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?”

“What about all those kids who go to Regina?”

“Again, Hoover currently serves 361 gen-ed students, 211 of whom live within a mile of the school – more than most nearby schools. And Regina draws from all over. Remember how we used to pay for their buses?”

“But the kids near Hoover can still go to one of those other nearby schools.”

“Sure, if we spend money to expand the others. And you could say that about the closing of any number of schools. But the neighborhood nearest to Hoover, just south of Court Street – which is almost a third of Hoover’s attendance area – is a very affordable neighborhood that is sustained by its proximity to Hoover. If Hoover is closed, those families will be hurt to benefit wealthier families and land developers on the far east side, where the third new elementary will be built.”

“But the kids across from Hoover can just go to Longfellow.”

“Even if that were true, the neighborhood would be greatly affected by the closure. No one looking for a house near Longfellow School is likely to look in the neighborhood across the street from Hoover. Wealthy neighborhoods farther from an elementary school can do fine; less wealthy neighborhoods will have a harder time. Moreover, it’s not at all clear, under the district’s diversity policy, that that neighborhood can be shifted to Longfellow. The current Hoover attendance area comes relatively close to the district’s diversity goals; breaking it up would pose several challenges to meeting those goals.”

“But that neighborhood will benefit from the improvements to City High.”

“Whatever value that neighborhood gets from being near City High, it has already. No twelve-classroom expansion of City – especially one that results in a parking lot on the Hoover property – will even come close to making up for the loss of the neighborhood elementary school.”

“A long-range plan is always subject to change. If the growth doesn’t materialize, we can change the plan.”

“But as soon as the board votes to close Hoover, people will treat the neighborhood differently. And once the school is torn down, it’s too late to undo the closure. If we’re really not sure that it needs to be closed, why not announce that it will stay open, and reevaluate that at some later time?”

“Class sizes will have to rise if we try to operate too many schools.”

“If operational costs rise, there will upward pressure on class sizes; the administrators suggested at the last meeting that the average class size would be increased by a fraction of one student if the long-term plan tried to do too much. That’s not attributable to Hoover specifically, though. Again, one way to keep operational costs down is to keep Hoover open and not build the third new elementary. And Scenario 1c, which kept all the schools open and built three new elementaries, had lower operational costs than any of the current proposals.”

“But Scenario 1c built a parking ramp at City High. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

“Even with the construction of that one-level parking deck, Scenario 1c had lower first costs, lower life cycle costs, and lower annual operating and staff costs than the two plans now before the board. Moreover, the board has not explored other ways to expand City. It’s also possible that the consultants intentionally offered the parking ramp in its scenario as the least palatable way of expanding City, to push people toward closing Hoover.”

“City High can’t possibly expand without closing Hoover.”

“Under all the scenarios, City would get library and cafeteria expansions and other upgrades. The issue is whether it can also build twelve additional classrooms, which would hold 300 students, without closing Hoover. The board has not explored other ways to build that addition. Possibilities worth exploring: creating space by shifting an athletic field (softball?) to Mercer; building six of the twelve classrooms on top of the existing building; building some space above an existing parking area; compromising by building only a 150-student addition; and/or regulating student parking more tightly. Building twelve additional classrooms doesn’t justify turning the entire Hoover property over to City High.”

“But those ideas all have disadvantages.”

“Yes, they do. So does closing an existing elementary school.”

“Well, at least you agree that City needs to expand.”

“No, it’s not at all clear why City needs to expand. All the scenarios entail building a new, third high school in the North Liberty area. If we’re going from two high schools to three, there is no reason to think that City needs a 300-student expansion. If all the students for the new high school come from West High, West will have a lot of unused capacity, at the same time we’re building that 300-room addition onto City.”

“But the consultants said that there would be a great increase in the number of students over the next ten years.”

“The consultants gave ‘low,’ ‘moderate,’ and ‘high’ estimates of enrollment growth, yet they recommended that the district plan for a number at the very high end of that range. If our growth is not at the high end of the range, then we are overbuilding and overspending under any of the scenarios.”

“But the consultants said that the schools hold a lot fewer students than we thought.”

“They did, and at the meetings you can see how desperately the district wants to believe those new capacity determinations. But they are patently unrealistic, since they imply that many classrooms can hold no more than twenty – and sometimes as few as fifteen – students, and we can’t afford, under any scenario, to cut class sizes that far. Everyone knows we will be putting more kids into those buildings than the consultants’ numbers indicate, but the district won’t adjust their projections accordingly. At a recent meeting with parents, even City High’s principal wasn’t willing to argue that City is now almost 200 students overcrowded, as the consultants claim.”

“City High needs to grow larger to remain viable.”

“Everyone agrees that City High is one of the best high schools in the state of Iowa. It is in no danger of not being ‘viable.’”

“But if anyone gets moved out of City’s attendance area for the sake of the new high school, it’s likely to be the wealthier families in the Lincoln and Shimek elementary school attendance areas, which would leave City with a disproportionate number of poor families.”

“There is no reason to think that Lincoln or Shimek will have to leave City to fill the third high school, which will draw mainly or even entirely from West High. The question is really whether we will have to adjust the boundary between City and West to fill existing capacity at West. The district’s diversity policy would preclude making that adjustment by shifting higher-income neighborhoods to West. Moreover, the development that is projected on the east side – which will certainly attend City – is likely to be high-income neighborhoods. Finally, under the diversity policy, the Lincoln and Shimek attendance areas themselves will have to become more economically diverse, so even if you did shift them, it would have less of an effect on the diversity of the high schools.”

“But I don’t want City to be the smallest of the three high schools.”

“City currently has 42% of the total high school enrollment, and there is no scenario under which City becomes the smallest high school. If City expands by 300 students, it will almost certainly be the largest of the three, even if the enrollment grows as projected. Which is why I keep asking (to no avail): What percentage of the total enrollment will City High have after a third high school is opened? Forty-five? Fifty?”

“I’d like to change the subject now.”

“It’s okay, I'm used to it.”

“The consultants said that closing Hoover to benefit City High was a ‘common theme’ of the community workshops.”

“That is a phrase pulled out of thin air by the consultants. The sentiment at the community workshops and in the district’s survey of registered voters was almost two-to-one against closing any schools. Even after people at the last community workshop were asked how they would change their favorite plan, 63% chose plans that did not close Hoover. The comments are all a matter of public record; count them yourself.”

“But Hoover can’t remain viable in the long run.”

“Hoover has thrived for over sixty years. The houses in Hoover’s area, and the other areas that are served by close-in schools, aren’t going anywhere. The only threat to Hoover’s long-run viability is the ongoing desire of some supporters of City High to get their hands on its property. If Hoover ever has too much capacity, it will only be because of the other (expensive) construction that is included in the proposed plan.”

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

And so on. As one reader emailed me:
The rationales are shifting because they aren’t the real reason for closing Hoover. Roosevelt was closed because they otherwise couldn’t justify building Borlaug. Hoover will be closed because they otherwise can’t justify the 3rd new elementary school . . . The rationales are just being offered because they can’t say we are giving a gift to this specific developer/neighborhood at your expense.
I wish I had an answer for that argument.


Michael Tilley said...

I was flabbergasted that a board representative said, "I don't know" in response to my question about the objection to the 1C proposal. How could you not have a clear and defensible argument against that the community's most popular proposal at this point in the process? (Particularly since the board member who responded that way was on the steering committee.) The 1C proposal shows that the issue is not about operational costs and its not expanding City High.

Perhaps its aesthetic displeasure at a two-level parking structure, or having a 1200 third high school. But those are very different issues than "City can't expand" and "operational costs" will be higher. And are those costs to 1C worth closing a good elementary school.

Chris said...

Michael -- I agree. I thought your question -- "What's the objection to Scenario 1c" -- never got answered (even after I asked it a second time).

I was talking with a neighbor today who didn't know the details of the various scenarios but knew that they want to close Hoover to expand City. His idea: "Why don't they just build a ramp?"

By the way, this close-up from the district's materials shows where the students who attend City are. Hoover, of course, is right next to the star that marks City. Judge for yourself how many students are in the areas around Hoover.

Chris said...

Another unanswered question: How does a 300-student addition create a need for a 750-stall parking deck?