

2. Transparency. The district sold the Revenue Purpose Statement to the voters by saying that it would result in improvements to older schools and the construction of new schools to reduce overcrowding. Nobody mentioned closing schools. Only after the voters had authorized new spending did the board propose to close Hoover. To make matters worse, the board has refused to identify how the Hoover property will be used, and how much that use will cost. (There is wide agreement that the proposed addition to City High will not go on the Hoover property, because it is too far from City’s other classroom areas.) Isn’t the public entitled to answers to those questions before a school closing is approved?

3. Cost. Tearing down a school when enrollment is expanding is very expensive, because you have to rebuild that capacity elsewhere, at great cost. The district plans to spend between ten and fifteen million dollars to replace Hoover’s capacity elsewhere, just to annex its approximately five acres of land to City High, for a use that no one can identify. That’s between two and three million dollars per acre, at a time when the district is already $100 million short of what it needs to fulfill its other plans. The district can’t afford to spend that much to gain so little.

4. Independence. The board’s willingness to uncritically accept the consultants’ interpretations of capacity and enrollment data led to a plan that will cost $100 million more than the board has at its disposal. We need board members who scrutinize the data, ask hard questions, and push back against the administration, its consultants, and the groupthink that too often sets in on the board.

5. Precedent. The same efficiency rationale that is being used to justify closing Hoover would apply equally (or more forcefully) to several other schools that are smaller than Hoover and serve fewer kids. A policy of consolidating smaller neighborhood schools into fewer, larger schools could justify closing Hills, Lincoln, Mann, Longfellow, or Shimek, just as it justified closing Roosevelt four years ago. Why shouldn’t we expect the district to treat other schools the same way it’s treated Roosevelt and Hoover?

No matter which part of the district you live in, the Hoover closure affects you. You can find out more about where the candidates stand on this issue at

Thursday, September 5, 2013


If the district closes Hoover, adds 330 seats to Longfellow and Mann, and follows through on the other parts of its long-term facilities plan, here is what the capacities of the elementary schools will be:

Look at the lower end. Three schools will be outliers: Shimek, Hills, and Lincoln. (Twain has apparently been slated for an expansion of its capacity.) If this plan comes to pass, I have to believe that the pressure to close Hills, Shimek, and Lincoln will be unstoppable.

This is especially true if we overbuild and end up with lots of empty, brand-new capacity – which the plan is practically designed to do, given that it’s based on unrealistically low capacity determinations and high-end enrollment projections.

If we have lots of empty capacity, who better to fill those new seats at Longfellow and Mann than the kids at Lincoln and Shimek? Who better to fill a southeast-side elementary than the kids at Hills? How can the district justify keeping old, small schools open if there is shiny new capacity sitting empty?

City High’s advocates, including its principal, have repeatedly expressed a desire to ensure that City not lose the wealthier areas in Lincoln and Shimek during any redistricting. That desire would create added momentum for closing those schools and sending the kids to Mann and Longfellow, putting those areas at City High once and for all.

If the community wants to move toward having fewer, newer, bigger elementary schools – farther, on average, from where people live – that would be one way to do it. But that idea hasn’t come from any public demand. In fact, at every opportunity, the public has rejected that approach and affirmed its desire to keep its existing schools open.

Yet school closures appeared in almost all of the planning scenarios. Board candidate Sara Barron, who served as a member of the facilities steering committee, said that the continual inclusion of school closures in the scenarios – an idea she opposed – seemed “pre-ordained.” By whom?

The public gets only one opportunity every two years to reclaim ownership of the school system and demand fidelity to the community’s values. One of them is coming this Tuesday. This may be the last chance to stop the fewer/newer/bigger train from leaving the station. The candidates who are on board for the facilities plan, including the closure of Hoover, are Karla Cook, Brian Kirschling, and Jason Lewis. The candidates who present the best opportunity to reverse the school closing momentum are Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, and Sara Barron. Please vote.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overreaching doesn’t help City High

The justifications for the Hoover closure have shifted so frequently that it’s hard not to wonder: what’s really going on? If efficiency and fiscal concerns were really the issue, Hoover would never have been the school chosen for closure. If insufficient enrollment were really the issue, Hoover would never have been chosen. If insufficient diversity were the issue, Hoover would never have been chosen. There’s only one reason Hoover was chosen: because some City High advocates have always wanted that property for City.

City has a tenacious set of advocates, which is good. A certain subset of its most ardent advocates, though, have become so accustomed to defending City that they are ready to justify any sacrifice in City’s name and vilify anyone who departs from the most extreme pro-City stance. One City High partisan, for example, recently accused school board member Tuyet Dorau of wanting to “weaken City High at any cost.” Candidate Sara Barron, a south-east-sider who has made intra-district equity a centerpiece of her campaign, has nevertheless gotten the cold shoulder from many in the City-über-alles crowd, because she had the nerve not to toe the line on the Hoover closure. Hoover parents – City’s immediate neighbors – who have questioned the rationale for the closure have been presumptively accused of being “anti-City-High.” Some City High supporters even gave each other high-fives at the meeting when the school board voted to close Hoover, as Hoover parents looked on. Treating people this way does not help City High; it just breeds resentment and ill will among the people who should naturally be City High’s allies.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ensure that City High is a strong high school. But there comes a point when the constant anxiety about West High leads to overreaching that hurts City more than it helps it. Yes, West has a bigger property, and will always have a bigger property, than City, and that will likely be true of the new high school, too. It has a bigger front lawn and more parking spaces. Its athletic fields are all on site. But you need a better reason than that to close an elementary school (and to spend ten to fifteen million dollars doing it).

City’s advocates have raised other concerns as well: for example, about the relative number of AP course sections offered at the two high schools. (For some people, the main purpose of the district’s diversity policy is apparently to ensure that there are as many AP course sections for their kids at City as there are for the kids at West. Never mind how diverse those classrooms are.) It’s not clear how bringing City’s enrollment up to 1500 (which is only 86 more students than it already has) will appreciably increase its AP offerings. More importantly, no one has been able to articulate any connection between those concerns and the acquisition of the Hoover property. There is wide agreement that the proposed City High addition cannot go on the Hoover property, because Hoover is too far from the other classroom areas of City. So how will taking Hoover facilitate the addition? (No one wants to say publicly that Hoover will become a big parking lot, but it’s hard to see how else it can facilitate the addition.) No one will answer the question.

One City advocate laid out the argument to me this way: We may all know that City can hold 1400 or 1500 students, but the consultants say that it can hold only 1293. We need to build that addition – even if we don’t really need the space – because otherwise City’s on-paper capacity will be smaller than the other high schools’, so in the distant future City could end up the smallest of the three, and it might lose the attendance areas that provide the kind of kids who take a lot of AP courses. So, for the sake of making City’s on-paper capacity numbers equal to the other high schools’, we should spend ten million dollars to build an addition and another ten or fifteen million to tear down an elementary school. Even in this nutty rationale, there was no connection between the addition and the acquisition of Hoover.

I live next door to City High. All of my kids will attend City. The three candidates I’m voting for – Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, and Sara Barron – are from City High households. None of us are hostile to City High. We all want City to be a great school. But no one has shown that City needs the Hoover property. No one has even identified how the property will be used. For those reasons, many City High supporters, both in the Hoover attendance area and beyond, have recognized that the case for closing Hoover is unconvincing.

The best way to help City is to build and maintain a broad coalition founded on the people who are City’s natural base of support and extending beyond them, too. That kind of coalition has helped City be, by all accounts, one of the best high schools in the state. But rather than foster that coalition, City’s most zealous partisans have sacrificed it for the sake of ramming through a school closure that hurts City’s own neighbors, based on tortured rationales and without popular support. It will take years to re-establish the trust and unity among City’s supporters that existed only a few months ago. Even the ability to get bond approvals – once taken for granted in this district – is now in doubt. With friends like these, City doesn’t need enemies.