Saturday, December 28, 2013

A thank-you to Southeast Junior High

From my friend Doris, a frequent commenter here:
For your blog if you can find a place to post it:

Dear Chris,

More than once on this blog you have acknowledged, to your credit, that because you don’t have experience raising special needs children, some of the concerns you raise may not adequately reflect the experiences of families that do have non-typical learners. Ours is such a family. As we are not participants in organized religion, my approach to giving thanks tends to fall on the secular side. And so here, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to use your blog as a venue for offering some public thanks to all the wonderful faculty and staff at South East Junior High who have made this school year a very good one indeed for our two children—and particularly our child with special needs. Like you, I make no claim that our experience is representative of the experience of other South East families. But from the first time we went over to South East last spring, to get the ball rolling on the process of shifting our children from a small group homeschool program into 7th and 8th grade, respectively, we’ve been treated with courtesy and good cheer by a variety of people who have gone out of their way to help us and our children make it work. In more than one comment on your blog I have criticized a “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” driven attitude that can result in a quite miserable educational experience for children who, for whatever reason, struggle to keep up with an unrealistic pace. I’m not saying that South East is perfect, but in our experience thus far the “vibe” we have been getting is that, like us, they think the best approach is to treat our special needs child as a capable and complicated individual (albeit one with endearing foibles) and to operate with a flexible attitude toward the process of figuring out which accommodations she needs to help her learn and thrive. It’s been good, basically—better than we would have thought possible going in. I have no idea what North West and North Central are like—fine schools, presumably—but so far I’d have no reservations recommending South East to parents of special needs learners in search of a local public middle school. Here, too, I’d like in particular to thank our child’s South East LRE teacher, Mr. Josh Chambers, for all his help this fall. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve dashed off an email about some problem that has cropped up, and typically by the next day he has written back to let us know he has handled things.

Ultimately I guess what I am trying to say is that they teachers and staff over there actually seem to like our special needs child just as she is, and they seem committed to helping her succeed in her own way, not in a way mandated by federal law.

Thanks, too, to you, Chris, for all the work you put into running this extraordinarily helpful blog. I marvel at your dedication and value all the insight I’ve gained.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Chadek’s Field

View of City High, looking east. Chadek’s Field is on the right.
(Click to enlarge.)

One of the main reasons offered for closing Hoover School is that City High needs the land to expand. Specifically, the planned addition to City may displace an outdoor athletic facility such as the tennis courts or softball field, and some would prefer that City not have athletic facilities off-site (such as at Mercer Park, a mile and half away). Others have argued that City will need even more land eventually, though no one has specified why. The district has asserted that “We can’t expand City without this,” and that “Adding Hoover alone is not even really enough.” Closing Hoover and rebuilding its capacity elsewhere may seem like a big expense, the argument goes, but it’s worth it to enlarge the City property for these unspecified future uses.

How can we take those arguments seriously, when the school board is doing nothing to explore the purchase of Chadek’s Field—which is by far the cheapest way to expand City’s footprint?

Chadek’s Field is the informal name for a five-acre undeveloped parcel that sits just two blocks south of the City High property. It is roughly the same size as the Hoover lot. The Chadek family has been looking into selling the property. The neighborhood would prefer that it not be developed with housing, but that it remain a green space, and the Chadek family (at least one of whom lives in the neighborhood) has tried to accommodate that preference, despite getting other offers. They have explored selling the parcel to the city for use as a park. At one point, the Chadeks were seeking $560,000 for the property, and there was a proposal that the city would chip in half the amount, with the remainder being raised privately. But the city was unable to agree on the price, and it’s unclear where that proposal now stands.

Compared to closing Hoover, which will cost over ten million dollars, buying Chadek’s field would be very cheap, and even more so if it were part of a joint venture with the city. It would be one of the least expensive items in the district’s long-term plan. It would be far less controversial than the district’s plan to expand Mann Elementary by 76%, which also depends on negotiations with the city. And it would be cheaper than buying up other surrounding properties, since the Field has no houses on it.

City High’s tennis courts would take up less than a quarter of the Chadek property; the same is true of its softball field. If the district were to buy Chadek’s Field, the neighborhood would get its green space, City High would get room for its athletic fields, Hoover could stay open, the Chadeks would get their sale, and the district could save millions of dollars by not having to rebuild Hoover’s capacity somewhere else.

Even if the district does close Hoover, shouldn’t it be working to acquire this property? Under the district’s own logic, City will always need more land. It could buy eight whole blocks around Chadek’s and still not be as large as West or the new high school.

The opportunity to buy this property won’t last forever. How can the district ask the voters for millions to close Hoover when it is not pursuing this inexpensive, neighborhood-friendly way to expand City?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Imperfect storm

At last week’s school board work session, board chair Sally Hoelscher explained that there was no one big reason to close Hoover School, but rather a “perfect storm of multiple reasons.” But Hoelscher and the board majority cited only three such reasons: (1) Hoover needs a lot of renovation work, (2) City High “needs” the land, and (3) operational costs will be too high if an elementary school is not closed.

It is hard to see how these reasons, even taken together, justify closing Hoover. All of the older schools need a lot of renovation; that was one of the main reasons the voters passed the Revenue Purpose Statement in February. The estimated cost of renovating Hoover ($5.1 million) is comparable to what the district is spending to renovate several other schools. The renovations to Twain, for example, were estimated at $5.8 million; to Longfellow, $5 million; to Mann, $4.8 million; Shimek, Lucas, and Lincoln, $4.1 million each. (Those figures don’t include the cost of planned classroom additions.) And of course it is far cheaper to renovate Hoover than to tear it down and rebuild its capacity elsewhere, which will cost over ten million dollars.

As for City High’s “need” for the land, it has come down, at best, simply to the difference between keeping some outdoor athletic spaces—tennis courts and/or a softball field—on-site rather than off-site. (Or, at worst, to the desire for more parking for City.) And there are opportunities to keep those fields only two blocks from City, at a cost far lower than closing Hoover, but the district hasn’t even explored them. Michael Tilley discusses that trade-off more here.

What about operational cost? The pro-closure board members would have us believe that the operating cost of keeping our current schools open is unsustainable, that the number of schools that must be closed is exactly one, and that Hoover is the logical choice to close. But in fact, no operational cost argument can justify singling Hoover out for closure, since it is not a particularly small school. Its 304-seat capacity (according to the consultants) is significantly larger than that of Longfellow (258), Twain (252), Shimek (239), Mann (237), Hills (189), and Lincoln (187). Hoover will be larger than some of those schools even after those schools get their planned additions.

Moreover, no one has identified the operational cost of keeping Hoover, or any particular school, open. We’re told that the district puts the annual cost of operating one additional school at $500,000, but that’s not the question. The district seems determined not to recognize that if Hoover stays open, we don’t need to build as much new capacity elsewhere. So the cost of operating Hoover has to be offset by the cost of operating the new buildings constructed to house 304 kids. The plan is to expand Mann and Longfellow by roughly that amount. Won’t those additions have heating and air conditioning costs? Electricity costs? Water and sewage? Maintenance? An accurate cost calculation would also have to account for any increase in busing caused by the closure of Hoover. Since Hoover runs no gen-ed buses (except the one for SINA transfers), that number can move in only one direction. As it stands, the voters are being asked to spend over ten million dollars to close a school for the sake of saving a much smaller, unspecified amount in annual operating costs—and without any good reason to single out that particular school.

This is hardly a “perfect storm” that can justify closing an elementary school. Is there any reason to think the public has been persuaded by the board majority’s arguments?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My glass is half empty, so yours should be too

If you aren’t reading Michael Tilley’s blog, you’re missing some of the best commentary out there on the facilities plan and other local school issues. Today he disputes the argument that equity requires all three high schools to have equal athletic and parking facilities, even if there is no connection to benefiting the students who are least well off, and even if it comes at the cost of closing a neighborhood elementary school, and even if we have to make other high schools’ facilities worse to achieve it (as I saw argued today on Facebook).

Michael is right that equalization at any cost is “equity run amok.” Moreover, it never seems to occur to some of City High’s “supporters” that City might actually have some advantages over West High and over the future new high school, and that some of those advantages might be related to its physical surroundings. After all, thousands of people freely choose to live in the area around City—because they like it. I live right next to City, and I love the neighborhoods around it. I like that City is easily walkable for so many people. I like its proximity to downtown. I like that City has an elementary school right next door. I like that the junior high is easily walkable from City. I’m not bothered by the fact that a few of City’s athletic facilities are located near the junior high; I think that has benefits for the neighborhood, too.

This is nothing against the west side or the North Corridor. Different people choose different things. But I chose the east side because I like it. If I were at West, I’d be envious of some of the things City has. What I don’t get is why some of City’s supporters are determined to see every difference between the two as a badge of inferiority. Why are they so sure that the balance of advantages and disadvantages always tips in West’s favor? And how does that stance help City High?