Saturday, September 28, 2013

Welcome, parents!

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

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

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

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

Related post here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Closing Hoover will delay and endanger other facilities projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Neighborhood’s dilemma

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

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

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

An addition is not always an improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Update on Save Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Live-blogging the election results

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

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

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

Candidate Votes Percentage*

3738 43%

3121 36%

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

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

Kirschling on Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Polling place information

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

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

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

Why I’m voting for Phil Hemingway

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

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

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

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

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

Why I’m voting for Gregg Geerdes

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

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

Why I’m voting for Sara Barron

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

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

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

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Election night blogging alert

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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Imaginary data

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

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

Friday, September 6, 2013

What is leadership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five reasons to care about the Hoover closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 5, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overreaching doesn’t help City High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why add 330 seats to Longfellow and Mann?

I’ve posted before about how expensive it is to tear down a school while enrollment is expanding. If the district closes Hoover, it will have to rebuild its entire capacity somewhere else, spending between ten and fifteen million dollars in the process. I’m not particularly bothered by the candidates who support all of the new construction in the long-term plan, because it’s easy enough to modify those plans if the projected enrollment doesn’t materialize. But once you tear down a school, there’s no looking back.

The new construction that seems most questionable to me is the planned capacity expansions of Mann and Longfellow schools. I’m all in favor of updating those buildings with multi-purpose rooms, air conditioning, and other overdue maintenance. But why add capacity to them? The board’s plan calls for adding 180 seats of capacity onto Mann, and 150 onto Longfellow. This makes the plan over fifteen million dollars more expensive than earlier scenarios that upgraded the schools without adding capacity. That’s over fifteen million dollars to replace capacity that the district already has at Hoover, just a mile or two away.

But even regardless of the expense, why would the district want to add 330 seats to those schools? Mann sits on an especially small lot, has a smaller-than-average playground, and borrows a nearby park for field space. Talk about a “land-locked” school. (Compare Mann’s lot with Hoover’s.) Where will these 180 units of capacity go?

Longfellow has more space, but is reachable only by driving through several narrow, residential streets. How many more cars (and buses?) will come into that neighborhood when there are 150 more seats in the building?

All to get the five acres of land at Hoover for City High, for a use that no one can identify. Why is the district tying itself in knots to close Hoover School?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Thoughts on Jim Tate and Chris Lynch

Having posted Saturday about school board candidate Tuyet Dorau, I wanted to chime in here on two other good candidates, Jim Tate and Chris Lynch.

I like Jim Tate. He seems like a forthright guy with a reasonable take on the issues facing the district. He’s right that the board could benefit at this moment from someone with a knowledge of the construction trades, and he displays some of the same watchdog tendencies that Phil Hemingway does in his determination to hold the district’s contractors accountable for the quality of their work. I like his ideas about expanding the district’s use of geothermal energy and looking into the possibilities of solar. He says that there are ways to give City High an addition without closing Hoover and that the district can keep Hoover open, though he has been less adamant on the issue than some. The main thing preventing me from voting for him is just that there are so many good candidates running and only three open spots. Also, I do believe in voting strategically (though I don’t enjoy it), and Tate’s last-place finish two years ago makes me a little reluctant to spend one of my votes on him.

When I first read some of Chris Lynch’s campaign literature and written statements, I thought they were non-committal and didn’t say very much. When I spoke to him in person, though, I came away with a much better impression. What came across as caginess in writing I now think is just a genuine absence of ego. He seems more focused on the quality of the board’s decision-making process, and on ensuring that whatever the board does has public buy-in, than on imposing his own ideas on everyone. I find that approach to governance very appealing; though I have no shortage of opinions on school policy, I’d happily settle for schools that truly reflected this community’s values and preferences. Many of my own strongest objections to the Hoover closure have to do with the board’s disregard for the public input that it repeatedly sought; a board that cared about process and public buy-in would never have voted to close Hoover. (Lynch has made it clear that he supports keeping Hoover open.)

If anything, Tate and Lynch might be too affable and agreeable; I wonder how effectively they would push back against the administration or against board groupthink when the occasion demands it (which is often). But I like them both, and I won’t be upset if either one wins.

UPDATE: Chris Lynch sent this note in response to this post, and agreed that I could post it here:

Thanks for the very nice blog.

I would point out one thing: I am the one candidate uniquely skilled to hold administration accountable. With 21 years as a leader at P&G, I sure do understand expectations and accountability. Expectations and accountability will go up day one with myself on the board.

Chris Lynch

Blogathon update

I’ve been taking a short breather from the un-blogathon, but Karen W. has been more than making up for it. Check out her posts on “The Proper Role of the School Board,” and “Thinking Beyond Buildings: ‘It’s the Curriculum, Stupid,’” and all of her recent posts. Also check out Jack Hostager’s ongoing thoughts about the technology gap between schools and their students.

More here soon.