Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Election activism turns out to be meaningful

When the Save Hoover group publicized which school board candidates supported keeping Hoover open, some people told us that we were being naive, that the candidates would just tell us what we wanted to hear and then forget about us after the election. We were especially warned not to trust the west-side candidates, Tuyet Dorau and Chris Lynch; west-siders would never pursue the Hoover issue once elected.

At tonight’s school board work session, two board members pushed for a discussion of the Hoover closure: Tuyet Dorau and Chris Lynch. Dorau said that the board should be concerned that the Hoover closure does not have community buy-in, especially since the district needs public support to pass the necessary bond. She said that the closure will cause families to flee the neighborhood. She recognized that the closure costs a lot of money that could be used for better purposes. Lynch said that the community has made it clear that the board’s rationale for the closure isn’t sufficient. He said that the board should be more concerned with building community buy-in for the bond vote. He suggested putting the closure on hold and moving forward with the rest of the plan.

Brian Kirschling, the third candidate elected this year, was sympathetic to concerns about the process that led to the closure. He told me after the meeting that aspects of the closure did not meet his criteria for acceptable school closures. But he said that he did not think that the December 10 meeting was the right occasion to reconsider the closure, since the issue at that meeting is whether to adopt the phasing plan, not whether to change the master plan itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that Lynch and Dorau are in complete agreement with the Save Hoover group, and I’m not commenting at all on their approach to other issues. And I’m not writing off the possibility that Kirschling could vote to keep Hoover open at some point in the future. All I’m saying is that the new board members acted exactly as you might have predicted from their statements during the campaign. When voters succeed in getting candidates to take positions on specific issues, those statements mean something. Candidates are unlikely to casually toss them aside at the first opportunity, and couldn’t do so without paying a price.

The work session made it clear that a majority of the board—Marla Swesey, Sally Hoelscher, Jeff McGinness, and Patti Fields—is unwilling to reverse the decision to close Hoover. Those board members are the four whose seats come up for election two years from now. Given the outcome of this recent board election, I’m very encouraged about the prospects for change in the next one. Let the 2015 campaign begin!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How to trivialize equity

“No building left behind” should be our school district’s policy, according to Jean Jordison’s guest opinion in yesterday’s Press-Citizen. Jordison argues that the district should not build new schools without simultaneously bringing older buildings up to the standard of the new ones. “I find it hard to accept any plan that puts an older facility ‘on hold,’” she writes.

Nowhere does the essay mention that Jordison herself has been a prominent advocate for closing Hoover Elementary.

Her failure to mention that fact, or to mention Hoover anywhere in the article, parallels the approach of most of the school board. At last week’s board meeting, speaker after speaker objected to closing Hoover, but when the board deliberated, it was as if none of those speakers even existed. Five of the seven board members did not even utter the word “Hoover.” When Tuyet Dorau said that the board members need to be honest with themselves and the public about their reason for closing Hoover, no board member responded. (At another point, Chris Lynch did mention that he had concerns about Hoover; maybe he will raise them when the discussion continues at the next meeting.)

The board members did start to discuss the challenge of getting the public to approve a $120 million bond, however. Message to the public: “We won’t respond at all to your concerns and your arguments, but we do want your money.” Not a great slogan for a bond campaign.

I believe that Jordison and the board members are so silent on the topic of Hoover because they know that the arguments for the closure are unconvincing. Worse, the closure trivializes the concern for equity that both Jordison and the board have made their top priority. The superintendent has made clear that the Hoover property will be used, at best, to relocate athletic fields displaced by the City High addition. The only equity goal achieved by the closure is to ensure that City students won’t have to walk farther to their softball field or tennis courts than students at the other high schools do. For this, the board wants to close an elementary school and spend over ten million dollars to rebuild its capacity elsewhere. (I wonder if even this tennis court cost ten million dollars.)

Our district has some genuine disparities among its schools that shout out to be addressed—for example, the concentration of kids from low-income families into just a few elementary attendance areas. It’s going to be hard enough to get the public to address those concerns, through both approval of a bond and acceptance of a redistricting plan. Jordison and the board members just make that task harder, and undermine their own credibility on the issue, by associating those real concerns with “distance-to-tennis-courts equity.” No wonder they don’t want to talk about it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why pick this battle?

There are now 635 signatures on the petition to keep Hoover and all the schools open. The petition not to use Hoover as a swing school, which was circulated primarily to current Hoover parents, has 285 signatures. Those petitions started only two weeks ago, and new signatures continue to come in on both. (You can sign them here and here.)

In the world of local school governance, six hundred people is a lot of people. The Revenue Purpose Statement, for example, passed by only 733 votes this past February. I remain mystified why the school board would pick this particular battle. There is so much they hope to accomplish over the next ten years—not only on facilities, but also on redistricting and pursuing the diversity goals—and they can’t possibly do it without public support. Ignoring public sentiment about school closings will just make their other, far more important goals harder to achieve.

Some board members have expressed a sense of urgency about finally “doing something.” But if they really want to make changes, shouldn’t they want those changes to be sustainable? If they “do something” without any regard to public buy-in, only to find their changes undone by the voters in future elections, they will have accomplished nothing but wasting several years. If they want lasting change, how many hundreds of people can they afford to alienate?

Reminder: Closing Hoover costs over ten million dollars

One of the district’s main goals, in its facilities planning process, was to address overcrowding in its schools, many of which (including Hoover) currently have so many kids that they need temporary classrooms. Yet the school board ultimately decided to make closing Hoover part of its plan. Closing a school, of course, makes it harder to address overcrowding. Because it is closing Hoover, the board needs to build that much more capacity elsewhere. Its plan, for example, builds additions at Longfellow and Mann elementaries that together cost almost $16 million – over and above the cost of the renovations and air conditioning that everyone agrees those schools should get. Even if you discount the $3.5 million that it would cost to renovate Hoover if it were kept open, the closure is costing roughly $12 million—while adding no new capacity at all.

That twelve million dollars could be spent on real needs—for example, on projects that actually add elementary capacity. (Or it could be saved entirely.)

It costs twelve million dollars, it adds no capacity, it will delay and endanger other projects in the plan, it hurts the surrounding neighborhood, it violates the expectations raised by the Revenue Purpose Statement vote and the clear public preferences expressed at the community workshops, it makes it harder to pass the necessary bond, and it closes a school that is ideally located to meet the district’s diversity goals without running a single bus. Why does anyone think this closure is a good idea?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Will the school board vote to move forward with the Hoover closure?

At its meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) night, the school board will discuss—and possibly vote on—the superintendent’s proposed time line for the district’s facilities plan. The proposal would close Hoover Elementary as of 2019. If the board approves the plan, it would be taking one more step toward making the closure a reality (though it would still be years off and could change).

The proposed time line was made public four days ago. There was a school board “listening post” on the issue tonight, but only one board member (Tuyet Dorau) was there to listen. I was surprised to hear that the board might vote on the plan at tomorrow’s meeting; given the scale of the plan, the number of issues involved, and the fact that the plan depends on public approval of a $120 million bond, I’d expect the board members to give the plan a particularly careful vetting and to make more of an effort to ensure public buy-in. But they might; we’ll see.

If the board does vote on the proposal, tomorrow could be the most important night for Hoover until the 2015 board election, and of course a very important night for many other issues as well. If you’re local and feel strongly about the plan, come to the meeting and speak up. Please also consider signing the petition to ask the board to keep all our schools open, and the separate petition to ask the board to reconsider using Hoover as a transitional space (“swing school”) for other schools when they are being renovated.

The meeting is at 6:00, Tuesday, November 12, at the Educational Services Center, 1725 North Dodge Street, Iowa City.