Friday, September 20, 2013

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?

1 comment:

Chris said...

I want to reiterate that I am not trying to pit Hoover against Mann and Longfellow. I certainly agree that all three schools should get major renovations such as air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms. My point is that I don't see why Mann and Longfellow families themselves would want to see these dramatic increases in the number of kids at those schools.

If anything, it's the board that's pitting these schools against one another. In effect, the plan coerces Longfellow and Mann into accepting very large increases in the number of students at those schools, out of fear that otherwise theirs will be the school that gets closed. I don't think any of the schools should be put to that choice.

Further thoughts here.