There was a listening-post-ish meeting tonight about the future of Hoover Elementary School, with school board members Chris Lynch and Orville Townsend responding to questions and comments from people concerned about the issues around the planned closure of Hoover. I counted about 70 attendees, including four school board candidates. I thought it was a good meeting. Here are some of the things I think the board members can take from it:
1. A lot of people are dismayed and upset by the Hoover closure and by the process that led to it, and continue to find the explanation of it incomplete and unconvincing. Lynch did his best to state some kind of rationale for the closure, but he also noted that he wasn’t on the board when the decision was made, so there was a sense in which he was trying to explain some other group’s decision. The audience reacted to each of the points he made with well-reasoned rejoinders, which was important for Lynch and Townsend to see. I know how strongly Lynch supports the larger facilities plan, and I have to believe that he wishes he had better answers to these questions.
2. People aren’t buying the district’s line that the elementary-age population of the Hoover area is declining. If there’s a decline in enrollment, it will be because of the closure, and it can be prevented by simply reversing the closure. Many speakers said that there has actually been an influx of young kids into their neighborhoods; that’s certainly true in mine, and Hoover’s pre-registrations for kindergarten next year are up significantly from this year. If the school stays open, there will be ample kids to fill it, no matter how the attendance zones are redrawn. (See this post.)
3. Several people (including me) spoke about how the district needs to recognize the effects of a school closure on the surrounding neighborhood and on the city of Iowa City. As one person said to me after the meeting, not every university town has the kind of thriving central neighborhoods that Iowa City has, and we can’t take them for granted. The school district should be proactive in supporting the neighborhoods in the core of Iowa City, the health of which has an effect on all of the surrounding areas.
4. Several speakers raised the teacher transition issue. Recently the administration told the teachers at Hoover that they would not be moved as a group to the new East Elementary School (a/k/a “Hoover East”) or given hiring preference there. This means that even the teachers who want to stay at Hoover until it closes will feel a lot of pressure to start looking for positions elsewhere sooner rather than later, since they can’t know whether anything will be available for them if they wait. This is a recipe for slow decline and death for Hoover, which, even if it closes, is still the elementary school for hundreds of kids for the next four years. The board members seemed relatively unaware of this issue and said that they would bring it back to the full board for discussion.
5. Some speakers raised the issue of the bond. To follow through on its facilities plan, the district needs to pass a $100+ million-dollar bond just a couple of years from now. It was clear that some people at the meeting were inclined not to vote for the bond if the plan included the Hoover closure—if not because of the closure itself, because they see the closure as part of a broader pattern by the district of dismissiveness toward community input. It was also clear that others at the meeting thought it was terrible that anyone would vote against the bond for that reason.
I don’t speak for the Save Hoover Committee, but I feel strongly that the group should be focused on the coming board election and should not take the stance of threatening a bond proposal that hasn’t even been drawn up yet. That said, however: You don’t have to be Nate Silver to know that the bond is less likely to pass if it includes a school closure. Please read that again: I didn’t say it shouldn’t pass, I said it’s less likely to pass. Some number of voters will be alienated by a school closure, and no amount of disapproving head-shaking will change that fact. Passing a bond is about putting together a coalition that will get you to 60% of the vote. It’s a negotiation with the community, and any clear-eyed supporter of the bond would approach it that way. Keeping Hoover open makes sense as good policy, but it’s also just smart politics for a district that needs to build that kind of coalition.
What can the attendees take from the meeting? I thought there were good reasons to be encouraged about the future of Hoover. Lynch, the chair of the school board, acknowledged that although the closure is part of the current plan, plans can change as circumstances change. He emphasized in particular that if the enrollment projections change, the board will need to reassess the plan. Although I think the board needs to scrutinize the enrollment projections more closely and needs to be proactive and not just reactive about sustaining its existing schools, I see Lynch’s statements as an opportunity, and I think there is good reason to believe that, over the next year or two, the district will realize that it needs to keep Hoover School open.