Saturday, August 31, 2013

Some thoughts on Tuyet Dorau

As I posted yesterday, the Save Hoover group (which I’m a part of) has endorsed Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, and Sara Barron for school board. The endorsement was the closest we could come to a consensus, and I know it doesn’t speak for every Hoover supporter. I hope people will take it as one piece of information and make their own decisions.

I found it very hard to decide which candidates to support, because six of the nine have supported keeping Hoover open: Hemingway, Geerdes, Barron, Tuyet Dorau, Jim Tate, and Chris Lynch. (And of course there are other issues besides the Hoover closure – though many of them, such as responsiveness to public input, transparency, and fiscal sense, are implicated by the closure decision.)

It was particularly hard in the case of Tuyet Dorau. Dorau is an incumbent board member who voted against the plan to close Hoover. At the board meeting where the plan was approved, she was the only member who asked hard questions about the data on which the plan was based, rather than uncritically accepting the consultants’ interpretations. She was the only board member who acknowledged the public’s clear opposition to closing schools without a compelling purpose.

I haven’t always agreed with Dorau, which doesn’t distinguish her from any school board member in history. But she did vote against the indoctrination policy I described here. She also voted against the ill-advised attempt to regulate the public’s expression at board meetings that I described here. When I complained about PBIS, the district’s reward-based behavior modification program, she engaged in a public discussion of it with me, while none of the other members of the board so much as acknowledged my letter.

The consensus wasn’t there for a Dorau endorsement, in part because she has, in the past, spoken in favor of moving toward larger elementaries at the expense of closing smaller ones. She has also said that preserving the viability of a town or neighborhood should not be a factor in the board’s decisions. Both of those views, in my opinion, are too narrowly focused on dollars and cents to the exclusion of intangible costs, and too narrowly define the board’s mission.

Given her previously expressed views, some have criticized Dorau’s vote on Hoover as inconsistent or insincere. The two stances are not, in fact, inconsistent, since even someone who wants to close smaller schools might think differently about Hoover, which held almost 400 students last year, and is located in an economically diverse area with no shortage of kids. But even if they were, there is no shame in declining to push one’s personal preferences on an unwilling public. This particular criticism of Dorau tends to come from supporters of candidates who are fully on board for closing Hoover, which makes it that much less persuasive.

Say what you want about Tuyet Dorau. One thing is undeniable: she’s not the reason Hoover School might close. Neither is any west-side hostility to the east side. Neither are fiscal considerations or enrollment trends. If Hoover closes, it will be because of the over-reaching of a particular group of activists who are narrowly focused on City High, and who have decided that the fate of City desperately depends on using the Hoover property for, um, . . . something.

I’m voting for Hemingway, Geerdes, and Barron. There are great reasons to vote for those three, which I’ll be posting about over the next week, and I do think it’s important to try to concentrate the votes of Hoover supporters as much as possible on only three candidates. Moreover, although I’m a terrible predictor, I suspect that Hemingway, Geerdes, and Barron need help more than Dorau does, and I want to put my votes where they’ll have the greatest impact. But I know that many Hoover families and neighbors are grateful to Dorau for her vote against the closure, and that many of them will be voting for her. I won’t be trying very hard to talk them out of it.

UPDATE: After I put this post up, Tuyet Dorau and I engaged in an email exchange that she agreed I could include here:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Save Hoover endorses Hemingway, Geerdes, and Barron

The Save Hoover Committee has endorsed Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, and Sara Barron as the board candidates that provide the best chance of reversing the decision to close Hoover School. I had one vote in that recommendation, and it was a tough choice, since six of the nine candidates – Hemingway, Geerdes, Barron, Tuyet Dorau, Jim Tate, and Chris Lynch – have voiced support for keeping Hoover open. More on my own decision process in my next post. Here is the text of the endorsement:


The Save Hoover group has been working to pursue a reversal of the school board’s vote to close Hoover School. Many people have asked us which candidates in the upcoming board election support keeping Hoover open. After meeting with the candidates and reading their statements on the issue, we believe a vote for these three candidates will help maximize the chance that Hoover will stay open:

PHIL HEMINGWAY. A Hoover neighborhood resident, Hemingway is a longtime supporter of neighborhood schools. Hemingway wants the school board to follow through on the promises made to renovate and improve schools, not close them. He wants to restore the public’s faith in the board.

GREGG GEERDES. Geerdes opposes the closure of Hoover because it doesn’t make economic sense to close a vibrant, successful school at a time when enrollment is growing. Geerdes understands that closing a school only to rebuild the capacity elsewhere is short-sighted and unaffordable.

SARA BARRON. As a member of the Facilities Steering Committee, Barron voted against the proposal to close Hoover. Barron has a keen understanding of the capacity issues the district faces, thinks critically about the data, and is willing to challenge the administration when necessary.

Incumbent board member Tuyet Dorau deserves credit for voting against the closure. Candidates Chris Lynch and Jim Tate also support keeping Hoover open. But we believe that voting for Hemingway, Geerdes, and Barron offers the best chance of saving Hoover.

Candidates Karla Cook, Brian Kirschling, and Jason Lewis all favor closing Hoover. Cook voted for the closure as a board member.

Your polling place may have changed. To find your polling place, contact the Johnson County Auditor’s Office at 356-6004, or visit You can vote early at the Auditor’s Office instead of waiting until September 10.

You are allowed to vote for three candidates. We strongly urge you to use all three of your votes. Thank you for your interest in this issue.

Paid for by the Save Hoover Committee, Chris Liebig, chair.
For more information, visit

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Transparency check, part 3

Our school district (commendably) puts its meetings on video and makes them available through its website. They are very up-to-date, and even have the most recent meeting, held on August 13, available for viewing. Yet there is one conspicuous gap in the list of available videos: the school board meeting held on July 23, when five board members – including current board candidate Karla Cook – voted to approve the plan to close Hoover School. What possible reason could there be for not having that video available, over a month later?

Deafening silences

City High parent Mary Anne Berg writes in support of the Hoover closure in today’s Press-Citizen. It’s the first and only opinion piece in favor of the closure that I’ve seen. See how persuasive you think the argument is.

Berg mentions that necessary renovations to Hoover would cost five million dollars, but she conspicuously fails to mention that tearing the school down and rebuilding its capacity elsewhere will cost fifteen million dollars. Berg then argues that “As an additional benefit, the City High campus will have room to expand to better meet needs.” Like every other closure supporter that I have heard, including the school board members who approved the plan, Berg will not say how the Hoover property will be used to benefit City High. Instead, Berg concludes that “I am confident that the district will use the Hoover property in a way that respects its neighbors and that helps meet the needs of City.” She’s confident, so don’t worry. But please don’t ask what that use will be.

Recess is not just a carrot

Just a reminder as the school years starts back up: It is against district policy to withhold recess as a form of punishment except in “in extreme circumstances where all other methods have been exhausted or for continued unacceptable behavior exhibited during recess.” Recess isn’t a frill or a tool for behavioral manipulation; it has important educational value – you might as well punish kids by withholding math – and it is just basic decency to give kids some downtime during the day. This policy, enacted by our elected school board, seems to have made no impression at all on our schools. More commentary here..

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Transparency check, part 2

One of the board candidates, Chris Lynch, helpfully pointed me to this chart from the 2013 enrollment report, which shows that Hoover had 71 transfer students from Twain and Wood elementaries last year. Even if you were to subtract that entire number from the total enrollment, you’d end up with 295 students, just short of the consultants’ 304-student capacity number for Hoover – and that’s not even counting the approximately 30 special ed and preschool students in the building. It’s those (unrealistic) capacity numbers that have justified all the additional construction in the board’s plan, but they are conveniently ignored when it’s time to rationalize the closure of Hoover. If the pro-closure candidates were consistent, they’d have to be concerned about Hoover being overcrowded, not about it being half-empty.

Notice also that the chart uses a different total enrollment number (366) than the district used elsewhere in the facilities discussion (361). Yet last week the district refused to disclose the first-day enrollment numbers for this school year, because of an internal rule that “we use the official state counts for all public discussion.” Uh-oh – the confusion is too much for me!

Part 1 here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Transparency check

I’ve come to realize that blogging effectively is sometimes a matter of repeating oneself over and over to combat misinformation that will not die. One such piece of false information is that Hoover School currently has 129 transfer students from “schools in need of assistance” (SINAs). When we finally get a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the argument goes, the loss of those 129 kids will mean that we can no longer fill the school.

The argument would be bad enough even if the statistic were true, for reasons I’ve already talked about. There is no shortage of students to fill Hoover’s seats in this densely populated area, which is one reason the board’s plan builds 330 seats of new capacity onto two nearby schools Mann and Longfellow. So maybe I shouldn’t get riled up about that one statistic. But the statistic is blatantly false. There were 129 transfer students at Hoover last year, but only a fraction of them were SINA transfers. Most of the schools have 50 or 60 ordinary intra-district transfers – kids who want to stay at a certain school after the family moves out of the attendance area, for example. Those transfers will still happen even if we get a No Child waiver, and even if some SINA students are redistricted into newly built schools. The actual number of SINA transfers must be significantly lower than 129.

So I emailed the school district to get the correct information:
Hi – I’m wondering if you can tell me how many of the 129 transfers into Hoover last year were from SINA schools. People keep throwing that 129 number around as if all of the transfers will disappear if we ever get a waiver of NCLB (or if some are redistricted into a new school), but I assume that some portion of those transfers were ordinary open enrollment transfers. I’d like to clear up that piece of information if possible.

Thanks for any information.
The district’s chief operating officer replied:
Hi, Chris. I don’t believe the district keeps data on who is attending a different school on a SINA transfer versus any other sort of transfer.
Really? Surely the district knows the addresses of the students who attend Hoover. Moreover, the intra-district transfer form even asks the parents to fill in the following information:
If this is a SINA transfer request, do you want the district to assign your child to another school if your desired school(s) is not available for transfers? __YES __ NO

School Your Child Currently Attends (or School where you reside, if your child is not yet in school: ________________
So it’s hard for me to believe that the district doesn’t know the accurate number of SINA transfers at Hoover, or couldn’t easily determine it. But instead, the question goes unanswered, and the false statistic takes on a life of its own in the facilities debate.

UPDATE: Part 2 here.

How big will that parking lot be?

Though nobody is saying what will be done with the Hoover School property if the school is closed, we have some pretty strong hints from the facilities planning process. The rationale given was that the closing was necessary to permit the construction of a 300-student addition onto City High. Everyone seems to agree that the addition itself cannot go on the Hoover property, though, because Hoover is so far (and on a different elevation) from the other classroom parts of City. So how does taking Hoover make the addition possible?

We were repeatedly told, by the consultants and by school board member Jeff McGinness, that any plan to keep Hoover open and also build the addition would require the construction of a two-story, 750-stall parking ramp. Yet, in the scenarios that close Hoover, the ramp disappears. Once City takes Hoover, apparently, there is room for a surface lot instead of a ramp.

Let’s start by imagining the ramp, and let’s give the plan the benefit of the doubt. First, maybe the two-story ramp would go on top of an existing lot, thus adding only about 375 spaces. (There is no existing lot that size, so it seems likely that it would go somewhere else and add far more spaces, but I’m trying to make this a conservative estimate.) Second, maybe the new addition would also displace some existing parking. Here’s a map of City, with the number of spaces in each parking lot marked:

Even if they took the entire northwest lot for the new addition, they would lose only 151 spaces. (Although the Google map is outdated because it doesn’t show the new performing arts addition, I went over to City and counted the spaces myself. I included the approximately 35 unmarked spaces that are used for parking on the east side of the property.)

That means that the plan would add 375 spaces while losing 151, for a net addition of 224 spaces. City starts with about 590 spaces, so the plan would increase that number, at the very least, to a total of 814.

West High, which currently has 1,956 students, has a total of about 750 parking spaces. Yet the plan that brings City up to a capacity of 1,593 somehow requires 814 spaces.

If the two-story ramp is out of the question, then City would have to reach that total some other way – by adding those 375 spaces somewhere else. Without the ramp, we’re told, the only way to do it is by taking Hoover. So let’s imagine what 375 parking spaces on the Hoover land would look like. Here’s what Hoover looks like now:

The north parking lot at West High has 372 spaces, so it’s a good comparison. Here’s what that lot looks like, at the same scale:

So here’s what the Hoover property looks like with a 372-space lot on top of it:

So much for athletic fields.

If there is some other conclusion to draw about how Hoover would be used under the board’s plan, I’d sure like to know what it is.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thoughts on the Hoover candidate meeting

People concerned about the potential closure of Hoover School met today with all nine school board candidates, and I just wanted to post some quick thoughts about the meeting here.

The meeting pretty much confirmed the impressions that we already had. Of the nine candidates, there are five or six who express varying degrees of doubt about whether it makes sense to close Hoover. Phil Hemingway, Gregg Geerdes, Sara Barron, and Tuyet Dorau all spoke persuasively about why the case for closing Hoover is so unconvincing. Chris Lynch was also supportive of keeping Hoover open, and Jim Tate expressed his own doubts about the decision.

Three candidates supported going forward with the closure: Karla Cook, Brian Kirschling, and Jason Lewis.

It was striking to see how unpersuasive the pro-closure arguments sounded when they had to share the stage with arguments that made sense. Karla Cook repeated all the flawed reasoning that I’ve been responding to here, arguing that there are simply not enough kids in Hoover’s attendance area to fill its capacity. She seems to think that the school, which last year had two temporaries and held almost 400 kids (including general education, special ed, and preschool), will suddenly sit half-empty if it loses the kids who transfer in from SINA schools. (Though the district hasn’t specified, there are probably about 70 or 80 such kids; the rest being ordinary open-enrollment transfers that every school has – another fact that is constantly misstated.) Cook even said that Hoover would have only enough students to fill one classroom in each grade, which is preposterous, even without the inevitable redrawing of boundaries. Iowa City isn’t Hills.

Lewis’s argument was, in effect: now that we’ve already decided to build all this new capacity, we have to close a school or it will all be too expensive. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. It’s a good thing Lewis hadn’t already decided to build six new elementaries; then we’d have close three more older schools — to save money! It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it would be simpler and cheaper to build only as much new capacity as we need above and beyond what our existing schools provide.

Lewis also distributed a map showing the overlapping radiuses of the schools in the central Iowa City area. We have a lot of schools in central Iowa City, the argument seemed to go, therefore we have to close one. Of course, we also have a lot of kids in central Iowa City. Without a discussion of whether there are too few kids relative to the capacity of those schools, the map is meaningless. Though Lewis thinks we won’t be able to fill Hoover’s capacity, he simultaneously favors adding 330 seats of capacity to two other nearby schools (Mann and Longfellow). If there aren’t enough kids to fill those central east-side schools, why are we adding capacity to two of them, to the tune of about fifteen million dollars? But for Lewis, building new capacity comes first; then the need to tear down a school follows. You might as well light your money on fire.

I couldn’t understand what Kirschling’s argument was, other than that “the decision has been made,” and so the board should go ahead with it. So much for elections.

None of the candidates who support the closure made any attempt to explain how the land would be used for City High. They acted like they would close Hoover even if it weren’t right next to City, which is disingenuous. Neither enrollment nor cost considerations are actually motivating the closure. It is all about getting that land for City, probably to put a parking lot on it.

At some point, I expect the Save Hoover organizers to make some recommendations about which candidates to choose to maximize the chances of reversing the closure. In the meantime, it’s nice to see so many of the candidates expressing opposition or doubts. (Interestingly, two-thirds of the candidates questioned the closure, which is very close to the percentage of the public who opposed the closure at the community workshops.) Each voter can cast only three votes, and it’s going to be hard to narrow those good choices down to three. I’ll be talking out my own thought process here over the next week or so.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

We’re rich!

Karen W. points out that by tearing Hoover down and rebuilding that capacity elsewhere, the district is spending fifteen million dollars to annex five acres of property to City High. That’s three million per acre – about a hundred times the going rate for undeveloped property.

My house happens to sit on about three-eighths of an acre directly bordering City High. I was very pleased to learn that my property must be worth $1,125,000 to the district.

The small neighborhood just south of Hoover, on 3rd Avenue and Dunlap Court, is almost exactly the same size as the Hoover property. The sum total of the assessed house values there is $3,628,520. Just wait until they learn that their houses are worth over four times what they thought.

But hey, I’m not greedy. I’ll sell for an even million. That’s an eleven percent discount! The district has enough financial sense not to turn down an offer like that, right?


In the discussion of our district’s facilities plan, the idea that “there aren’t that many kids who live in the Hoover attendance area” has been the zombie factoid that will not die. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, the population of the Hoover area is not projected to grow significantly because it is a densely populated area that is already filled with houses. Yes, Hoover currently serves a number of students from farther away who have chosen to transfer out of “schools in need of assistance” under No Child Left Behind. But Hoover also currently has two temporary classrooms; shouldn’t we want its enrollment to shrink some?

Hoover serves more kids in its own enrollment area (232) than Lincoln (201), Mann (190), Shimek (147), or Hills (80), and those schools have much more far-flung attendance areas. Hoover has 129 transfers, but all the schools have transfer students; the district average is 60 per school. Finally, the boundaries will certainly be redrawn anyway; the point is that Hoover is a relatively big school in a densely populated, economically diverse area and can easily be filled in any redistricting scheme.

But a picture is worth a thousand statistics. Here is an overhead view of the area around Hoover (click to enlarge). See if you can estimate the number of houses.

By contrast, here is a same-scale overhead view of Borlaug Elementary, which opened when the district closed another school in a densely populated area (Roosevelt Elementary) four years ago. See if you can – oh, never mind.

Ninety-two percent of the students at Borlaug take a bus to school. Six buses go there every day. How many teachers would that pay for? But somehow keeping Hoover open is too expensive; fiscal responsibility demands that we tear it down and rebuild its entire capacity elsewhere.

Space is not the real constraint on class size

The Press-Citizen reports today on the school board’s proposed new caps on class size. Both the article and the quotes from the superintendent leave the reader with the impression that the only thing preventing the district from implementing the caps is lack of space. In fact, lack of money to pay additional teachers is the real constraint.

I applied the proposed caps to last year’s elementary school enrollment numbers, school by school, and grade by grade (using the data here). To meet the caps, the district would have needed 333 general education classes. The district actually had about 319 gen-ed classes. So, to meet the caps, it would have needed about 14 more classroom teachers – and that’s just at the elementary level. There were schools that did not meet the caps but had available classrooms (for example, Borlaug). The only thing that stopped the district from having smaller classes in those schools was lack of money to pay the teachers.

By contrast, space constraints currently play a more limited role. The district would have needed 333 gen-ed classrooms to meet the caps. The district currently has 405 total elementary school classrooms, not counting temporaries. Even reserving four rooms in each building for art, music, and other uses, the district had 329 classrooms to work with. The bigger problem was that the classrooms weren’t necessarily in the schools where the students were, because it’s been so long since some attendance areas were adjusted.

The number of classrooms needed in each building under the caps would vary each year with even minor changes in enrollment, so additional wiggle room would be nice. And of course, enrollment will grow, so eventually we’ll need even more space (though whether that adds up to three new elementaries is another question). But all the additional classrooms in the world won’t create money to hire fourteen new teachers (and more at the secondary level). It’s constraints on hiring, not constraints on space, that make the class size caps challenging.

At the high school level, constraints on space are more of a factor. (The same data about number of classrooms just isn’t available, so it’s hard to assess in as much detail.) But again, additional space won’t create the money to hire additional teachers.

And, again, even under the caps, the existing classrooms can (and will) hold more students than the consultants’ new capacity determinations would permit.

Friday, August 23, 2013

You can’t handle the enrollment numbers

I emailed the school district last night to ask if anyone could tell me how many students are now enrolled. School has been in session for three days, and all the students have been assigned to classrooms, so they must know how many there are, right?

I received a message back telling me that the official counts don’t occur until October 1. I replied:
Thanks -- I know the official count comes in October, but would it be possible to say how many kids there were on opening day (and to compare that to last year’s opening day)? I would think the district must know, since all the kids had to be assigned to particular classrooms.

It’s our first opportunity to get an (admittedly limited) sense of whether the consultants’ capacity projections are borne out by actual enrollment figures. Since the facilities plan is a big topic of discussion in the board election, I’d hate to have to wait until October if there is even preliminary information available before September 10.
The superintendent replied:
In order to ensure that conversations about enrollment are consistent we use the official state counts for all public discussion. As with past years, our numbers will continue to fluctuate between now and the official count as new students arrive and students who have left are unenrolled. Releasing information prior to the official count has generated significant confusion in past years. To address that confusion we adopted a practice of using the official state enrollment count for all public discussion. We will release those numbers, disaggregated by school, when they are finalized. Prior to that date we will contain our conversations about enrollment numbers to estimated changes in the aggregate (District and/ or school grade range including elementary, junior high school, and high school).
So they have the information, but won’t tell us, because they’re afraid we’ll be confused? I’m not saying the district has something to hide, but this kind of paternalism drives me crazy. They need to stop treating the voters like children who have to be constantly managed for their own good. (They need to stop treating the children that way, too.) People are capable of understanding if counts are “preliminary” or “as of a certain date.” If “people might be confused” were a sufficient reason to withhold information, think how much could be withheld.

I also understand that the count would shed only limited light on the accuracy of the consultants’ projections (which is true of the October numbers, too). Still, you would think that the one-year-out projection would, if anything, be more accurate than those for later years. The enrollment numbers are important because the consultants’ high-end projection was part of the justification for all the district’s planned spending and construction, and for the closure of Hoover School as well. The opening-day count, especially as compared to last year’s, is a piece of information that would be useful to the public in the discussion of issues leading up to the election of school board members. It’s particularly unseemly for the district to withhold information at a time when people are exercising their right to oversee the very people who are withholding the information.

Enough with the paternalism.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The easiest way to meet the diversity goals

One of the issues in our school board election is how to address the disparities in free- and reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates at different schools. FRL status is what the district uses as a proxy for low-income status. Some of our elementary schools have very high FRL rates – as high, in one case, as 70% – which indicates challenges for those schools that other schools don’t have to deal with. The district recently passed a diversity policy aimed, in part, at reducing those disparities between schools.

There has been a lot of brainstorming about how to meet the diversity goals. Redistricting, which will have to occur when new schools are built, can help to some extent, though too much gerrymandering would not have public support. Many candidates have suggested exploring the possibility of creating magnet schools to lure a mix of incomes to schools that would otherwise be high-FRL. I agree that we should explore magnet schools, but they do raise some logistical questions. The redistricting will almost certainly have to occur before we know whether a magnet school will have enough appeal to work. We’d also have to decide whether to devote an existing school building to the project. If we do, we’re either forcing a “theme school” on people in that attendance area whether they want it or not, or we’re eliminating an attendance area altogether and relying entirely on transfers in. One alternative is to have some kids in a school be part of the magnet program, while others are not, though then the non-magnet part might still have a very high FRL.

Board candidate Brian Kirschling has promoted an idea based on a system used in Champaign, Illinois. As I understand it, the system would essentially abolish attendance areas altogether. Instead, the district would ask each family for its list of preferred schools, then assign each to a school based partly on the stated preferences and partly on factors such as diversity, proximity, siblings, and capacity.

The appeal of the idea is that the district would no longer have to draw boundaries lines and then agonize over adjusting them when they become outdated. But the idea raises several questions. If, for example, everyone in Manville wants to attend Lincoln Elementary, but not all of them can, who would make the decision about who goes and who doesn’t? I don’t think people would be comfortable giving that kind of discretion to our school administrators. It could be done purely by computer algorithm, but the algorithm would have to be so complex that it would be opaque to almost everyone. (Would we bring in consultants to create it?) And presumably it would have to give some weight to proximity, which in effect brings back the concept of attendance areas, at least as a factor. Properties closest to an elementary school would still be especially sought after – good news for Manville and Windsor Ridge, bad news for the low-to-moderate-income neighborhood across Court Street from Hoover, if it closes. Will the rich just get richer?

Moreover, the expense of buses would put limits on whether kids in any one area could attend different schools. The more you think about it, the more it starts to sound like old-fashioned attendance areas, but with fuzzy boundaries that the administrators can adjust as they see fit. In that respect, it’s similar to the idea that Nick Johnson has advocated: Firm attendance areas in a certain radius around the schools, but administratively-assigned schools for the remaining areas. Under either system, families who live farther from the schools bear the “burden” (if it is one) of not knowing in advance where they will attend, so there is still an incentive to buy in some areas rather than another, which ultimately privileges those with the money to buy in those areas.

There’s no perfect system, and all of those ideas are worth exploring and developing. Still, I keep coming back to this idea: When the new schools are built, use the accompanying redistricting to mix populations to some extent within reason. Then, if there are still disparities to be addressed, keep diverting resources into high-FRL schools until they become so appealing that people choose to transfer into them, and FRL rates fall of their own accord. In particular, bring down the class sizes in those schools until people are banging on the doors to get in. (Bad metaphor: with our new security measures, everyone has to bang on the door to get in.)

In the last election, the candidates’ common refrain was “Redistrict resources, not kids” – an indication that the basic concept is palatable to voters. But notice that I’m not arguing that we should tolerate large FRL disparities as long as those schools have a lot of resources (though some would make that argument). I’m arguing that we should make those schools so appealing that the FRL rates in fact come down via voluntary transfers.

Think of it as essentially creating a Small Class-Size Magnet School. But it has an advantage over other theme-based magnet schools, because the class sizes can be adjusted from one year to the next until you zero in on the desired diversity goal. A curricular theme, on the other hand – such as a science- or arts-focused school, either works or it doesn’t. Re-adjusting class sizes every year is a lot easier than re-adjusting boundaries or re-adjusting themes, and anyone who wants to send their kids to the school in their attendance area will still have the option to do so.

It’s true that diverting resources to one school necessarily means taking them from others, but that cost would at least be spread over many schools, and wouldn’t fall on any one group or neighborhood. (Presumably any magnet school would require diverted resources.)


Fellow blogathoner Karen W. chimes in on a different aspect of the diversity discussion here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Preserving existing schools is perfectly compatible with magnet schools

I’m still perplexed by school board candidate Jason Lewis’s post that I discussed here. In the post, Lewis argued that families who transferred out of SINA schools did not “really support neighborhood schools,” and strongly implied that people who are upset about the possible closure of Hoover School, but who did not protest the SINA transfer policy, were trying to “pick and choose” when to support neighborhood schools.

Lewis was even more adamant in discussions on Facebook about the post, writing to one questioner:
What you missed in my blog post is this: transferring out of your neighborhood school for any reason is NOT supporting your neighborhood school.
Lewis has (very reasonably) been outspoken about the very high concentration of students from low-income families – as measured by free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates – in some schools, and in favor (very reasonably) of trying magnet schools as one way to help bring those numbers down. But if he wants magnet schools to work, why would he say that people who voluntarily transfer out of their designated attendance area “for any reason” are “NOT supporting [their] neighborhood school”? That’s not much of a recruiting technique.

It’s one thing to argue (as Lewis later did) that the district shouldn’t have funded the buses for SINA transfers. But why insist that voluntary transfers of any kind are inconsistent with supporting neighborhood schools? Even more confusingly, Lewis says that he supports the right of families to transfer out of SINA schools – “Unequivocally and without reserve.” Why? Doesn’t it substantially undermine efforts to reach the diversity goals? Didn’t it cause the very loss of enrollment that he’s upset about? He supports it, but he wanted the Hoover people to protest it? I’m lost.

I know a lot of people who are upset about the Hoover closure and about the possibility of closures in general. None of them, as far as I know, are against the idea of magnet schools as a possible way to bring down FRL disparities. None of them, as far as I know, think that boundaries should never be redrawn, or that we shouldn’t address FRL disparities among schools. What they want is for the district not to close and tear down an existing school without a compelling reason. I’m just not understanding why that triggers the response from Lewis that it does.

Cross-posted at the Iowa City Patch. Comments welcome on either site.

One-stop shopping for the school board election

I want this post to serve as a collecting spot for information about the candidates in our local September 10 school board election. I will keep adding to it as more information becomes available. I’m sure I’m missing things; please feel free to suggest additional links in the comments or via email. (I hope you’ll also feel free to check out some of the site’s other posts while you’re here.)


For live-blogging of the election results as they come (as well as early reports on turnout), click here.


Nine candidates are competing for three seats on the board. Two of them, Tuyet Dorau and Karla Cook, are incumbents. Here’s what the ballot will look like. Find your polling place here. (Go to your “school precinct,” not your “regular precinct.”)

The polls will be open from 7 am to 8 pm on Tuesday, September 10. Early voting has already begun; you can vote early on weekdays between 7:45 am and 5:30 pm at the Johnson County Auditor’s Office, 913 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City. Friday, August 30 is the deadline for the ordinary voter registration process, but election-day voter registration is permitted. Friday, September 6 is the deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail; absentee ballots must be postmarked by Monday, September 9.

Voters will also decide whether to continue the Physical Plant and Equipment Property Tax, and whether to continue a property tax to buy instructional equipment for Kirkwood Community College.


Candidates’ statements on the closure of Hoover
Candidates’ responses on the issue of school closures
The teachers’ union’s questionnaire and responses
Candidates’ responses to the North Corridor Parents’ questionnaire
Candidates’ responses to the Press-Citizen’s questionnaire
Candidates’ responses to the Coalition for Racial Justice’s questionnaire


I know of four scheduled forums:
  • Monday, August 26 at 6:00 pm, Iowa City Public Library Meeting Room A (on special ed issues);
  • Thursday, August 29 at 7:00 pm, Educational Services Center, 1725 North Dodge Street, Iowa City;
  • Tuesday, September 3 at 6:30 pm, Coralville Public Library; and
  • Thursday, September 5 at 6:30 pm, Hills Community Center, 110 Main Street, Hills.
Video of the candidates’ statement at a meeting with Hoover neighborhood residents is here.

Video of the candidate forum on special education is here. (An audio-only version is here.) It is also being replayed frequently on cable Channel 4; the schedule is here.


This blog’s posts on the election
Commentary by John Deeth here, here, and here
Maria Houser Conzemius’s blog (which frequently focuses on school issues)
Press-Citizen letters to the editor supporting board candidates appear here
Press-Citizen: Today's school assignment: Become an educated voter (8/21)
Press-Citizen: Voters should renew levy for Kirkwood Community College (8/27)
Marla Swesey: On Sept. 10, remember to vote 'yes' on PPEL renewal (8/30)
Save Hoover endorses Hemingway, Geerdes, and Barron (8/30)
Press-Citizen: Make sure to vote 'yes' for PPEL on or before Sept. 10 (9/4)
Press-Citizen: Vote Lewis, Lynch and Kirschling for School Board (9/5)
Five reasons to care about the Hoover closure (9/6)
Jan Martins: No matter who wins, focus needed on special ed (9/6)
The Gazette: Our endorsements for school board (9/7)


There has been not yet been any real news coverage of the school election per se, other than articles about the individual candidates announcing their campaigns. (See Candidate Statements and Profiles, below.) I’m going to confine this category to articles and posts that substantively discuss the board election; for news about listening posts and other campaign events, visit the candidates’ websites, below.

Campaign ethics get attention in Iowa City school board race (8/21)
More campaigns doesn't mean more voters (8/22)
Hoover parents attend school board candidate forum (8/25)
Iowa City School Board race crowded with candidates (8/26)
School board candidates weigh in on special education (8/27)
School Board candidates discuss special education (8/27)
Iowa City school district seeks renewal of property tax levy (8/28)
Iowa City School Board Forum (with video) (8/30)
Candidates touch on wide range of topics at forum (8/30)
Sept. 10 school board election brings change in polling places (8/30)
Iowa City school board candidates talk trust, magnet schools at forum (8/30)
Iowa City School Board Candidates Name Priorities (9/3)
Non-School Board issues also go before voters on Election Day (9/3)
Everything you need to know about the Iowa City School Board election (9/4)
Campaign contributions skyrocket in Iowa City school board race (9/5)
School Board candidates reveal fundraising, spending (9/5)
Candidates speak at final forum (9/6)
School Board gives final push before election (9/6)
Temporary polling places school board election (9/6)
Groups endorse school board candidates (9/9)
Nine candidates compete for three seats (9/9)


The newspapers ordinarily run separate profiles of each candidate, as well as candidate statements. None yet; I’ll post them here as they appear. In the meantime, I’ll post links to news coverage of the candidates’ initial campaign announcements.

Sara Barron: News coverage here and here; profile; statement
Karla Cook: News coverage; video interview; profile; statement; profile;
Tuyet Dorau: News coverage here, here, and here; video interview; statement; profile;
Gregg Geerdes: News coverage; video interview; profile; statement; profile; statement;
Phil Hemingway: News coverage here and here; video interview; statement; profile; profile
Brian Kirschling: News coverage; video interview; statement; profile; profile;
Jason T. Lewis: News coverage; video interview; statement; profile; profile; profile
Chris Lynch: News coverage; video interview; statement; profile; profile; profile
Jim Tate: News coverage here and here; video interview; statement; profile


Available here or through their websites, below.


Sara Barron: Facebook page, website, Twitter
Karla Cook: Facebook page, website
Tuyet Dorau: Facebook page, website
Gregg Geerdes: Facebook page, website
Phil Hemingway: Twitter
Brian Kirschling: Facebook page, website, Twitter
Jason T. Lewis: Facebook page, website, Twitter
Chris Lynch: Facebook page, website, Twitter
Jim Tate: Facebook page, Twitter


Links to information on school closings considered during the district’s facilities planning process

School-year learning loss

I suppose it’s the time of year when we’ll start hearing about “summer learning loss” again, and about how kids “lose so much ground” when they’re away from school for two months. The argument always strikes me as more an indictment of school than of summer vacation. If all that “learning” that we’re cramming into their heads has a shelf-life of less than two months, that doesn’t bode well for what will happen when they’re finally done with school.

There is so much discussion about “retention of learning” over summer break, but it seems like nobody wants to talk about what gets retained into actual adulthood.

The “summer learning loss” vision of education seems awfully questionable, not to mention dismal: as if education is like inflating a raft that has a slow leak, only to launch the leaky thing out on the ocean when schooling is finally done. Is that really how development, change, and growth occur?

Why not start with the recognition that, as adults, what we really know well is usually either (1) something we’re interested in, or (2) something we have to do regularly to function in the world. Look how many people in my generation have extensive computer skills, without ever having learned them in school. Look how many people have encyclopedic knowledge – and often a deep understanding, way beyond just memory of facts and figures – of their favorite sport. Meanwhile, look at how little algebra or trigonometry the average adult knows, despite having sat through it in school and crammed for tests about it.

Why not give kids time, space, and opportunity to pursue subjects they’re interested in? Why not give them the kind of autonomy that will begin to familiarize them with what it takes to function in the world? Funny, that sounds more like summer vacation than like school.

Many parents report that during those first few days of summer break, their kids are bored and at a loss for what to do. The kids aren’t used to having large blocks of time with no one telling them what to do and what to think about, and they aren’t used to making their own choices about how spend that time. Deciding how to spend your time: it’s the central challenge of life, and the activity through which you discover who you are. By mid-summer, the kids have started to get the hang of it, and the boredom dies down. They aren’t necessarily doing anything that looks profound, but it’s usually at least a little unexpected, revealing, or creative – and after all, they’ve only been at it for a few weeks.

Then it all ends, and for ten months they’re back to the forty-five-minute periods, the courses and “units” chosen by others – God forbid your sixth-grader should not study the Industrial Revolution – the “expectations,” and the Common Core Child Improvement Machine. How will they ever make up for those lost ten months?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Did I mention there’s a blogathon?

Or an un-blogathon, as the case may be. Karen W. and Jack Hostager are joining me to ramp up the posting through Election Day. Maybe Scott will even provide some musical accompaniment?

More candidate responses on the Hoover closure

The North Corridor Parents group has collected responses to an extensive questionnaire to board candidates about issues facing the district. Here are the candidates’ responses to their two questions specifically about Hoover. You can read the full questionnaires here. The candidates’ previous comments on the school closure issue are here.

Two incumbents are running for re-election: Karla Cook, who voted in favor of closing Hoover, and Tuyet Dorau, who voted against it.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

I do not think that Hoover needs to be closed in order to have three equal size comprehensive high schools. If elected, I would like to have a more critical discussion of the capacity numbers provided by BLDD. I do not believe that we can use these numbers—which are based on ideals and long-term projections—to make a decision today about the need for land at some indefinite point in the future without more careful review. Even at these ideal numbers, we are still overbuilding our capacity at the high school level under the current plan. I believe that the current board members who passed the overall plan also understand that some adjustments will be needed as our actual enrollment becomes more clear.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

I have no plan in mind for the land currently occupied by Hoover.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

I voted for a scenario that will build 3 new elementaries, a new high school, add capacity at 2 junior highs as well as renovate many other schools. I know that closing any school is difficult and only when there is sufficient capacity at other elementaries will any school close.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

I would want the site to be used for educational programming. That might include outdoor space for some of our curricular areas or possible additions of other types of programming.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

People claim that it was a political vote, which I take offense to. I had asked the board to delay the vote so we could discuss the implications of that particular closure and so that we could take the plan the board wanted out to the community as the plan was different from the recommendations of the committee. However the decision was made to move forward. I voted against it because (1) in my 4 years on the board one of the biggest things I've learned is our community places extremely high value on neighborhood schools, (2) as a person who talks a lot about operational efficiencies, closing Hoover is going to cost us $1 Million which is about 20 teachers. It would be hypocritical of me to vote to spend an extra $1 Million per year when we don't have to (3) looking at the City High and Hoover properties, there is no way anyone can say there will be a contiguous building addition on City High that will be on the Hoover property. Therefore I am pretty certain the Hoover property will become a parking lot or athletic fields. I cannot vote to put a parking lot on a vibrant school not just because of losing the school but also because it would dramatically change the geographical landscape in what I see as a negative way. That’s a busy intersection and putting a parking lot there to me would severely detract from the beauty and green space that is currently there.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

As stated above, I do not see where a contiguous building would extend from City High on to Hoover’s property. Therefore, what would most likely happen is an addition would be built onto City High and the current parking lot and athletic fields would be pushed out to the Hoover property.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

No. My reasons: (1) with the construction of a new high school and a sizable number of current City High students moving to the same, the need to expand City High decreases, (2) if we keep Hoover open, we avoid the need to add a third new east side elementary and thereby save the $14.5M cost of the same, and (3) strong neighborhood schools help preserve property values around them and the district benefits from a strong property tax base.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

Since a significant number of students will be drawn from City (and from West) to fill the new high school, I don’t see any current necessary use for the Hoover location.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

No. We need the capacity and the justification for closing it for City High hasn’t been made. Parking and athletic facilities are no reason to eliminate an exemplary elementary.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?



Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

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. Please read on to consider the criteria I support regarding the possibility of school closures:

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.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

Growth on the east side is going to necessitate increased capacity at City High, according to projections. How the land will be used, and what the addition will look like, will ultimately be recommended by the central administration based on the input of experts, and the board will then vote on the proposals. These questions are best answered by those who are trained in the areas of building construction and the use of land space.


Thanks so much for the questionnaire. I have tried to carve out the time to answer the questions, but because of the length of the questionnaire and the demands on my time I just haven’t been able to answer as completely as I feel is necessary. I have already addressed many of the issues your questionnaire addresses on my blog and will address further issues as the campaign continues. Please refer your constituents here: I’m also confident the candidate forums will cover many of these issues and more, so they will be a great resource as well.

I am sorry. I tried, but your questions deserve more than my limited time could allow. I hope you understand and will accept this as an alternative.

Thanks for your interest and engagement.

[See update below.]


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

I have been supporting Neighborhood Schools at Board Meetings since 2004. 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.

Instead of talking about the criteria or rationale to close a school, I think we should talk about 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 versus targeting a few certain schools.
For a school to remain viable, I 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. We need to 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 all our schools succeed.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

Any expansion at City will need to be continuous with the main City building. So, given the distance from the main City Building, the Hoover location will be a parking lot or a field.


Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

Looking at the enrollment projection data and the capacity data there is very few seats left open with the closure of Hoover. I would feel better if there was more room for more students in the Elementary level. It would be best to have a solid plan for any property that the District would be closing. There are ways to expand City High without closing Hoover. Different avenues should be explored to expand City High before we fully commit to closing Hoover.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?

Should Hoover close, I would like to see that area have a true educational purpose. I would like to see the home building program brought back. It could be housed near the corner of Court Street and First Avenue, thereby allowing the home to be picked up and moved to its foundation within our community. Those roadways give reasonable access to all major roadways within our community for a truck the size needed.

UPDATE: Jason Lewis amended his response, writing, "I had some time free up and was able to finish the questionnaire. I hope you’ll still accept it. Thanks again for your interest and engagement". Here are his answers on Hoover:

Do you support closing Hoover? Why or why not?

In the short term, no. In the long term, yes. We have an intractable confluence of factors that make Hoover different than our other elementary schools. Hoover currently has 137 SINA transfers. If we opt out of NCLB, those transfers will go away. When we build a new school a couple miles away, those students will go away. Can we afford to run a school that will operate at ⅔ capacity? There are 4 elementary schools that will continue to serve the Hoover attendance zone as neighborhood schools. While we could pour our resources into short term solutions, the district will benefit as a whole from a long-term, strategic approach to how it uses that parcel of land. Currently City’s capacity is 1200 students. Its current enrollment is approximately 1500 students, which puts it over capacity. The facilities plan calls for City to be at 1500 seats. To get there we need 300 more seats. There’s no place to build on the current plot and Hoover will soon be an under-attended school, surrounded by other schools within walking distance that could serve its students, and it’s next door to a landlocked high school that our new facilities plan indicates will be expanded. Also, while City is not a “neighborhood school” as we often define it, it is an anchor for our community and incredibly important to the vitality of the east side out our district. This is a difficult decision, and proper planning and engagement with Hoover stakeholders is deserved. As hard as it is, we must professionally and empathetically manage this transition and then move on towards a stronger school district.

If Hoover closes, how do you envision using the site?



When I ask my first-year law students to assess the likely outcome of a case, I urge them to beware of “if” and “unless” statements. Telling me that the plaintiffs will win if they can satisfy the legal requirements isn’t telling me much. What I want to know is: Do you think they’ll satisfy that “if” clause, or not?

I felt similarly about some of the responses that I received to my question about school closures. Some were in the form of “No, unless . . .” or “Yes, but only if . . . .” I understand that candidates can’t always say with certainty how they will address a future issue. But the facilities planning process has been going on for months, and has generated reams of information. The current board felt that it had enough information to reach a conclusion. Are there really school board candidates who are waiting for that one last piece of information that will make all the difference in their vote, and who have no opinion on how they will probably decide?

Sure, candidates, like everyone else, naturally prefer to keep their options open. But voters like that about as much as potential spouses do. There are times when a commitment is a reasonable precondition to a continued relationship. We routinely expect clear stances on important issues from our state and federal candidates. (Answering “I’m not yet sure” to “Will you cut Social Security?” won’t get you very far in politics.) If you’re not willing to take positions on issues – that is, to constrain your freedom to do whatever you please after the election – you’re limiting the voters’ ability to express their preferences through the political system. Clear stances in advance of an election are an important form of transparency.

Many candidates have voiced unqualified support for some aspects of the long-term plan, such as the addition to City High, or the rebuilding of Mann and Longfellow Schools. No “unless” clauses there. For some reason, those issues are easy to figure out, and do not at all require a prudent asterisk.

The current board wanted us to approve the Revenue Purpose Statement before they told us how they’d use the money. (I fell for it.) Now some board candidates want us to give them decision-making power before they tell us how they’ll use that. Once burned, twice shy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

No ice cream for you

School board candidate Phil Hemingway, who has been particularly outspoken against the closure of Hoover School, was scheduled to have a “listening post” at Hoover tomorrow — but apparently someone complained about his use of public property for a campaign event. The district consulted with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, and today told Hemingway that he could use the building only if he paid rent for it, at the rate charged to for-profit businesses. Hemingway, who’s known for running a self-funded campaign on a shoestring, would have to pay between $100 and $200 for his one-and-a-half-hour listening post.

Under the City’s policy, political candidates can use public library meeting rooms free of charge. But the school district’s policy has no such provision, and treats political candidates the same as for-profit groups.

And, though apparently no one asked, the district went out of its way to say that “unless all candidates have been explicitly invited, it is not appropriate to be at staff meetings or ice cream socials (unless of course you are wearing your parent hat).” The annual Hoover ice cream social is tonight.

In response, Hemingway has moved his scheduled listening post — to the sidewalk in front of Hoover. No word on whether ice cream will be served.

Rules are rules, but some rules are better than others. There’s no reason the district shouldn’t have a policy that makes it free, instead of expensive, for candidates to schedule listening posts at school buildings.

UPDATE: Notice that the district does have a low-cost rental category for “political appearances” – but the superintendent informed Hemingway that his listening post does not fall under that category. If a candidate listening post isn’t a “political appearance,” what is? It’s almost as if the district doesn’t want to make it easy for people to talk about school issues in settings where it can’t manage and control the discussion. (See posts here, here, here, here, and here.)

School board already planning to ignore its own capacity numbers

When our school board recommended closing Hoover Elementary – just last month – the decision was based in large part on its consultants’ building-capacity determinations. Because City High’s capacity is so much lower than its projected enrollment, the reasoning went, it needs a large addition, which (for unspecified reasons) requires the annexation of the Hoover property. The consultants’ capacity determinations also drove many other aspects of the long-term plan—for example, the decision to build not two but three new elementary schools.

I and others repeatedly pointed out that the consultants’ capacity figures were unrealistically low (not to mention that enrollment estimates were probably too high) – thus overstating the need for the City High addition and for other elements of the long-term plan. Under the consultants’ determinations, most of the elementary schools would have an average of eighteen or nineteen students per classroom – and some even as low as fifteen students per classroom – even after some rooms were set aside for music, art, and other purposes. But the board’s budget doesn’t allow it to reduce class size to those levels; it can’t afford to pay that many teachers. The board will necessarily put more than eighteen kids in each classroom, on average. So the buildings will end up holding many more kids than the consultants say they can hold. (More explanation here.) 

In other words, the long-term plan was based on a fiction that no one really believed.  But many people in the school system seemed unwilling to critically scrutinize the capacity numbers, because those numbers justified much of the new construction that the plan would trigger.

Now, just three weeks later, it’s clear that the board does not believe its own capacity numbers. Last week, the board began discussing a proposal to put caps on class sizes. Class sizes would be limited to 32 in high school classes, 30 in junior high classes, 28 in third through sixth grade, and 24 in kindergarten through second grade. That’s a far cry from 18. And from what I hear, if the plan fails to pass, it will only be because the caps are unrealistically low.

It’s true that those numbers are maximums, not averages. But setting them as maximums means the board recognizes that some classrooms will end up holding more kids than the consultants say they can. It also means that the average class size is bound to be closer to 20 in kindergarten through second grade and 24 in grades three through six.* Those figures are nowhere near the averages that the consultants’ limits would allow, even with several rooms in each building reserved for other purposes. I wonder if there’s a classroom anywhere in the district that the consultants think can hold 24 students, but that’s likely to be the average in grades three through six under the proposed caps.

Because the proposal allows junior high and high school classes to be even larger than elementary school classes, the effect is likely to be that much greater there. Thus it’s no surprise that at a meeting with people concerned about Hoover, the City High principal conceded that City is not currently overcrowded, even though it has 121 more students than the consultants say it can hold.

When the new capacity numbers support the board majority’s agenda, they’re cited as Gospel – even if that means closing an elementary school. When they’re inconvenient, though, they’re ignored. I’m afraid that’s what “data-driven” education policy too often really means.

*For example, if a school had 56 third-graders, it could have two classes of 28. But if it had 57, it would have to shift to three classes of 19. On average, you’d expect it to be in the middle of that range – that is, around 23 or 24 kids per class. If anything, I’d expect the schools to manage their in-district transfers to avoid the very lowest class sizes – for example, to keep out that 57th student who would trigger the need for an additional teacher – so the average might actually be toward the higher end of the range.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

No matter how you slice it, Hoover can’t close unless a future board closes it

I’m a bit late in commenting on this story (though, technically, it first appeared in the comments to this post):
School Board member Sarah Swisher posted on Facebook that the vote [on the long-term facilities plan] didn’t necessarily entail the closure of Hoover.

“I voted for the amendment and my intent is that a board just before or after the 2017-18 date will work with the Hoover community to determine Hoover’s destiny. … What I thought we were getting with the amendment was a delayed decision,” Swisher wrote.

[Superintendent Steve] Murley confirmed Tuesday night that his understanding of the facilities plan is that, regardless of the “no earlier than” language in the plan, Hoover is set to retire in the foreseeable future.
You can read Swisher’s full statement here.

I like Sarah Swisher, and I believe that she did see her vote as something short of actually closing Hoover (though it’s unclear whether other board members saw it that way). Moreover, her amendment did help Hoover families, by pushing any closure further off into the future, giving Hoover supporters more time to change the decision. If Swisher hadn’t offered the amendment, the board might have voted (though maybe by 4-3) to close Hoover much sooner.

In the end, though, I can’t get too excited over the exact wording of the resolution. Any particular school board serves for only two years; any “long-term plan” it settles on is ultimately just a suggestion to future boards. The resolution may be ambiguous, but there is no way to interpret the board’s vote that would enable the district to close Hoover without a further vote to do so by the next board (or one after that). Hoover can’t close unless (1) a future board designates a date for the closure, (2) a future board settles on a redistricting plan that excludes Hoover, and (3) a future board finds the money to build the new schools, which might require 60% public approval at a bond referendum. If Hoover closes, it will be because a future board acts to close it.

I suspect there are board candidates who would be happy to think that the Hoover decision has already been made and that the next board can just move on to other issues. But future boards aren’t bound by this board’s policies any more than Barack Obama is bound by George W. Bush’s.

The candidates we elect next month are going to have to decide whether it makes sense to close Hoover School. I hope that in the next three weeks, we’ll get a strong sense of where they stand on that question.

Sarah Swisher on the status of Hoover School

Here is school board member Sarah Swisher’s recent statement on the status of Hoover Elementary School:
On July 23rd, Iowa City School Board members voted to adopt the Facilities Master Planning Committee recommendation with changes related to three facilities.

• Keep the Roosevelt Education Center serving kids like they do now.

• Retire Hoover no earlier than 2017-2018.

• Keep Hills Elementary operational as an elementary school for the foreseeable future at its current capacity.

The resolution states that Hoover will retire “no earlier than 2017-2018.” I can’t figure out how the headline that said “Board Votes to Close Hoover,” was the reporter’s take on this action by the school board. The resolution, as amended, does not say Hoover will retire, only that it can’t close “any earlier than 2017-2018.”

Hoover families may be correct if they believe this language casts a pall on Hoover, but it simply does not in any way preordain the “retirement” or “closure” of Hoover. I, for one board member would not have voted for the amendment if it did not contain this language because I want a long preparation and study period if Hoover does in fact retire. I made the motion, I voted for the amendment and my intent is that a board just before or after the 2017-18 date will decide determine Hoover’s destiny.

It was really important to vote now on a plan based on the recommendations of the Facilities Master Planning Committee because we need to proceed with meeting the space needs of our kids. That is what we did. If we wanted to close Hoover we would not have voted for this amended motion.
My commentary is here.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I feel a little blogathon coming on

I don’t think I can do a post every day, but with the school board election just three weeks away: so much to blog, so little time!

Out-of-town readers, please bear with me, since I’m likely to focus mostly on local issues until September 10. Consider it a case study in school policy and democracy. Regularly scheduled programming will resume after the election.