Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ninety percent of a loaf is not enough

I confess that I have gotten a kick out of hearing certain very-City-High-focused people today suddenly sounding panicky at the prospect that many east-siders might now vote for Tuyet Dorau. It’s a bit late to wake up to the realities of political coalition-building and the dangers of overreaching.

I sure will consider Dorau. I now have at least one good reason to vote for her, and have yet to hear any substantive reasons not to – just a lot of “concern” and “suspicion” about her and her motives.

That said, I’m ready to take a breather from this topic. In a couple of weeks, we’ll know for sure who our candidates are, and I will be asking them all whether they favor reversing the decision to close Hoover (among other questions). Until then, I hope to enjoy the summer weather and read some good novels. Don’t hesitate to email me, though, if you’d like a Save Hoover yard sign. Six more went up today.

Board votes to close Hoover; what next?

So the school board voted 5-2 to close Hoover. Tuyet Dorau and Marla Swesey voted against the closure. Karla Cook, Jeff McGinness, Sally Hoelscher, Patti Fields, and Sarah Swisher voted in favor of it. Because of an amendment offered by Sarah Swisher, the closing will occur no earlier than the 2017-18 school year.

I was surprised by Marla Swesey’s vote. Maybe I misheard, but I thought her whole talk before voting was about how she came around to the idea of closing Hoover. Then she voted against it. I’d love to know why she ultimately voted No.

I don’t want to delude myself: I would definitely rather have won on the initial vote than have to pursue a reconsideration. Nonetheless, given the time line, the closure will occur only if the next school board, and also the one after that, agree with last night’s decision. There is an election on September 10. I’ve asked the candidates where they stand on the Hoover closure; their responses are here. The filing deadline in August 1, so more candidates may still emerge.

After the meeting, one board candidate asked me whether I now saw the board election entirely in terms of saving Hoover, or whether I would move on to other issues. My answer was “neither.” I do care about other issues, particularly related to curriculum and the kids’ day-to-day experience of school. On the other hand, I think the prospects for meaningful change on that front are very low, and I have to weigh that against the (I think) very real possibility that the Hoover decision could be reconsidered.

Though the Hoover issue is very important to me and may determine my vote, I think it goes hand in hand with the larger issue that we need board members who think independently, scrutinize the numbers they are handed, are capable of pushing back against the administration, and appreciate the need to maintain broad public support for what the board does.

I would trade all of my other policy preferences for meaningful democratic control of public education. I don’t think last night’s decision accurately reflects the values of this community, so I think we should use the democratic system to try to change it. If I’m wrong about what the community wants, I can accept that. But given that school closures have never been the subject of any board election, and that they were never raised during the public vote on the Revenue Purpose Statement, and that every indication has been that the community does not want to close schools, it would be premature to move on just because five board members have a different opinion.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The runaround

[This is the text of my comment at the public comment period at the July 23 school board meeting. After the public comment session, the board voted 5-2 to close Hoover School for unspecified use in the future by City High.]

I never expected to spend a big chunk of my summer talking about school facilities and helping put up yard signs. But now I have, and I’ve talked to a lot of people in the process, and one thing you can’t help but notice is how many people have taken the time and the effort to try to learn about the different facilities proposals and discuss them. People who are busy enough just trying to be parents have been poring over the scenarios and the cost numbers and the enrollment projections and capacity estimates, and in good faith trying to grapple with and respond to the arguments that are being made one way or another.

But when it comes to the Hoover closure, I have to say that it’s been frustrating. In these long-term scenarios, everything that’s going to happen, even ten years out, gets at least identified – multipurpose rooms, air conditioning, and so on – and everything is given a cost number. But when you get to closing Hoover, the scenario basically says, “We need the Hoover property to do . . . stuff. Stuff that won’t cost anything.” They don’t identify what will be done with the property, and they don’t include any costs for repurposing it, other than the cost of tearing Hoover down.

And the scenarios say, “If Hoover stays open, we’ll need to build a 750-stall parking garage at City High to accommodate the growth of City. But if Hoover is closed, somehow we won’t need to build any parking at all, on either property.” Unless the district is planning to leave a big, unused empty space where Hoover once was, it’s impossible to believe that these scenarios are not understating the total cost, or being honest about the likely use of the property as a parking lot.

And all of the scenarios include a third high school, which certainly makes you wonder why City will need 750 more parking spaces. And the scenarios are based on unrealistic capacity numbers and high-end enrollment projections. The district is almost certainly overbuilding and overspending, yet when people suggest keeping Hoover open, we’re told that we have to pinch pennies or class size will go up.

In other words, after in good faith putting in all that time and energy, it’s hard not to feel like we’re getting the runaround. Like Lily Tomlin says, “I try to be cynical, but it’s so hard to keep up.” People do feel that there’s been a breach of trust, and my fear is that the board chalks that all up to the idea that you can’t please everyone. I wish you all would reflect a little on whether there might be good reasons for why people feel the way they do, especially since you can’t implement any of these plans without coming back to the public for additional bonding, which will require 60% majorities. The RPS didn’t say anything about closing schools, and it got only 56%. It’s going to be hard enough keeping this community together once you start redistricting. How can you afford to take away a neighborhood’s elementary school without a compelling rationale?

I met with City High Principal John Bacon last week and about ten other people from the Hoover area. These are people who live near City, whose kids will go to City, who want to support City High. I said, “You’ve got ten people here who would be nodding in agreement and saying, ‘Let’s improve City.’ Instead you have ten east siders saying, ‘Why are you doing this? Why does City need to expand?’” How that dynamic helps City High, I’ll never understand. Even he agreed that an athletic field was not a good enough reason for closing an elementary school.

This board simply has not justified the closing of Hoover School.

Why does a 300-student addition necessitate a 750-stall parking ramp?

This one’s over at the Patch.

Hoover closure shifts wealth to the wealthy

[This is a slightly expanded version of my guest opinion that appeared today in the Press-Citizen.]

Four years ago, the Iowa City school board voted to close Roosevelt Elementary, a close-in school surrounded by affordable neighborhoods, and to build a new school on the far west side of town, near more expensive homes and areas still to be developed. The board closed the school against public opposition, and the resulting wound has not fully healed to this day.

Now the board is on the verge of making a very similar mistake, by closing Hoover Elementary to build a new school on the far east side. The Hoover attendance area is economically diverse, but the impact of the closure will fall most heavily on the neighborhood directly across from the school, between Court Street and Muscatine Avenue. It is a very affordable neighborhood with many young families. The median assessed home value in that neighborhood, which makes up about a third of the attendance area, is $137,000. The wide majority of homes there are assessed at less than $150,000. (I did the calculations myself on the Iowa Assessors website; feel free to check my work.)

That neighborhood is sustained by its proximity to Hoover. Expensive neighborhoods can afford to be farther from an elementary school. Less expensive neighborhoods, though, are likely to feel the loss of a neighborhood school more acutely. No addition to City High – especially if it involves putting a parking lot on the Hoover property – will make up for the loss to that neighborhood of its elementary school. Nor is it any consolation that those families might be shifted to Longfellow, Lemme, or Lucas; someone shopping for homes near those schools is unlikely to look in the neighborhood across the street from Hoover, since there are many closer, equally affordable neighborhoods. Moreover, it’s not clear that those families can be shifted to the closest school if Hoover closes, because the district’s diversity policy may preclude it.

At the “listening post” last week, it was quite something to hear people in that neighborhood being lectured to by people who live in $375,000 homes about how the effect on neighborhood home values does not belong in the discussion.

The Hoover closure is being justified on the grounds that it is too expensive to build three new elementaries without closing an existing one. In practical effect, this means that Hoover must be closed so a state-of-the-art school can be built in Windsor Ridge or other neighborhoods east of Scott Boulevard. We don’t know exactly where the school’s boundaries will be, but the neighborhoods that will benefit from being closest to it are almost certainly much wealthier than those across the street from Hoover. For example, the median home on Barrington and Arlington Streets, which run through the Windsor Ridge area, is assessed at almost $300,000. And developers of land in the area are likely to benefit greatly from being able to promise a nearby elementary school.

The board doesn’t have to pit these two parts of town against each other. Scenario 1c, which two-thirds of the participants at the community workshop preferred, would build three new elementaries, including one on the far east side, while still preserving our existing schools. It also has lower costs than the scenarios currently being considered. If the board wants to sustain its close-in, affordable neighborhoods – and avoid repeating the Roosevelt mistake – it has a way to do it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The constantly shifting rationales for the Hoover closure

Arguing against the closure of Hoover School is a lot like playing Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you address one rationale, a different one pops up instead. Here’s how the game goes:

“We have to close Hoover because we can’t afford to operate so many schools.”

“But you’re about to build three new schools. Why not just build two? Hoover already holds well over 300 students. Why tear it down to build a new 500-student school elsewhere?”

“But the Hoover attendance area isn’t growing, and growth is projected elsewhere.”

“The Hoover area isn’t growing because it’s already filled with actual homes that have actual families in them. Isn’t that a bird in the hand compared to the projected growth elsewhere?”

“But there are lots of schools not that far from Hoover.”

“Yes, because there are a lot of families who live in the relatively densely populated areas that are closer to downtown Iowa City. It would be impossible to serve them all without having many schools that are within a mile or two of one another. That’s not a sign that they’re redundant or unnecessary.”

“But there aren’t that many kids in the Hoover area. Hoover’s almost half transfers from ‘Schools in Need of Assistance,’ like Grant Wood. Most of the kids near Hoover all go to Regina anyway.”

“That’s simply false. Even without the roughly 129 transfer students (a chunk of whom are ordinary, non-SINA transfers), there are 232 students at Hoover. That’s higher than the non-transfer number at Mann, Shimek, Lincoln, or Hills – and, unlike in those schools, all of them live relatively close to Hoover, since the entire attendance area is too close to qualify for a bus. Hoover serves almost 211 kids who live within a mile of it – again, more than at Mann, Shimek, Lincoln, or Hills. And those numbers don’t even include the preschool and two autism classrooms that Hoover currently houses. And remember, Hoover currently serves so many students that has to use two temporary classrooms.”

“But there aren’t that many kids in the Hoover area.”

“You’re going to keep repeating that, even though it’s false, aren’t you?”

Will the board close an elementary school without public support?

There are a lot of persuasive objections to our school district’s proposed overbuilding, overspending scheme long-term facilities plan, but the most striking one, to me, is that the proposal is so contrary to the public input that the board repeatedly solicited during the process. In the long run, how much does the school board think it can achieve without public support?

Whenever I raise the issue of “public support,” I hear the same response: the board can’t please everyone. That’s a non-sequitur, because acting with public support doesn’t mean pleasing everyone. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be loud voices opposing whatever the board decides. It means acting in a way that’s consistent with the values of most people in the community.

There is every reason to believe that most people in this community do not see any need to close existing schools. The district held several lengthy community workshops designed to educate voters about the issues involved, and the prevailing sentiment among participants at all the workshops was not to close schools. At the final, largest workshop, 63% favored plans that did not close Hoover School, even when people were asked how they would change their favorite plan. In the district’s telephone survey of randomly sampled registered voters, 63.8% said smaller schools should not be closed to gain long-term cost savings; 26.2% favored closing them. (The question referred to schools “that enroll less than 300 students,” which doesn’t even include Hoover, which is now on the chopping block.) If none of that convinces you, ask yourself why none of the board members even mentioned the possibility of closing schools during their campaigns. Is there any better indicator that the idea lacks public support?

Keep in mind that the proposed plan will need additional bonding to be implemented – to the apparent tune of about a hundred million dollars – and that any new bonding will need to get 60% approval at a public vote. The recent Revenue Purpose Statement, which enabled some borrowing against future revenues, received only 56% approval at the polls, and that was before anyone suggested that it would result in school closings. How does the board think its plan can ever become a reality if it alienates even more of the public?

I suspect that if the plan passes, the same people who ignored public sentiment to pass it will argue that the public has a responsibility to “come together” and move forward with it. Call me crazy, but I think that if people don’t like a decision made by the school board, they should use the democratic process to try to change that decision.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Candidates’ responses about closing schools

Here are the responses I’ve received from school board candidates to this question: If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any elementary schools as part of a long-term facilities plan? I will post more responses as they come in.

So far I have responses from Sara Barron, Gregg Geerdes, Jason T. Lewis, Phil Hemingway, Brian Kirschling, Jim Tate, and Chris Lynch, below. (It’s my own fault that Jim Tate’s response came relatively late; I got in touch with him later than I contacted the others.)


Thank you for your question, Chris. As a member of the facilities steering committee, I feel well-informed about the current and future facilities needs of our district.

I would not vote to close any schools. As a steering committee member, I've already voted to keep schools open! I was one of two members who voted against closing Hoover, and I cast votes in favor of keeping Lincoln and Hills open, as well.

I am familiar with the arguments in favor of school closings. I support the two main concerns they address: operational efficiency, and creating a balanced enrollment at what will become three comprehensive high schools.

I believe that both of these issues can be resolved without closing schools. In fact, I think they can best be addressed by investing in our existing elementary schools and starting work sooner rather than later on the third comprehensive high school. (New elementary construction is needed too. I recently had a tour of the portable classroom complex at Penn. Whoa!)

I would love to hear from other members of the community about their thoughts on our long-term plans for the ICCSD--both facilities and non-facilities related concerns. I invite anyone with questions or comments to email me at I'm also glad to answer questions on Facebook at

Thanks to everyone for their advocacy on behalf of our students. I hope I'll earn your support in the September 10 election.


[Blogger’s note: Gregg Geerdes has not yet filed a candidacy for the board, but plans to do so.]

Chris, I would not vote to close any of the elementary schools. My reasons: (1) We need to add capacity at the elementary level. And we do not have enough money to fund all of the projects that the current Board wants to build. Therefore, it is extremely important that we utilize the capacity that our elementary buildings provide. (2) It is important that the district promote neighborhoods because doing so increases the tax base, which in turn provides more tax revenue to fund the schools. I believe that retaining and fully utilizing neighborhood schools does this; and (3) it’s clear that not closing schools is what the voters want.

The counter to these arguments is that it is more efficient to operate new schools. To some extent this is true. But better management can overcome this. For example, at the recent work session a member of the administration stated that a 500 person school would require 9 janitors and that a 200 person school would also require 9 janitors. If this is indeed the way the district is being operated, then management can and should take steps to improve this poor allocation of resources. And, if we increase efficiency by building new elementary schools but lose property value and tax revenue by closing neighborhood schools, have we really accomplished anything?

Finally, I would make building a third high school a high priority. When this is built, it will take students from City and from West, which will free up space at these schools. This space, and other options for expansion, should be considered and utilized as much as practical before closing Hoover is considered.

I am happy to discuss this further with anyone concerned.


Closing a school or not closing a school is a difficult question to consider. It's difficult to say if I would close a school if I were a member of the current board. While I've been highly engaged in district politics and policies over the past several years, there's no real substitue for immersion. I haven't been privy to all the conversation, all the data, all the knowledge both institutional and otherwise that the board members have at their disposal.

That said, I see our current discussion as one that centers around the weighing of our competing values. We know the people of the district value schools that are integral to the neighborhoods. I don't think there's a member of the board, steering committee or administration who would argue otherwise and doesn't feel the same way. That said, the duty of the board is to explore where that value crosses with the value we place on class sizes and operational flexibility and the long term vision we need to have to supply the best education we can to all our kids.

It's impossible to give one of these values weight over another and still remain true to the mission of the board.

The current board has taken the recommendations of the steering committee and are leaning toward closing Hoover Elementary. While I can understand this conclusion and have been watching as they arrived at the decision, they may have missed a few opportunities to explore the option as deeply as they could and may not have considered other options that would give us more latitude to honor all the above-mentioned values.

First, at the Board Work Session on Tuesday, 7/17/13, Craig Hansel indicated that he had run models on cost for the facilities without closing schools and each time, the result was losing teachers and raising the number of students in our classrooms. At that moment, since we knew the board was considering specifically closing Hoover, the board should have asked him to run costs with a closure at Hoover to be able to compare those projected operational costs. An apples to apples comparison would make for a more informed choice.

Second, I've heard growing concern over the idea that we should begin to build bigger schools along the perimeter of our community. I have reservations about this as well. Although I understand the benefits these kinds of buildings in terms of cost and flexibility, I'm not convinced it's our only or best option. The steering committee didn't come back to the board with a recommendation that showed us the potential for building fewer new elementary schools and allowing us to work harder to create efficiencies and flexibility on our existing sites. If we're creative, is it possible that our existing buildings could be re-imagined to meet our coming needs instead of exclusively building new? Maybe not, but the board hasn't explored the option thoroughly, at least in public view.

The last point I want to make is our long-term planning process will also include the implementations of magnet schools at the primary and perhaps secondary levels as a way to implement the diversity policy. There's been no discussion of how those programs will impact our long-term planning for facilities. We seem to be moving forward with a pretty large blind spot in our facilities planning vision.

So, short answer long, if I were on the board at this moment, would I vote to close a school? Given the process to this point and the discussion that has been had, I would not. I couldn't allow the board to move forward with that plan until the questions I listed above were answered. If we're to make a decision this important, it's imperative we ask and answer all the questions and explore all the options before we move forward. We have an opportunity to move this district in a positive direction, one that serves the needs of our community and heals the divides that have grown deep over the past couple decades. If we're to do this we have to work hard, think creatively and have the courage of our convictions to honor our shared values to the best of our abilities.


Thank you for the email and your interest and advocacy in the ICCSD.

Your question: If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

As people may or may not know, I was a candidate in the last School Board election narrowly losing to Patti Fields by 80 or so votes. So when I am asked these questions, believe me, I take it to heart. Neighborhood schools are the foundation of which our great district is built on.

I unequivocably say NO to closing Hills, Lincoln, Hoover, Longfellow, Mann or any other elementary school in existing and vibrant neighborhoods and communities. With what has been provided to the community now, no strong case has been made for the need to close Hoover other than parking, traffic congestion and some future need not yet specified. Money drives all our decisions going forward - which is what I said at many forums during the last election and it still holds true today. We cannot afford to close elementary schools at a time when we need added elementary school capacity. Does anyone remember that before the (BLDD) consultants came to town, City High was under capacity and needed more students but it took BLDD no time at all to say essentially all our schools are over capacity.

We need Board members to be honest with the public and to live up to their promises of the RPS vote and to make overdue renovations/additions to existing schools and where needed, build new ones. The ICCSD has to strengthen and unify our community not divide it and weaken it.

Anyone who has watched or attended school board meeting for the last 4 years knows that I have been very involved and not a silent participant in ICCSD business.


If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

The short, honest answer to this question is yes. When school closure is considered in the context of strategic, long-term comprehensive facilities planning, all scenarios must be weighed and analyzed carefully. Looking ahead to the predicted future needs of the district, facility closures should be considered ONLY IF the following criteria are met:

• They are considered as part of a broader redistricting plan that contributes to improved facility equity throughout the district.
• New elementary school constructions and renovations must be completed before any closures occur.
• There is a clear opportunity to reduce operational costs to the district, therefore ensuring long-term fiscal responsibility.
• Plans for a school closure are communicated in a transparent fashion to the affected families and neighborhoods with a reasonable proposed time frame of no less than 3 years.
• Affected families are included in determining a clear plan as to where students will be assigned to attend school at the end of that time period, therefore allowing families to acclimate or adjust their future planning.
• Teachers at an affected school are included in the conversation and there is open communication regarding future facility teaching assignments.
• The closure must align with “Child-Centered: Future-Focused” and affected families will have the opportunity to experience long-term benefits to their child’s education.

Usually discussions about closing schools are reserved for districts that are in decline. Our district is thriving and growing. With planned commitments to build more cost effective, environmentally friendly 21st century schools we have to try our best to predict demographics and enrollment patterns many decades into the future.

I believe that we should be committed to our existing neighborhood schools, but at this moment in time, we have the opportunity to be proactive about the future of our district. Provided that the above criteria are met, and the best interest of the entire district is the compass used in our decision making process, then, yes, I would cast that vote.


In a District that is experiencing growth I find it hard to see the need to close any neighborhood school. During the facilities workshops the over whelming response was to keep our current schools open, even at a potentially higher operating cost. Closure of schools was not part of the focus of the multiple RPS presentations given by District staff that I attended. Giving many in our community the impression that school closures was not even being discussed as the entire focus was on the pending growth of our District.

Keeping in mind all of the data has not been disclosed to the public, I am at this time opposed to school closures. My position on this might change should more data be reviled in regards to operating costs. Closure of neighborhood schools can lead to many issues for that neighborhood further down the road. Does this mean we should always keep schools open no matter what? No, but there has to be a plan in place for the existing property, as well as for the current and future students in that neighborhood.

There have been no plan(s) given as to what exactly would be done with the Hoover lot. There are many other options that could be explored when City High needs expanding. Some of these options could include expanding the front of the school, maintaining the façade and adding more height to the building. The same could be said for any number of our buildings. These are possible options that I feel are worth exploring.

That being said, there may come a time when we need to close some schools. There should be some criteria for that. Some of the things I would look at are:

• Significant cost savings.

• Exploration of the possibility of rebuilding on site (at times keeping with the historic architecture of the existing building and or neighborhood).

• A fully vetted plan, not only for the land, but also the students. This plan has been clearly provided to the public and addresses concerns of the public.


If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any elementary schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

My top lines:
1. I have been supporting Neighborhood Schools at Board Meetings since 2004.
2. My primary focus will be on ensuring all our current schools are successful and viable in the long term. This is where would should focus our efforts.

Detailed Answer:
Instead of talking about the criteria or rationale to close a school, I think we should talk the criteria or expectations we have for all of our schools to remain successful and viable in the long term. The immediate benefit from this conversation is we are now involving all our schools in the discussion vs. “picking on” a few certain schools.
For a school to remain viable, I would see 2 primary requirements:
a) Deliver on a Great Education: A school must meet its primary objective of delivering educational proficiency.
b) Meet Acceptable Cost Range: We need to develop a standard for acceptable cost ranges for our general education. We can also create criteria for capital spending as well. Let’s let our schools, communities and staff bring all their innovative and creative ideas together to make our current schools successful.

Once we have objective criteria to assess our schools, then the focus would be helping our schools succeed.

Net, for me, this recent discussion could have been the start of the conversation vs. the end of the conversation.

Where do the board candidates stand?

I just emailed the following to all of the current school board candidates here in the Iowa City Community School District:
I’m the father of three kids in the Iowa City schools, and I also write a blog about education issues. I am sending this email to the current school board candidates to ask: If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any elementary schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

I know that there are people (on all sides of the issue) who would like to know what the candidates think about this important issue. I will post all responses on the blog.

Thank you.
I hope I receive responses before Tuesday’s board meeting, when the vote on a plan may occur. I did not email the incumbent board candidates, since we will certainly find out where they stand when the vote occurs.

UPDATE: Candidates’ responses are here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

School board converges on closing Hoover Elementary

The school board appears to have concluded that it is more important to put an addition onto City High than to preserve Hoover. More extended discussion over at the Patch.

UPDATE: Some unanswered questions here.

UPDATE #2: Some additional commentary here: Why pit City High against its own neighbors?

All this irrational fear turns out to be expensive

Where to begin with these articles? I’ll turn the microphone over to one of my readers, who emailed me this morning:
Do we sound less threatening if we substitute “parents and other neighbors” for “strangers” in this sentence? “The tradition of Iowans casting ballots in local schools on Election Day is disappearing as concerns mount over strangers entering schools while students are present.”

How did we end up with so many people accepting that members of the community exercising the right to vote = a safety and security threat for school children? Parents, you can walk your kids to the front door of the school, but if we let you in to vote (or drop off coats!) you’d become a threat to everyone in the building? They question letting voters in when they are otherwise in constant lockdown instead of questioning the need to lockdown the schools every other day of the year. No wonder we’re having so much trouble with “the bubble”—they are starting with the proposition is that we (members of the community) are the enemy.

Clearly we need to tear down a few more schools so we can afford to build new polling places to protect the children.

Full disclosure: One of those creepy strangers in the picture (filling out a check-in form against the wall) is me.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sure, schools might be torn down, but did you see how ill-behaved the public was?

About a hundred and fifty people turned out for last night’s school board meeting at which the possibility of closing elementary schools was discussed. They sat through over two and a half hours of the meeting—including a mind-numbing PowerPoint pitch for the facilities proposals, much of which we had all sat through before, and which easily could have been distributed in advance, as well as a lengthy photo op session in which each steering committee member had his or her picture taken with the superintendent—to hear and support the public comments on the proposal to close schools. All of the commenters were opposed to the plan.

You might think that kind of public participation at a board meeting would be seen as a good thing. But apparently it wasn’t good enough for some people. Today, some people have criticized the many people—including at least one steering committee member—who left the meeting after two and a half hours, because they did not stay until the board’s discussion was over. Never mind that most of these people have small children, that many had not yet eaten dinner, and that the meetings are played (and frequently replayed) on television. This was apparently an egregious violation of decorum.

One board member—who was not physically present at the meeting, but participated by phone, and who was doubtful about his ability to attend the next meeting—wrote on social media:
the credibility and weight I give to speakers who then leave and do not listen to the discussion is severely diminished. In particular, speakers who pose several questions then leave and not hear the answers or discussion of issues related to the question. While schedules are obviously an issue, I would hope folks would recognize and plan that this was going to be one of the longer meetings because of the issues presented. While I’m not complaining as I know what I got myself into, all told, our meetings yesterday lasted from 5 pm to 11 pm.
What sanctimonious baloney. One can only assume that the people who did not attend the meeting at all rank even lower than those who attended but left after almost three hours. What a convenient excuse for disregarding what 99.99% of the public has to say.

I never cease to be amazed at how readily people who attend public meetings assert a special right to greater say over the (normal) people who don’t. I certainly hope those people never complain about Congress. Meanwhile, maybe we could arrange for members of the public to phone their comments in from long-distance?

If we needed a demonstration of the Bubble that I referred to in my comment, we didn’t have to wait very long.

Can anything pierce the Bubble?

[This is the text of my comment at the public comment period at the July 9 school board meeting.]

I have two kids at Hoover and one at Southeast. My kids are old enough that they won’t be affected by the proposed closure of Hoover, and all three of my kids will attend City High. I live next door to City High.

But I’m against closing any of our existing elementary schools. I don’t think it’s justified, for the reasons I’ve already laid out for you in my email to all of you.

But I wanted to focus on one thing tonight. If people had attended all of those community workshops and at all the workshops everyone had said, “Let’s close Hoover School, we want to close Hoover School,” I might not be happy, but I wouldn’t be up here tonight.

But that’s actually the opposite of what happened. The prevailing sentiment at all of those workshops was for plans that did not close schools. And that includes Hoover – 63% at that final community workshop favored plans that didn’t close Hoover, even after they were asked how they would improve their favorite plan. So if closing Hoover was a “common theme” [as the steering committee had earlier asserted], then not closing Hoover was a very, very common theme.

The sentiment at all the workshops was against closing schools. And the fact that that’s the prevailing sentiment beyond just those workshops is apparent from the fact that we’ve yet to see any school board candidates running on a platform of closing schools. Candidates know that that’s not want this community wants, not what it values.

Sometimes it seems like the school system operates in a big bubble, and is impervious to what the ordinary people it serves think or want it to be. Maybe that’s natural and to be expected in any bureaucratic system. But one of the great functions of an elected school board is to get past that bubble, to give the community a voice in what kind of schools we want to have and what kind of community we want to have.

So I just want to urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to play that role for our community, and preserve our existing schools.

Thank you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is the diversity policy causing school closings?

This one’s over at the Patch.

(There is a method, by the way, to this cross-posting madness. Posts that are mainly of local interest, I usually put on the Patch. Posts that are more focused on issues of broader concern – for example, authoritarian schooling, standardized testing, local control, democratic process, etc. – I usually put over here. I also happen to prefer this platform for any post that uses a lot of graphics.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Are we closing schools to buy empty classrooms?

One of the reasons our school board is considering closing some of its elementary schools is that it is planning to build three new, large elementary schools to handle the expected increase in enrollment over the next ten years. Building and running three new schools, while maintaining all of our existing schools, would be expensive. But can the school board be sure that we need three new schools? There are several reasons to wonder:

1. Enrollment estimates may well be too high. The district hired consultants to evaluate the capacity of its existing schools and the likely enrollment trends. The consultants concluded that by 2022-23, the district would have between 7,696 and 8,390 elementary students. The consultants recommended that the board build for the high end of that range: about 8,317 students. But if the actual enrollment is at the low end of that range, we could end up with about 600 fewer students – which means that one of those new elementaries (which are planned to hold 500 students) would be unnecessary.

2. Capacity estimates are probably too low. The consultants’ capacity determinations are geared toward making only partial use of existing buildings, and so are probably unrealistic. Look at Longfellow, for example. Longfellow has 19 classrooms. Yet the consultants determined that it could hold only 258 students, even with the addition of a multi-purpose room. Set aside two classrooms for art and music. That still leaves 17 classrooms for 258 students: that’s 15 students per room.

Fifteen students per room! We’d all love to see class sizes that small, but all the construction in the world won’t make it happen: the district can afford to hire only so many teachers. Right now, class sizes average about 22 students per room, and there’s no reason to think that that number will be going down. If Longfellow averaged classes that size, it could use only 12 of its 19 classrooms before it exceeded the consultants’ idea of its maximum capacity. Again, leave two classrooms for art and music, and you’d still have 5 empty classrooms.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sign of the times


Information on the proposed Iowa City school closings

This post is a source of online information about the proposed Iowa City school closings. I will keep adding information to it as it becomes available. If you know of any additional information I can link to, please let me know in the comments. [UPDATE: I’ve slowed down updating this post, as much of the discussion is now occurring within the context of the school board election – which I’ve given its own continuously updated post.]


The school board’s facilities steering committee forwarded two long-range plans to the board for consideration. Although participants in the committee’s community workshops repeatedly favored plans that did not close any schools, both plans that the committee forwarded would close Hoover Elementary School, and one would also have closed Lincoln and Hills elementaries.

On July 23, the board passed a variant of one of the plans, which included the closing of Hoover, though no earlier than 2017-18.


The two proposals that the steering committee forwarded to the board are summarized here (as Scenario 1d and Scenario 4c). The proposal that most people at the last community workshop favored is here (as Scenario 1c). Additional district resources:

The report on enrollment projections, prepared by the district’s consultants (a very large PDF)
Results and comments from the final community workshop sessions
Additional information about elementary attendance populations
A map of elementary school boundaries
The district’s 2011 capacity calculations
The district’s facilities planning website
District engagement website


State board approves annexation request for future Coralville elementary school site (8/14)
New High School Location Raising Concerns In Johnson County (8/14)
School Board approves purchase of land for new high school (8/13)
Iowa City school board agrees to buy land for new high school, elementary school (8/13)
District looking ahead with the utilities for new schools (7/29)
District to discuss elementary schools and district future (7-23)
Iowa City votes to close Hoover for more room at City High (7/23)
Iowa City school board approves building plan that closes Hoover Elementary School (7/23)
Iowa City School Board Closing Hoover for Expansion (7/23)
Iowa City School Board Could Vote to Close Hoover Elementary Tonight (7/23)
District to discuss elementary schools and district future (7/23)
Should district close Hoover? (7/21)
Iowa City school district throws out recommendations (7/17)
Talk turns to closing Hoover Elementary (7/17)
Iowa City School Board Leaning Toward Closing Hoover Elementary? (7/17)
District officials to talk facilities master plan's future (7/16)
Closure of Iowa City's Hoover Elementary still a possibility (7/16)
Iowa City School Board Indicates Support for Closing School (7/16)
School scenarios draw heated responses (7/15)
Hills fighting to keep school open (7/13)
Iowa City School Board Announces Land Acquisition for New School in South Iowa City (7/10)
School board details two building scenarios (7/10)
Residents say board misled voters (7/10)
Iowa City Parents, Community Members Speak Against Closing Schools (7/9)
Iowa City school district parents speak against closing schools (7/9)
Facilities plan in board's hands (7/8)
Iowa City school board may vote next week on buying land for new schools (7/5)
Leaders discuss funding disparity options (6/21)
To Close Three Schools or Not to Close Three Schools? It's Up to the School Board Now (6/20)
Steering committee narrows down school district facility options (6/20)
Committee settles on 2 school scenarios (6/19)
Iowa City school district committee settles on two planning scenarios (6/19)
District mulls closures (6/12)
Iowa City School Facilities Public Workshop Zeroes in On Two Scenarios (6/6)
Locals not put off by pricey building plans for school district (6/6)
District leaders taking extra time for planning (5/30)
Iowa City School District committee proposes changes (5/7)
Iowa City schools developing construction scenarios (5/6)
Report: Iowa City school district could see 3,000 more students in next decade (3/28)
Report: Iowa City high schools’ capacity lower than believed (3/26)


This blog’s posts on the issue (available in one long stream here):

Preserving existing schools is perfectly compatible with magnet schools
More candidate responses on the Hoover closure
School board already planning to ignore its own capacity numbers
No matter how you slice it, Hoover can’t close unless a future board closes it
Sarah Swisher on the status of Hoover School
I wish Hoover weren't an issue, but it is
Commentator, heal thyself
Ninety percent of a loaf is not enough
Board votes to close Hoover; what next?
The runaround
Why does a 300-student addition necessitate a 750-stall parking ramp?
Hoover closure would shift wealth to the wealthy
The constantly shifting rationales for the Hoover closure
Will the board close an elementary school without public support?
Candidates' responses about closing schools
Where do the board candidates stand?
School board converges on closing Hoover Elementary
Why pit City High against its own neighbors?
Some unanswered questions from last night's school board work session
Sure, schools might be torn down, but did you see how ill-behaved the public was?
Can anything pierce the Bubble?
Is the diversity policy causing school closings?
Are we closing schools to buy empty classrooms?
Disrespect for the public
Some thoughts about the proposed school closings
Verdict: Yes, I wasted three hours of my life
Some facts about Hoover Elementary (and a little opinion, too)
Wishful building
Incredibly, we're *still* waiting for the results of the school facilities workshop 
Still waiting to hear key results from the facilities meeting
Did I just waste three hours of my life?
Guest post: One Vision?  Not there yet.
Guest post: One (Managed) Vision

Other commentary:

Greg Howes: Closing Hoover is the wrong decision
Nancy Smith: No more blank checks for district
Erin Kaufman: Good cause to be 'disagreeable'
Garry Klein: A Do-Over for Hoover?
Press-Citizen: Approving a new facilities plan is just the 1st stage
Mike Carberry: Closing Hoover would show a lack of clear vision
Press-Citizen: Time for school board to decide on facilities plan
Maria Houser Conzemius: SAVE HOOVER: Contact the School Board Soon!  Don't Close Our Schools!
Mary Murphy: Where are the students coming from?
Susan Wagner Cook: ICCSD shouldn't close any schools
Philip Kaaret: Process needs to be child-centered
Douglas Ward: District need not be so adversarial
Maria Houser Conzemius: A Shout out to the Parents Who Spoke at the 7/9/13 ICCSD Board Meeting
Daily Iowan: Limit school closures
Maria Houser Conzemius: 7/9/13 School Board Meeting: Educational Adequacy Completely Dependent on Physical Structures; Really??
Press-Citizen: School campaign to focus on facilities and much more
Joe Henderson: School District Closing Schools Would Violate Trust Without Improving Learning
H. Dee Hoover: Choose options other than closing elementary schools
Douglas Jones: Our inner-city schools are our community anchors
Blaine Greteman: Back to the Chalkboard
Dennis Befeler: Cost-to-benefit ratio is misleading
Bob Elliott: Hope emerges at district's facilities planning session
School Superintendent Steve Murley: School district values the public's input and support
Press-Citizen: District gives another option for public input
Frank Durham: Workshops were like the caucuses


You can send an email to the entire school board at

You can also email individual board members:

Karla Cook:
Tuyet Dorau:
Patti Fields:
Sally Hoelscher:
Jeff McGinness:
Marla Swesey, chair:
Sarah Swisher:

Other contact information for school board members

Websites of current school board candidates: Sara Barron, Karla Cook (info here), Brian Kirschling, Jason T. Lewis, Chris Lynch, Phil Hemingway (info here), and Gregg Geerdes (info not yet available)


Hills Elementary PTO Officers
Hoover Elementary PTA Blog and Facebook page
Lincoln Elementary PTO Website
Save Hoover Elementary

Disrespect for the public

One of the hallmarks of twenty-first century education reform has been a contempt for participatory democracy, particularly at the local level. Communities can’t be trusted to make the “right” policy choices, and must have good choices imposed on them by people who know better, like Bill Gates or Walmart.

Most of the people I talk to in Iowa City are no fans of that kind of “reform.” But I’ve been disappointed by how quickly some Iowa Citians resort to that same kind of argument when it serves their own policy preferences.

In the discussions of our district’s diversity policy and its long-term facilities plan, some people have been so certain that they know the “right thing to do” that they don’t care whether the public has been persuaded to agree. School board members have been urged to “stand up to the public.” People have asserted that the board will have to disregard the public if any progress is to be made. People have asserted that school closures will have to happen whether the public wants them or not. People have said that the board should worry not about what the public wants but about “what the district needs” – as defined, of course, by whoever happens to be speaking.

I’m not arguing that a public board should make all of its decisions via pollster. Everyone understands that, on most issues, we’ve entrusted the school board to study the alternatives and use its best judgment to reach a decision. Some issues are important enough to people, though, that even the board recognizes the need to make special efforts to seek public input. On the facilities issue, the board’s steering committee did just that, repeatedly inviting public input and inducing hundreds of people to attend three-hour-long workshops to familiarize themselves with the issue and express their views.

The participants at those workshops made it clear – by an almost two-to-one margin – that they preferred a plan that didn’t close any schools. Given the lengthy workshop process, and the fact that the committee did everything it could to nudge people toward plans that would close schools, it’s no longer possible to argue that people would support school closings if only they had more information. Nor is this a situation, as some have argued, where the public “wants everything” and so the board has to “be the parent.” In fact, the hundreds of people who attended the workshops were presented with several choices, each of which clearly described its advantages and disadvantages, and they decidedly chose one over the others.

In that situation, it’s not so easy to be dismissive of public preferences. Any argument that the board should close schools, regardless of what the public wants, now raises some hard questions. Were the community workshops just for show? If board candidates don’t advocate school closings when they campaign, and then disregard public opinion about school closings once in office, how can the public control its own school system? Do we have a public school system, or not? When there’s a disagreement over what the community needs, who should be the final authority: the public, or you?