Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Longer school day?

Updated below

I’m hearing rumors that the district is considering making its school day longer—the rumor is that junior high and high school would start twenty-five minutes earlier (at 7:45) and end ten minutes later (at 3:30). Caution: I have no idea whether there’s any truth to the rumors. When I asked the superintendent today if there were any proposals to lengthen the school day, he replied:
The District and the ICEA have been working through the collective bargaining process to create the necessary flexibility to move from a “days” calendar to an “hours” calendar. These discussions are continuing as there are several logistical hurdles to overcome. At the Board meeting last night we calendared a public hearing for May 12 so that we can discuss such a change, provided that we can overcome the logistical hurdles.
So it sounds like a change in the length of the day is at least a possibility.

As the parent of a teenager who already has a very full day because of school, I’d be very reluctant to make the school day any longer, and especially to start it any earlier. Teenagers aren’t known for being morning people. I also think there are diminishing educational returns from being cooped up in a school building all day, and that they start diminishing well before you get to 7.75 hours. I also wonder about the benefit of a longer school day when some kids at the junior high level are already being given multiple study halls because there aren’t enough classes to put them in.

I understand, though, that some parents might prefer a longer school day just for the child care coverage. That seems like a legitimate concern, though it may not be as much of an issue in the higher grades. Moreover, from the superintendent’s email, it sounds like a longer day would just result in a shorter school year, which would cause its own child care coverage issues. In general, if more child care coverage can be provided to people who want it without imposing it on people who don’t, I’d be in favor of that approach (which sounds less expensive, too). For what it’s worth, the superintendent has acknowledged that lengthening the school day has gotten “a universally negative reaction from parents” in the past.

In any event, if there’s going to be any change to the school day, we should hear the details well in advance of any scheduled public hearing on it.

And if the school day does become longer, maybe it’s time for the district to develop a homework policy? Here’s an example of one (from a district with a less-than-6.5-hour day and a 55-minute lunch period!).

UPDATE 4/30/15: Am now hearing some more details, though all still unconfirmed. One person tells me that the plan is to lengthen the elementary school day by having it go from 8:30 - 3:30, but to shift the high school and junior high day earlier without lengthening them (so school would go from 7:45 to 2:55). It remains unclear to me why anyone would want the older kids’ day to start earlier and end earlier than the younger kids’ day.

I’ve been unable to get any satisfactory explanation of how the state’s shift from counting days to counting hours requires any adjustment at all in our current bell schedules (as opposed to simply adjusting the number of days kids are in school). So far, it sounds more like this is just an opportunity for the administration to push its longstanding desire to lengthen the elementary school day, and that it’s not “prompted” by the switch to counting hours in any meaningful sense.

I’ll keep posting as I hear more about it.

About those personal attacks

I’m not sure whether this is worth getting into, but the moderator of a local Facebook site on which school issues are discussed posted this today as a justification for excluding some people from access to the group (which counts a majority of the school board, as well as the district’s chief operating officer, among its members):

It’s a free country, and Eisele can run her site however she wants. But if she’s going to make accusations, she ought to at least link, so people can judge for themselves. By “contacting the employer of a person,” for example, I can only assume she is referring to this. Yes, if you write to the school district to disagree with something I said, I do have the right to respond, even if you are a school district employee.

As for “personal attacks” and “blatant lies,” maybe some links please? Reminder: It’s not a “personal attack” to disagree strongly with positions that people have publicly taken, and it’s not a “blatant lie” to say something that other people disagree with—especially since this is a publicly viewable site and anyone is free to post a response to anything I say here. When I get things wrong here, I’m happy to correct them (example here), but it helps if someone lets me know.

When I say something here, I say it front of everyone, and anyone can respond to it. Eisele makes her accusations on her members-only site, without substantiating them, and shields herself and her readers from any response from the people she’s accusing. Which approach is fairer? Which approach is likely to lead to a more informed discussion?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Elephant in the room

The eight writers of the letter described here are upset that the school board has cancelled the additions that it had planned to build on Longfellow, Mann, Lincoln, and Shimek schools, arguing that the decision shows a lack of commitment to the central core of Iowa City. “If we continue on the current course,” the letter argues, “we risk losing more of our core elementary schools, which would have devastating effects on our goal to strengthen the core of the city.”

I agree that the district shouldn’t reduce elementary school capacity in central Iowa City. But it would be easier to agree with this letter if the writers objected to the one school closure that the district is actually planning—Hoover. (My apologies if they do, but there is no mention of it in the coverage.) What do the writers have to say about supporting central Iowa City neighborhoods in that instance?

If these writers don’t oppose the Hoover closing, they are not only being inconsistent, they are undermining their own cause. There is no logical way to wall off Mann, Lincoln, Shimek, and Longfellow from the rationale for the Hoover closure. Even the idea of closing Hoover to benefit City High can apply to other schools, too, since any savings in operational costs could always be redirected to the high school. If Hoover should be closed for the greater good, why shouldn’t other, even smaller schools be closed, too?

Supporting the central core of Iowa City should mean keeping its schools open, not closing some and supersizing the others. If the district were to close Horace Mann but make up for it with large additions to Longfellow and Shimek, would these writers feel that central Iowa City was being supported?

By the way, a neighbor called me when this article appeared. “Eight people?” he said. “Almost nine hundred people signed the petition to keep Hoover open!”

Why would Iowa City voters support this?

This tweet was County Supervisor Rod Sullivan’s reaction to the school board’s recent decision to cancel the planned additions that would have added 150 seats to Longfellow School and 180 seats to Horace Mann School. The additions would have increased the number of kids you could put at Longfellow by 58 per cent and at Mann by 76 per cent.

As I wrote last week, I disagreed with Sullivan’s support for the closure of Hoover School, which is about as far from a “bargain,” grand or otherwise, as you can imagine. But I agree with Sullivan that voters should be very concerned about the district’s treatment of central Iowa City.

I do disagree, though, about what supporting central Iowa City should mean. For example, I don’t think putting a 417-kid school at the busy corner of Dodge and Church Streets, on the smallest lot by far in the district, is a way of supporting the Horace Mann neighborhood.

To me, supporting the central core of Iowa City means standing up to administrators who want elementary schools to either be super-sized or be closed. It means recognizing that what is possible in outlying areas is not always possible or desirable in areas that are more densely populated or have smaller lot sizes. It means investing in all our existing elementary schools, not pitting some of them against others.

Sullivan is right that under the latest version of its facilities plan, the district is removing elementary capacity from the densely populated central core of Iowa City and building it instead on the outskirts. It’s as if the district is simply lifting Hoover School out of its affordable, close-in neighborhood and plunking it down in a pricier neighborhood on the edge of town. To drive the point home, they’re even naming the new school Hoover, and acting like that’s a gift to the people whose school they are taking. I have no idea why voters would support that and no reason to think they will.

I have no problem with planning for anticipated growth, but there is no reason to do it by closing schools in areas that are already densely populated. If you want to support central Iowa City, you can start by not closing its elementary schools.

Everybody’s welcome here

You can imagine my bewilderment, as a starry-eyed new Facebook user, to find that I am, for undisclosed reasons, persona non grata at one of the local Facebook sites on which school district issues are discussed. (Insert sad emoji here.) It would be nice if that site, on which our district’s chief operating officer and at least one school board member regularly comment, were accessible to the entire public, but apparently I’m too hot a potato, or something. I think I’ll survive this blow to my social standing, if only because I didn’t have much of a social standing to begin with.

This post is just to reaffirm the policy of this blog: Anyone can read this blog and post comments here. I don’t spike comments that I disagree with, and never have. I moderate the comments because I get a lot of commercial spam—which usually looks something like this—and I do delete the spam. It’s also true that I won’t let you post under someone else’s name, as someone did earlier this week, though you’re welcome to post anonymously or using a screen name. I suppose I’d rule out violent comments or comments that run down people’s kids by name, etc., though I’ve never had cause to. But I don’t spike comments because I disagree with them, as a quick look through prior posts will demonstrate.

It is true, unfortunately, that Blogspot’s comment system is bug-filled and just generally sucks. Sometimes, you may have to post a comment more than once to be sure it goes through, though most of the time it seems to work fine. It sometimes takes me a while to check the email and approve the comments, but if your comment doesn’t eventually appear, please post it again. If it’s a continuing problem, let me know by email (the address is in the sidebar) and I’ll try to find a workaround.

On the Hoover issue in particular, I’d really like to hear the pro-closure arguments (and, yes, respond to them). It’s always seemed so strange how seldom anyone has publicly articulated the arguments for the closure, not just on this blog but anywhere. If they’re sound, they can withstand a public airing, no?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

“In actuality, it probably WILL become a parking lot”

“Part of the ‘They’re going to use Hoover as a parking lot’ strikes me as quite disingenuous. In actuality, it probably WILL become a parking lot... but the current City parking lot will probably become some type of building. You are just trading spaces. It gets presented as ‘they just want to add parking,’ which I’ve never heard from any Board member or Administrator.”
                           —County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, who voted to close
                               Hoover as a member of the district’s facilities planning
                               committee, on social media (ellipse in original)

I’m actually a fan of Rod Sullivan’s, though I think he made a very bad call on closing Hoover. Anyway, he’s not the only person to make a statement like this one, and the statement deserves some scrutiny.

The statement assumes that people in the Hoover neighborhood are being unreasonable—even “disingenuous”—when they say that they do not want to see a parking lot in the space where their elementary school currently is. If only they could understand that it’s not an increase in parking, but just “trading spaces,” that will cause them to suddenly have a parking lot where their school now stands, then they’d feel much better, so it’s really not legitimate for them to focus on the parking lot.

Needless to say, this is not a fair treatment of people’s genuine concerns. Many people in the Hoover neighborhood are rightly upset that they will not only be losing their school, but also “probably” gaining an eyesore and a potential traffic nightmare. To suggest that they just don’t understand or are being disingenuous is a way of dismissing these very real effects on the neighborhood without addressing them.

And what about the assertion that City won’t be adding parking, but just “trading spaces”? In fact, City’s advocates have repeatedly argued that City needs more parking, not just relocated parking. As Sullivan must remember, one of the scenarios presented to the facilities committee included a 750-car parking garage at City, which administrators and at least one board member explicitly argued would be necessary if the City addition were built without closing Hoover. Since City currently has 590 spaces total, it’s very reasonable for people to conclude that a substantial part of the reason for taking Hoover is to add parking to City High.

Finally, do you know how much the City High classroom addition will add to City’s footprint? About 8,400 square feet. That’s about one-half of one percent of City’s land. It would represent about 3% of the Hoover property. There will also be a cafeteria expansion, a wrestling room addition, and additional gym space, so revise that number upward accordingly, and you get -- what, maybe 6% of the Hoover property? So it’s very reasonable for people to conclude that the addition—or whatever it displaces—cannot fully explain the taking of Hoover and its five acres.

I won’t call Sullivan disingenuous, because I think he’s acting in good faith. But he should have more respect for the very reasonable concerns that people have about the Hoover closure.


Numbers: Half of the City High addition will go on top of the existing building, so it’s only the remaining six classrooms that will add to the footprint. I used the six classrooms on the northeast side of the building (which are relatively new construction) to gauge how big the classroom addition would be. Each room is about 26 by 34 feet, and the hallways are 13 feet across. I erred on the generous side by assuming there would be hallways on three sides of the six classrooms. Round everything upwards and you’re at about 8,400 square feet. To get the approximate square footage of the City High and Hoover properties, I used this tool; try it yourself.

(This post was updated to add information about the gym, cafeteria, and wrestling room additions.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Use existing space instead of building expensive additions

Guess which lot the district plans to build a 180-student addition on.

The district’s recently released possible “updates” to the facilities plan contain a lot of bad ideas—for example, one would close three more elementary schools—but one good idea: cancel the planned additions to Mann and Longfellow schools.

Horace Mann Elementary needs a thorough renovation, air conditioning, and a multi-purpose room, but it makes no sense to build a 180-student addition—increasing the school’s capacity by 76%—on the smallest lot (by far) in the district. As it is, there is barely room for a playground and parking on the Mann property. Adding 180 seats there—and another 180 kids getting dropped off in the morning—is madness.

It makes even less sense when the district is simultaneously planning to close a much bigger school on a much bigger lot less than two miles away. The point of the Mann addition isn’t to accommodate growing enrollment; it’s to absorb the loss of capacity caused by closing Hoover, and to move toward a vision of fewer, larger elementaries, farther away from where the students live. (Longfellow, too, needs renovation and improvements, but not the 150-student addition that’s currently planned and which is necessary only because of the Hoover closure.)

Yes, there’s a park next to Horace Mann. There has been some talk of taking the park for the school district, but it’s not at all clear that the district will be able to do that. (Would the neighborhood want that? Would the City agree? Would the park then be fenced in?) In any event, even with the entire park, the lot would still be very small, the drop-off and pick-up would still be a nightmare, and Hoover’s lot would still be almost twice as large.

Unfortunately, the district’s latest “updates” don’t keep Hoover Elementary open. They would cancel the Mann and Longfellow additions, but just to replace them with different additions onto other schools. One way or another, the district will have to build over 300 new seats of capacity if it displaces over 300 kids from Hoover. That’s a lot of money wasted.

At some point, the district is going to ask voters to approve a bond to pay for the projects in the facilities plan. Most of the projects are worthy, good investments. But people are naturally going to think twice about spending millions of dollars just to tear down one school and then rebuild the lost capacity onto other schools. The sooner the district comes to its senses about Hoover, the better for all the worthy projects in the plan.

A great place for an elementary school

When I summarized the apparent reasons for the decision to close Hoover School, I left one out on purpose: the idea that “there aren’t that many kids in the Hoover attendance area.” This “reason” never made any sense, which is probably why you don’t hear it much anymore. When the board voted to close it, Hoover had more kids living in its attendance area than Mann, Shimek, Hills, or Lincoln, all of which had significantly smaller enrollments than Hoover. It was always a little strange to hear that Hoover didn’t have enough students, given that it has had two temporary buildings for years. Under-filled schools don’t get temporary buildings.

The argument was apparently based on the idea that Hoover was overcrowded only because it received SINA transfers from other schools. Yet even before Hoover started receiving SINA transfer students, it had more than 304 students—which is what the district now considers its capacity. Afterward, Hoover did have more transfers than other schools, but not an extraordinary number. Even when you don’t count the SINA transfers, Hoover had more than 304 students in 2012-13, right before the board voted to close it. And early indications are that next year’s Hoover kindergarten enrollment will be one of its biggest in years.

But the best refutation of the “not enough kids” argument is the fact that the district plans to add 330 seats to Horace Mann and Longfellow schools at the same time it is closing Hoover. That’s just about as many kids as go to Hoover. That’s not because there are suddenly more homes around Mann and Longfellow—those areas, like the Hoover area, are already filled with homes and are unlikely to grow. It’s because when you close a school with over 300 kids in it, you then need to build over 300 new seats somewhere else.

The only way to understand what is actually happening is that the district wants to move toward having fewer, larger elementary schools, farther on average from where their students live. The board decided it could save a little bit on annual operating expenses by, in effect, consolidating three schools into two—though the new construction would cost millions. At the same time, it planned to build two new 500-kid elementary schools on the edge of town. The idea was that the 500-kid schools would be more efficient to operate. Yet now the district tells us that even ten years from now, the first of those new, big schools will have—you guessed it—just a little over 300 students. So much for efficiency.

Hoover sits in an area that is already densely populated. There are enough kids nearby that the entire attendance area lies within two miles of the school. This means that no one in the attendance area qualifies for a bus, so the district saves money. It’s also in an economically diverse neighborhood, and its presence helps that neighborhood thrive. It makes perfect sense to have a school there.

For more information on how operational efficiency doesn’t correlate with enrollment size, see Michael Tilley’s posts.

Last-minute update: Now the district’s administrators have released several proposals to “update” the facilities plan, one of which would close three more schools. Some of them would cancel the additions on Mann and Longfellow, but would expand other schools instead. Either way, the Hoover closure forces the district to spend millions to add capacity elsewhere. It’s not clear whether the board will accept any of these updates; until they do, the plan is still to add 330 seats to Mann and Longfellow. But these “updates” are yet more evidence of the administration’s desire to shift toward having fewer, larger elementaries, farther from where people live.

City High doesn’t need Hoover School to close

As I wrote last week, the district’s fiscal justifications for closing an elementary school don’t stand up to scrutiny, and its reasons for singling out Hoover for closure make even less sense. But the Hoover closure has always been about something else, too: the long-standing desire of some City High advocates to take the Hoover property for City.

Ultimately, the question of whether Hoover should close so City can have more land hinges on how much you value the presence of the neighborhood’s elementary school. Some people might support closing Hoover no matter how small the benefit to City, because they just don’t think closing an elementary school is a big deal. But suppose you think (as I do) that our existing elementary schools are important and shouldn’t be closed cavalierly or without a compelling reason. Is City High’s “need” for the property nonetheless so great that it would justify closing Hoover?

Here’s why I think it isn’t:

  • No one has identified how the Hoover property would be used to benefit City. Under the current plan, City won’t use the building itself; there’s money designated in the plan to tear the Hoover building down, and no money designated to build anything in its place. How can taking Hoover be a compelling “need” if no one can tell us what it is needed for? What’s the big secret?

  • One argument is that City won’t have room for its planned 300-student addition unless it can take the Hoover property. But everyone agrees that the addition won’t go on the Hoover land, and no one has identified how the Hoover property will be used to accommodate the addition. Moreover, the district has twice released scenarios in which the City High addition would be completed while Hoover is still in use, which directly contradicts the idea that the addition can’t happen without the closure.

  • We don’t even know whether the second half of the City High addition will be built, because its completion hinges on 60% voter approval of a very large bond. The district may face an uphill battle passing that bond, especially if it needlessly alienates a big chunk of the central east side.

  • City High’s enrollment is about to get significantly smaller. The district will soon have three large-enrollment high schools instead of two. If enrollment is divided evenly among the three, City could have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 or 1300 students. That’s a funny moment to be arguing that City suddenly “needs” five more acres of property for unspecified uses.

  • The most likely possible uses of the Hoover land are as a parking lot or a site for athletic fields. Depending on where the City addition is built, it might displace some tennis courts, or a softball field, or existing parking. Also, City High currently uses the baseball field at Mercer Park, and some would like to move baseball back to the City premises. If you think these are compelling needs that justify closing a neighborhood elementary school—and spending millions of dollars to do it—we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Let’s just say that that will be one incredibly expensive baseball field or parking lot.

  • By the way, if moving a couple of tennis courts onto Hoover’s field is all it would take to keep the school open, I’d happily support the idea. Hoover’s field is big enough to hold three tennis courts and still have room for nine more, without even encroaching on the blacktop. Closing the school and taking all five acres because of a few tennis courts makes no sense at all.

  • Unless City High plans to annex all the private homes between First and Seventh Avenues, West High will always have the bigger front lawn. Liberty High will always have the bigger parking lot (and it’ll need one, too, since it won’t be located in the middle of a densely populated walkable neighborhood, as City is). These aren’t badges of inferiority. Neither is having City’s baseball field over at Mercer, where its swim team also practices. City shouldn’t aspire to be exactly like West High or Liberty High. It has its own unique character, and its location in a thriving, close-in neighborhood is one of its strengths.

So sure, there will always be people who want the Hoover land for City High. (One of the members of the facilities planning committee told me that Hoover had to close because City High might need the land “fifty or seventy-five years from now”!) But you need a much more compelling case to justify closing an elementary school.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Horace Mann, Lincoln, and Hills now on the chopping block, too

Today our school district’s administration released several possible “updates” for its long-term facilities plan, one of which would close Horace Mann, Lincoln, and Hills Elementaries in addition to Hoover. Another would keep Hoover open as a Pre-K center and relocate City High’s tennis courts and/or softball field to nearby Chadek’s Field.

I’m going to have to spend some time with the proposals to understand them fully. But here are some of my initial reactions:

1. These proposals just confirm that the logic of the Hoover closure leads naturally to the closure of other elementaries, too. The district needs to make a decision about whether it wants to close small and medium-size elementaries—often the ones closer in to downtown—and shift toward having enormous elementary schools on the outskirts of town. All the public feedback collected during the facilities planning process tilted heavily against that strategy, but the administration seems determined to move full speed ahead in that direction. Anyone who wants to support keeping all of our existing elementaries open should sign the petition here.

2. Anyone who cares about keeping a thriving, livable, walkable, sustainable core to Iowa City needs to recognize the threat that these proposals pose. You don’t keep a city livable by closing its closer-in elementaries—which often serve economically diverse neighborhoods and help those neighborhoods thrive—and shifting instead toward mega-schools in pricier new developments on the outskirts of town. (Some of the proposals increase the size of the new elementary schools from 500 students to 600.)  That’s why local sustainability advocates like Supervisor Mike Carberry spoke up against the Hoover closure to begin with; the problem will only be compounded if more schools are to be closed.

3. If the district is going to argue that schools closings are justified on the grounds of reducing annual operating expenses, people should keep in mind just how small that savings is likely to be.

4. One of the proposals would keep Hoover open as a Pre-K center. Isn’t that an admission that City High doesn’t “need” the property, which was one of the whole justifications for the closure to begin with? (Maybe that explains why no one could ever identify how City would use the land.)

5. The updates all talk about discontinuing the use of Hoover as an elementary school “no earlier than 2017-18.” The current plan calls for Hoover to close in 2019, so these plans would accelerate the closure.

6. This is what elections are for. If these proposals put the issue of school closings front and center as we approach this September’s board election, then they serve at least one good purpose.

7. I have to admit, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for immersing myself in the details of these proposals. It seems impossible to keep up with the administration’s changing rationales about what the district “needs.” Do they mean anything they say? The one consistent theme has been the desire to close schools that are closer-in (plus Hills) and build much bigger schools on the periphery. So let’s get that issue discussed. And, when our board election gets going, let’s hear where our candidates stand on that question.

Clarification, 5:00 p.m.: The proposals themselves do not specifically refer to the use of Chadek's field, but the district's chief operating officer, David Dude, said on social media that the final option "incorporates a variety of concepts that may or may not have been considered in the past--including... purchasing some city property south of CHS to accommodate outdoor facilities displaced during CHS expansions"--which appears to be a reference to Chadek's Field.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Democrats block Smarter Balanced

State Senate Democrats announced last night that they would block the Smarter Balanced Assessments in order to ensure the availability of adequate state supplemental school aid for years to come. This clip from the press conference is really incredible. That’s the kind of party that can start winning statewide elections again.