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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Chris. As a Hoover parent, this is what I want others, not so embroiled in the situation, to understand. The anger and sadness that many feel about the possible closure of Hoover isn’t specifically about the closure of a school. It’s about the closure of a school for no justifiable reason.

I reviewed the July 23 school board meeting tape, and what I saw was parent after parent asking for two things: reasons and time. Reasons to close Hoover that go beyond empty statements like ‘because we think we’ll need the land’. Time for the district to do due diligence to decide whether the closure of a school is absolutely necessary. Hoover families got neither.

For me, the fundamental question now seems to be: is it fiscally and morally justifiable to take down an elementary school for a parking lot? For me, the obvious answer is no, and it would be no for any elementary school in our district. To be frank, it scares me that this is even something our community would consider.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
Is this true?

If redistricting, the diversity policy, and now the Hoover closure is simply about AP classes, then I would predict that this district will have rough times in the future. The willingness to cause disruption and huge expenditures in the name of a few is probably bad educational policy.

Redistricting and diversity for AP classes? I had hoped that this was really about equity for the areas of concentrated poverty.

Chris said...

Anonymous: For some people, the diversity policy definitely is about equity for areas of concentrated poverty. I know it was about that for one of its main sponsors, Sarah Swisher. This is especially a concern at the elementary school level. But a surprising amount of the discussion has focused on the high schools and on the availability of AP courses.

Anyone who's geniunely concerned about equity for areas of concentrated poverty would find Sara Barron a very appealing candidate; that concern has a been a centerpiece of her campaign. The fact that the City High old guard has not warmed up to her tells you a lot about what their concerns actually are.

CV resident said...

Anonymous - I hate to tell you, but I completely believe it to be true. As someone who has fought this same old gaurd, I can vouch for Chris's claims. They will shift from argument to argument and say and do almost anything to try to get what they want - which is whatever they believe to be best for City High, no matter the cost to others. Apparently, that also includes any IC folks who won't fall in line.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for shedding light on a situation that has concerned me. As a newcomer to the area-Coralville to be exact-I am baffled by the division in the community and have been disappointed in the board's handling of many issues in the past year. I now have a better understanding of the background behind the decision to close Hoover.

Anonymous said...

What's surprising to me is how surprised you seem by this group of City High fanatics. They've been treating Coralville and North Liberty families like this for years and years. How did you miss this? Or did you just not care until they turned their viciousness toward you? This group cares for nothing except City High. They have no empathy for the concerns of parents from any other part of the district. Close minded, vicious and dishonest are the three words I'd use to describe this group, of which Ed Stone is the most obvious member. And now they're even willing to roll over the legitimate concerns of their neighbors and future City High parents. So yeah. You want to know why there's a divide in our community. That group of City High fanatics is the reason.

Chris said...

Anonymous #4 -- Thanks for the comment. I plead guilty, to some extent. I started writing about facilities issues a few months ago. Until then, I had been determined to focus this blog on issues about anti-democratic, authoritarian trends in education, both in terms of how schools were run and what kids were being taught. I’m a latecomer to the issues about facilities and boundaries. In fact, if the facilities planning process hadn’t pushed so many of my buttons about top-down control of education, I doubt I would be writing about it now, school closures or not.

I’m not against Ed Stone or any other person. I’m for good arguments and against bad ones. Right now, all I’m hearing from Stone’s candidates – Cook, Kirschling, and Lewis – is bad arguments.

Chris said...

Other Anonymouses (Anonymice?) and CV Resident -- thanks for your comments, too.

mkf said...

I agree 100% with this post. I believe the decision to close a thriving elementary school was made to appease the extreme City High advocates, and it's really unfortunate. This group of people does not appear have the good of the entire district in mind. As a Coralville resident and parent of 5 children (4 who attend school) I really want the City/West/Eastside/Westside nonsense to end. Both high schools are terrific. Schools on both sides of the district face challenges. Both sides of town are great places to live. We will never accomplish anything until we can have reasoned conversations and a holistic view of the district.

Anonymous said...

CV resident, I agree with you. I spoke out early and perhaps angrily about the Hoover closing, partly because no one could answer the question: Why? Now some of my friends don't talk to me. I'm hoping that once the election passes, the anger will, too, and we can talk about what would be good for the district as a whole.

Chris said...

mkf and Anonymous #5 -- Thanks for the comments. I agree that it would be great if there was more of a focus on the district as a whole, but I think conflicts over who gets what (and when) are unavoidable. I would just like those conflicts would be hashed out in the open, so people could hear the arguments and weigh their merits. Like Anonymous, I'm still waiting for a convincing answer to the question, "Why?" And for any answer at all to the question, "How will the property be used?"