Tuesday, July 23, 2013

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.


Chris said...

Another parallel to the Roosevelt closure is the cavalier way in which families are being reassured that, if Hoover closes, they will go to a particular school. Families south of Court Street, for example, are being reassured that Longfellow is not that far away.

In fact, once the Windsor Ridge area is no longer part of Longfellow, Longfellow’s rate of free and reduced-price lunch (“FRL,” which the district uses as a rough measure of economic diversity) will jump upward. That will make it hard, under the district’s diversity policy, to move families from the south-of-Court neighborhood into Longfellow.

In any event, it is quite clearly *not* district policy to send all families to the closest school; it is disingenuous for current board members to pretend otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
ICCSD has too many tiny elementary schools.

My child now attends a school district of over 18,000 (one of the best in the country), which only has 15 elementary schools (and 4 HS). Each elementary has about 100 students per grade in 4-5 classrooms (which is pretty optimal from educational and efficiency standpoint), so there are about 600 students total (k-5). There are no combined grades. Each school is modern (many were completely demolished and rebuilt in the last 10-20 years); there are no schools from before 1960. Each school also has ample space for playing fields (or expansion if necessary). My child's school has two playgrounds, a large soccer field, and a general run around area.

ICCSD, in comparison, has 19 elementary schools, but the enrollment is only 12,000. Because of the tiny schools, grades are frequently combined. School yards are generally tiny, and many buildings are ancient.

My point is that I think the district should strive to provide an improved educational experience that matches the best in the U.S. Many of the older elementaries in the district fall short of this. Why not complete rebuilds in plots that allow for elementaries to be large enough to allow for efficiency gains along with improved educational experiences. Larger schools will also go along way towards the district's diversity goals.

Finally, it is worth noting that many of the so-called neighborhood schools are not neighborhood schools at all. Mann draws a subtantial number of students from the other side of Dubuque. The majority of Lincoln comes from more than 4 miles away.

I am not advocating for the closure of Hoover. If anything, it might be a good candidate for a complete rebuild and expansion (by taking some of the playing fields from City High). Mann and Lincoln, in contrast, are substandard infrastructure and both lack the ability to expand.

My point is that educational needs are not driving the planning process. Much of what is going on has more to do with pumping up City and maintaining privilege (i.e, avoiding integration). It blow my mind that the district wants to build three more (presumably tiny) elementary schools. If you think about the long run, pouring more money into City and building more tiny elementary schools is probably not good policy.

Chris said...

In response to B.P. Waterbury's comment over at the P-C:

First, please read my previous comment. It is not at all safe for anyone to assume that they will be sent to the closest school if Hoover closes.

Second, I'm in favor of making efforts to even out economic disparities among the schools. (I was against the diversity policy itself, because it set numerical goals without any discussion of what it would take to meet them.) But again, the current Hoover attendance area is relatively diverse. Breaking it up into parts may well make it harder, not easier, to even out economic disparities. If anything, it may be the wealthier parts of the Hoover district that will need to be added to Longfellow to comply with the diversity policy.

If Windsor Ridge is redistricted to Grant Wood, who will the new far-east-side elementary serve? Will the kids near Hoover travel to Lemme, and the kids near Lemme to the new school?

It's easy now to imagine redistricting scenarios that solve all of our problems. The reality will be much more difficult.

Chris said...

Anonymous – Thanks for commenting. Those are at least reasonable arguments for shifting to fewer, larger schools. Ultimately, though, there’s no objective right answer; it depends on what people value for their kids. You’re not wrong for your value choices, and you’re right to try to persuade other people to agree, but neither are people wrong for wanting smaller, neighborhood elementary schools (or at least not straying any farther from that model than we are now). The board has to work with the population it has, especially if it wants to get voter approval of the funding that will be necessary to do all the things it wants to do. All indications are that people here are not persuaded by the argument for bigness, and would prefer to continue to keep existing schools in the neighborhoods, even if that means the fields aren’t as large, etc.

Though, as you recognize, some schools here now have far-flung attendance areas, most do serve their immediate neighborhoods, and Hoover in particular is both compact and diverse. It’s true that this district doesn’t have an entirely “neighborhood school” model, but the real question is whether we’re going to intentionally move farther from that model.

By the way, the new elementaries are going to be built to hold 500 students, which, around here at least, qualifies as big rather than tiny. Whether there will actually be 500 students to put in them is an entirely different question . . .

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
Many thanks for the points. Having lived in IC for many years, I have three observations. First, 100 students per grade in a school is not big (compared to other school districts); 200 per grade in a school is getting big. There are no "big" elementary schools in ICCSD. Second, my point is focused on school-size inequities. Why do only some neighborhoods get these tiny neighborhood schools? Where is the consistency across all schools? From an equity standpoint, infrastructure inequalities do not look good. Third, tiny neighborhood schools maintain/promote class and race-based segregation. If a town/city is segregated, then neighborhood schools maintain this segregation. Iowa City is segregated, unfortunately.

Again, I am not advocating for the closure of Hoover. I was actually surprised by its selection. I thought Lincoln was a goner, and it should be.

Chris said...

Well, it seems like everyone means something different by “equity.” If you just mean that there are (sometimes significant) differences between school buildings, it’s hard for me to get too worked up about that. Mann will never be Borlaug. Yet it’s the people who are supposedly disadvantaged by those differences – e.g., the families at Mann – who seem to be most in favor of continuing to make use of the existing schools.

I think the question of diversifying the schools economically is a more important one. But it’s hard to see how building three new schools while closing one – especially one that is relatively diverse – is justified by that concern.

julie vandyke said...

Anonymous said..."ICCSD has too many tiny elementary schools." OK, first I have no respect for people who don't use their names to comment and two Lincoln has excellent test scores and a close-knit community that call it their neighborhood school. Both schools also have excellent test scores, which, unfortunately are the measure of such things. Not only do you post with no name, you don't name the particular utopian (in your eyes) district you are talking about...for all we know you could be one of our highly paid consultant employees...

Chris said...

Julie -- Thanks for commenting. I don't agree with Anonymous on this issue, but in his or her defense: I think there is value in allowing people to comment anonymously, especially in school system where so many people seem to fear repercussions from speaking up. Readers, of course, are free to give anonymous comments less weight if they choose to.

KD said...

The shift of wealth aspect does bother me. I frankly would have thought better of the school board that they would not take this into account after the Roosevelt issues of several years ago.

Chris said...

KD -- One of the striking things about the Roosecelt closure was the shift from a walkable school to one that almost all the kids take a bus to. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the Hoover closure will cause a similar shift, because we have no idea what the redistricting will bring, but it certainly makes you wonder.