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?

1 comment:

Karen W said...

I have said from the beginning that these are the sorts of hard conversations to be had in districts with shrinking enrollments. If the district had a number of half empty elementary schools, it would absolutely make sense to talk about consolidating students into fewer buildings and closing the others.

Several grossly inadequate reasons for closure don't add up to an adequate reason for closure, as you have shown here--"perfect storm" label or not.