Thursday, October 31, 2013

Two petitions on the facilities plan

The Save Hoover group has started two petitions about the facilities plan. The first asks the board to keep all our schools, including Hoover, open. The second asks the board to reconsider using Hoover as the transitional space (“swing school”) for other schools when they are being renovated. You can read and sign them by following those links.

The superintendent is now saying that he will present an amended version of the plan that does not use Hoover as a swing school and that returns to the board’s original plan of closing Hoover no earlier than 2017-18. That’s a big improvement over the superintendent’s initial proposal (which I described here), and a nice demonstration of the fact that policies can change if enough people speak up about them. But the superintendent says that the amended plan is a work in progress that could change; I wonder how many more “amended versions” we will see. The more people who sign the petitions or contact the school board about the issue, the more likely the district will reconsider the proposal.

A quick recap of some of the reasons to sign the petitions is available here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Superintendent’s proposal would unfairly burden Hoover kids

This is a letter I emailed to the school board today.

Dear Board Members,

The superintendent’s facilities and redistricting time lines are a lot of information, and it will take a while to process it all, but I wanted to raise some immediate concerns about the treatment of Hoover kids under his proposal.

1. The proposal would close Hoover before there is any available space to put Hoover’s kids. Although Hoover’s attendance area will be eliminated at the end of 2015-16, the redistricting time line does not indicate which schools will be redistricted to take in Hoover’s students. It states that Hoover is the only school being rezoned in 2016 – but the Hoover kids have to go somewhere.

The most likely candidates – Longfellow, Lemme, Lucas, and Mann – will not have the capacity to accommodate Hoover’s kids. Mann is projected to be 18% overcrowded, and Lucas to be 24% overcrowded, at that time. Longfellow and Lemme will have lost some students to the new southeast elementary school, but will still be unable to accommodate 350 students from Hoover without being significantly over capacity.

2. The proposal would use Hoover as a swing school for school populations that are much larger than Hoover’s capacity. Hoover’s capacity is 304, but Lucas is projected to have 471 students when it uses Hoover in 2016, and will have even more if it has absorbed some of Hoover’s enrollment. Longfellow will also have way more than 304 students when it would be using Hoover as a swing school in 2017, since it will presumably have absorbed much of Hoover.

The enrollments at Shimek, Lincoln, and Mann are small enough to fit into Hoover’s space – but they are also small enough that two of them could fit simultaneously into the new 500-student elementary school (if they could be renovated simultaneously). The initial plan to use the new elementary as a swing school makes more sense than using Hoover.

3. Under the proposal, Hoover families would have to go through redistricting three times in five years – first when the school closes in 2016, then when east side schools are redistricted again in 2018, then when they are redistricted again in 2020.

4. In sum, the proposal takes Hoover kids, moves them to schools that are even more overcrowded, then, in many cases, moves them back into an overcrowded Hoover as a swing school, then makes them go through redistricting again not once, but twice.

The difficulty of closing Hoover during a time of overcrowding is one of many reasons the board should reconsider the closure. The closure is bad for the ICCSD, which needs Hoover’s capacity, and the proposed treatment of Hoover’s kids afterward just compounds the injury.

Thanks for your consideration..

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Update on the facilities time line

The superintendent presented his proposed time line for the projects in the facilities master plan tonight. Until it is approved by the board, it remains just a proposal. The board is scheduled to consider and possibly vote on the plan at its November 12 meeting.

The full presentation is here. There is much more in the plan than I can possibly absorb tonight, but here are a few quick thoughts.

1. The superintendent proposed that Hoover’s attendance area be eliminated as of the fall of 2016 – a year sooner than the board had permitted. As far as I could tell, this was the only aspect of his entire proposal that departed from what the board approved in July (other than an inadvertent omission of an elementary school addition). Hoover would then be used for five years as a “swing school” to accommodate students from elsewhere whose schools were being renovated. Then, after the 2020-21 year, it would be torn down.

2. Under the superintendent’s proposal, the district would ask voters to approve a $119 million bond in 2017 – as I understand it, all at once. This means Hoover’s attendance area would already have been eliminated before we know whether voters will approve the bond that will fund the new capacity. As a strategy for preventing the Hoover closure from being an issue in the bond vote, this is understandable (though cynical). But if the bond is not approved, the district may not be able to build the capacity it is counting on to make up for the loss of Hoover, and may wish that it had kept Hoover open. This is a good reason to put off the closure until after the bond vote, rather than accelerate it.

3. The superintendent’s proposal eliminates Hoover’s attendance area as of 2016, but does not redraw any other school’s attendance areas at that time. How is that possible? The Hoover kids won’t just disappear.

4. The board’s initial plan was to use the newly built elementary school as the swing school, rather than Hoover. The superintendent proposed to use Hoover instead, since it is closer in size to the schools that need to be “swung.” I don’t understand that: under the plan, Longfellow and Mann will both be over 400 students; Lucas will hold 381, and Shimek will hold 339. The district claims that Hoover has a capacity of 304. How is it a suitable swing school for those schools?

If the answer is that those schools won’t be resized until after their stay at the swing school, why not, and how is that possible? Again, the 350+ Hoover kids will have to go somewhere, and will almost certainly be going to some of those schools, pushing up the number of kids who would then have to use the swing school.

5. How many times will Hoover kids be redistricted? Under this proposal, the first time would be in 2016. Just two years later, the schools where they will probably end up – Longfellow, Lemme, Mann, and Lucas, as well as Shimek – will be redistricted again. Two years after that, those same schools will be redistricted again! On top of that, some Hoover kids will have to move in and out of a swing school during that time. Under this proposal, woe to the kindergartner who starts Hoover next year.

6. The City High addition – which we were told repeatedly couldn’t happen without the closure of Hoover – would begin construction in 2015 and be completed by 2021. In other words, the entire addition would be built while Hoover is still up and running as a swing school. The superintendent said that this would be very uncomfortable until City could finally get the Hoover property – but when asked how the Hoover property would be used as a result of the addition, he said he didn’t know. The continued evasion on that question becomes more and more glaring as the rest of the plan is fleshed out in such fine detail.

7. We’re told, for the first time, that Hoover’s use as a swing school will cost $6.5 million – a number not included in the master plan.

8. The superintendent said that the Mann addition was scheduled relatively late to give the district more time to negotiate with the city over possibly expanding Mann’s (very small) lot. I assume this would mean taking some of North Market Park for the school. This strikes me as a potentially controversial proposal: what if it there’s no deal? By that time, the superintendent’s plan would already have closed Hoover; if Mann can’t be expanded, we’ll be short of capacity again.

9. My main reaction is that it would make more sense to find out whether the public will approve the necessary bonds for new capacity before discontinuing a school, and before starting any large projects that will need bonds to be completed; otherwise the district is counting its chickens before they’re hatched. It’s also just dismissive of the public to wait until the plan has already been half-executed before asking for approval of the bonds. Rather than risk trying to convince the public that the plan is a good one, the superintendent wants to wait until the public is over a barrel, with projects half-completed, and then ask for the money. Disappointing, though not surprising.

Not much time to blog for a week or two, but I’m looking forward to others’ commentary on the plan – will try to post links in the comments here.

Anticipating the facilities time line

At tonight’s school board work session, the superintendent will reveal his proposed time line for projects in the facilities master plan. I’m very curious to see how he balances all the competing goals, and especially to see how he handles the planned closure of Hoover Elementary.

Under the master plan, Hoover can’t close before 2017-18. But it’s hard to see how it could close even that soon. The district has projected that the east side will be about 600 kids overcrowded by 2017-18 unless new capacity is built. If Hoover were to close that year, that number would rise to about 900. If Longfellow or Mann is out of operation for a year (as planned) due to renovations, that number would rise to about 1150. Will the district really have 900 or 1150 new elementary seats up and running – on the east side alone – within four years? If not, closing Hoover would only worsen the overcrowding problem.

And of course there are many other projects in the plan competing for priority in the time line. Some of the most immediate need for new capacity is in the North Corridor, to alleviate existing overcrowding at Penn. The plan also contains improvements (air conditioning!) at existing schools, and improvements and new capacity at the junior high and high school levels, including a new high school. Unless we’re about to enter into an unprecedented frenzy of construction and renovation, it’s hard to see how the district could have 900 or 1150 new elementary seats on the east side within four years. And why should it, when Hoover is available and can house at least three hundred students?

But, from this school district, one expects the unexpected. We’ll see . . .

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Require bonds for the new capacity, not the improvements

Next week, the superintendent will propose a time line for the projects in the facilities master plan. I’m certainly curious to see which projects he will recommend to go first, and which will have to wait. But what I’m really curious to know (and I don’t know if we’ll find this out next week) is which projects will require new bonds.

By all accounts, the district is about $100 million short of what it would need to fund its entire long-term facilities plan. As a result, many of the projects will require bonds. Those bonds will need to get 60% approval at the polls – never a sure bet, as the proponents of the county justice center can attest.

I hope the district will state its criteria for deciding which projects will proceed with existing funds and which can’t happen without bonds. It’s a complex issue, but in my view, basic improvements to existing buildings – such as air conditioning, overdue maintenance, accessibility renovations, and the construction of gyms/cafeterias/multipurpose rooms – should not require bond votes. It makes more sense to require bonds for some of the new capacity construction, especially to the extent that those projects are controversial and particularly expensive.

By my (very rough) calculations, the district plans to spend about $104 million on improvements, and about $148 million on building new capacity. Some of the new capacity is urgently needed; it might make sense, for example, to go ahead with building the addition at Penn and a new east side elementary without first seeking a bond vote. But the capacity projects that are more expensive, more controversial, and less immediately necessary should be the ones that are subject to bonding.

As for the time line, I’d take the same approach: The improvements are needed now, and in many cases are years overdue. Much of the new capacity is not.

I can’t deny that my criteria would help the case for keeping Hoover open. Hoover can’t close until there’s enough new capacity to relieve overcrowding and absorb the almost four hundred kids from Hoover. If any of the bonds for new elementary capacity get voted down, Hoover will have a new lease on life. But there’s good reason the closure should hinge on bond votes: it’s an expensive luxury compared to the urgently needed projects in the plan. In any event, their effect on Hoover aside, I can’t think of any fairer set of criteria.

The board members have some hard choices to make – partly because previous boards avoided making them – and I don’t envy them. As I understand it, even the improvements alone would have to be spread out over time, because the money is not available all at once. There’s no perfect answer. I’d love to know other people’s thoughts about how the time line should proceed and which projects should need bonds. Post a comment!

Don’t fence me in

The fence posts in the picture above appeared suddenly a week or so ago, surprising the Hoover School staff and students. Apparently the district is determined to fence in the last remaining opening to Hoover’s grounds, as part of its “safety and security enhancements.”

Never mind that sixty years have gone by during which the district never thought we needed a fence there. Never mind that the plan is to leave the gates unlocked at all times, which would seem to defeat much of the purpose. Never mind whether the Hoover community wants the fence. (No one asked.)

The hill on the east side of the fence has been the local sledding hill for as long as anyone can remember. The fence will make it hard to sled on much of the hill. The principal has asked the district if anything can be done to preserve the sledding; word has it that the district might move the fence back a bit. Of course, if the school closes as planned, the sledding hill may be history anyway, especially if the land is used as a parking lot.

“It looks like a prison,” one kid said after last year’s new fence went up. Yes, it does.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Divisive plan is divisive

This is an email I sent to the board tonight in response to the email sent by a parent from the Mann attendance area that I wrote about here.

Dear Directors and Superintendent Murley,

I was forwarded a copy of the email [a district parent] recently sent to the board. I am the person who said that I had yet to hear of anyone in the Mann neighborhood who wanted to dramatically increase the number of kids the school would hold, and now I can no longer say that. But although [that parent] asserts that many others agree with her, neither I nor the district has any way to know whether her opinions are representative of people in that neighborhood and attendance area. I wonder whether the district has any plan to assess how Mann’s families and neighbors feel about enlarging that building to hold 76% more kids.

I notice that [the parent] is a teacher at City High. I want all of our teachers to be able to speak their minds freely on school issues. I do wonder, though, if teachers who don’t agree with the closure of Hoover would feel as comfortable expressing their opinions openly. From what I hear about the teachers at Hoover, the answer is no. I wish that were not the case.

In her email, [the parent] wrote that “it is imperative for individuals not to attack other schools.” I’m puzzled by that comment. If a Hoover parent argues that we should keep all the schools open and cut back on additions, that’s an attack, but if Mann or City High parents argue that Hoover should be closed so their schools can have new additions, that’s not? I think it’s a better idea not to see substantive arguments about the merits of the long-term plan as attacks on anyone.

In any event, if families at different schools feel that they have been pitted against each other, it is because of the board’s choices. The board had the option of keeping its existing schools open and planning its new construction accordingly. That was the option that the public supported at the community workshops. Instead, it has divided the district against itself at a time when it’s about to embark on even more controversial decisions. I believe that an approach that is more responsive to public input would better serve the district.

My letter in reply to [the parent] is here.

Thanks for your consideration.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Should Hoover be closed so Mann and Longfellow can become dramatically larger?

Today I heard via email of a parent at Mann School who supports the proposal to increase the capacity of that school by 76%, so I can no longer make the statement I made last night that I have yet to hear of people in the Mann community who support the addition. I continue to question how widespread that sentiment is, though, especially if people know that the additions are coming at the expense of closing a school elsewhere. This particular Mann parent had written to the school board last night to express her disagreement with me, stating that “it is imperative that individuals not attack other schools.” That prompted this response from me:

I’m the person who spoke at the meeting last night and said that I haven’t heard families from the Mann and Longfellow neighborhoods and attendance areas say that they wanted to dramatically increase the number of kids at those schools (as opposed to just getting needed renovations like air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms).

I appreciate hearing about someone in Mann’s attendance area who wants the addition. But I wanted to get in touch with you just to say that I do not think that I am “attacking” Mann or Longfellow by questioning the additions and by questioning whether they have the support of those communities.

The only reason those additions are necessary is that the district is closing someone else’s neighborhood school. When Mann was in danger of being closed, I saw Mann parents speaking at board meetings about the importance of preserving existing schools and the neighborhoods they serve. I agreed with those parents, and I was (and still am) against closing Mann or any of the district’s existing schools. I’m also completely in favor of making the improvements at those schools that were part of Scenario 1c, such as adding air conditioning and multi-purpose rooms.

But by closing Hoover and adding almost the same number of seats to Longfellow and Mann, the district is essentially consolidating three schools into two big schools. I don’t see how it helps the kids at Mann to bring 180 more kids in, or how it makes it a better school, or how it benefits those schools’ neighbors. As I see it, it is simply a plan to close a school and move toward having fewer, larger, farther-away-on-average elementary schools. I don’t think there is majority public support for that approach. The scenarios that included those additions (which were always accompanied by school closings) were not popular at the community workshops. In any event, by questioning that idea – because I want to keep all our existing schools open – I certainly don’t mean to “attack” either of those schools.

I’d be very interested to talk with you or anyone at Mann or Longfellow about the long-term plan. I think the school board should make a real effort to survey those communities to see how they feel about adding so many more kids to those schools. If it’s true that those communities support the additions, that would be important to know. I might even be persuaded that those particular expansions make sense. But I hope you’ll understand that, to a Hoover family, it’s hard to see how those additions (as opposed to just the necessary improvements) aren’t just the district’s way of closing Hoover School.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Frequently unanswered question

The district has posted its responses to frequently asked questions about the Hoover closure. There’s a glaring omission from the list: What will the district do with the property?

Remember, the district’s long-term plan allocates millions of dollars to replace Hoover’s capacity elsewhere, including on two very questionable proposals to super-size Mann and Longfellow schools. Yet nothing in the plan (or in the FAQ) answers the most basic questions about what the Hoover property will be used for, or what that use will cost.

How can you make a “long-term plan” for a piece of property without having any idea what you will do with that property, what you will spend doing it, or what benefit you will get from it?

The FAQ repeatedly asserts that the property will be “needed” for the expansion of City High. So how? How can it be a “need” if no one can articulate what City will use it for?

What’s the big secret?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Our “grassroots” educational system

When I’m lucky, my readers write my posts for me. From a reader email:
From an article in The Gazette about Saturday detention:

“I am in favor of supporting what the principals need for their buildings,” said Ann Feldmann, assistant superintendent for the Iowa City schools. “What we don’t want to do is create a program and force it upon our buildings. It has to be a grassroots sort of program.”

Too bad they don’t feel that way about PBIS.
Good point. My kids’ education has been an uninterrupted story of programs foisted on their school from above. Moreover, “grassroots” can’t just mean high-level administrators deferring to lower-level administrators in a system that’s almost entirely insulated from what the community itself wants. Who are the real grass roots?