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?


Michael Tilley said...

My understanding was that the rationale for having increased capacity at the new elementary schools and at Mann and Longfellow was based completely on annual operational costs reductions (per student). The cost per student, according to the argument, goes down as the number of students go up.

Sara Barron said...

Chris, I don't think that increasing capacity at Longfellow and Mann runs counter to the arguments for maintaining Hoover. All are important schools and community resources, and we have enough students for each. Do these questions threaten to lead us into more mine or yours-type thinking? No need for that, I'm glad to say.

Chris said...

Sara -- I certainly don't mean it that way. My question really is whether the people at the schools even want these capacity additions themselves. Again, I think everyone agrees that those schools need the kind of improvements that were initially proposed -- multi-purpose rooms, air-conditioning, etc. But is there any reason to think the Longfellow and Mann communities support the shift toward larger, fewer elementaries? Or that they like the idea of adding that many seats to their schools?

The Mann addition would increase the capacity of the school by 76%! What sense does that make on that very small property? I really wonder whether Mann families are on board for that. The Longfellow addition would increase its capacity by 58%. (Those figures are from the consultants' capacity numbers, which I'm very skeptical about, but I have no reason to doubt the relative before-and-after comparisons.)

Chris said...

Michael -- I'm sure that is the ostensible justification. But that's just another example of the trouble with looking at one specific number in isolation from all other data. Is it the district's policy to minimize operational costs regardless of whether it entails spending fifteen million dollars to tear down capacity in one place and rebuild it elsewhere, and regardless of what effect it has on neighborhood traffic or on the use of space at a property like Mann's, and regardless of whether there is public buy-in for closing a mid-sized school, etc.? Wouldn't that logic naturally lead to the significant expansion of both Lincoln and Shimek (or the closure of one to expand the other)?

The newer/fewer/bigger approach, closing some schools and making others larger in the name of efficiency, is one way to think about a long-term plan. I don't see much support for it in Iowa City, and I don't see many candidates campaigning on that platform. But that's exactly what these capacity additions to Mann and Longfellow do, at the (very large) expense of closing Hoover. I wouldn't be in favor of it to begin with, but the unavoidable constraints on the use of those properties make it seem even more unwise.

Again, I'd be very curious to know how Mann and Longfellow families and neighbors feel about these proposed additions. Not everyone thinks that bigger elementaries are better.

Anonymous said...


The Mann families came in large numbers to one of the board meetings advocating for an addition and upgrades. They even submitted a plan to the board along those lines. I have heard you work at the Law School so you could easily check with Dean McGuire since she was among the group.

I believe there has been some talks as well by the board in meetings about working with the City to expand the site to the neighboring park.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks. I know that Linda McGuire spoke against the closing of the school when some of the scenarios proposed it. If Mann is on board for an addition because they see it as the only way to avoid closure, that's one thing. (I don't see those as the only two options.) What I'm wondering is whether Mann families would actually prefer the idea of the school being 76% bigger, if the other choice was to modernize it, add a multi-purpose room, and add air-conditioning, but keep it at basically the same capacity.

Mandy said...

Chris, you pose some interesting questions. I had never really thought of asking if the Mann and Longfellow folks really wanted that added capacity and the impact on those neighborhoods. I actually wonder how much thought people have given it. When the BLDD plans were rolled out and 4 schools could be closed, I think people were simply focused on keeping schools open at any cost. The increased traffic in both of those neighborhoods is something I think residents perhaps haven't had time to think about.
I have also been very concerned about the estimated cost. Like you, I think the multi-purpose rooms and ac need to happen. However, adding on to two century old building can have lots and lots of hidden and unexpected costs. I'm also very concerned about making these buildings accessible. I mean beyond the standards of ADA compliance. BLDD certainly didn't show what a "21st Century Facility" would look like for someone with mobility issues.