Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why I’m running for the school board

Yesterday I filed to become a candidate for the school board vacancy created by the resignation of Tuyet Baruah. The filing included over a hundred petition signatures, and although it wasn’t required, I made sure that I included at least four signatures from each of the twenty elementary school attendance zones in the district.

The vacancy that I am running to fill occurred only a week ago; it’s going to take me a couple of weeks to get a campaign fully in gear. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t already know me:

My name is Chris Liebig, and I have lived in Iowa City for nineteen years. This year, my wife Carolyn and I will have one child at Hoover Elementary, one at Southeast Junior High, and one at City High. I have been writing regularly here about local and national education policy for almost six years. In my day job, I teach legal analysis, writing, and research to first-year law students at the University of Iowa. (The opinions I express here are, of course, my own.) In addition to my law degree, I have an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Why I’m running:

  • Our district needs to be more responsive to what the community wants. Too often district policies—for example, the new school day schedule, or the dismayingly short elementary school lunch periods, or the continual talk of school closures—seem to descend from on high, without any regard to community input.

  • I want to keep all of our schools open. Closing schools when enrollment is expanding makes no sense and is needlessly divisive and expensive.

  • We should pay special attention to the needs of disadvantaged students and their families. In my view, those families are the best judges of what those needs are. We should seek out their advice and bring it to bear on district policy.

  • We need the voters to pass a bond to complete the renovations and new facilities in the district’s long-term plan. Passing a bond requires not cheerleading or groupthink but transparency, candor, inclusiveness, and critical thinking. Asking the voters to approve a bond that pits some neighborhoods against others, for example, would put the entire plan at risk.

  • Teachers and school staff have invaluable knowledge about what is happening in our schools and what might need to change. They should not feel inhibited for any reason from speaking publicly about the district’s policies and practices. I’d like to develop an employee free speech policy to ensure that school staff will feel free—and encouraged—to contribute publicly to the discussions about our schools.

  • We need sound, capable management from our administrators, but on policy issues the board should lead, not follow, the administration. The board is the only democratically accountable element in what would otherwise be an insulated and self-reinforcing system. It needs to speak up for the community and push back against proposals that don’t have the support of the public.

Having blogged here for so long, I’m a pretty open book. If you browse through old posts, you’ll get a sense of where I’m coming from. But I’m not interested in running for the board so I can impose all my idiosyncratic preferences on the district regardless of whether anyone wants them. Our best hope is a school system that reflects the ambitions and values of this community. I believe in the great potential of community-based, democratically accountable public schools.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

For what?

Supporters of the Hoover closure have argued that “City High needs the land.”

“For what?” people asked.

And asked, and asked, and kept asking, even two years after the closure vote.

Several Hoover parents at the listening post last month said that they could support the closure if they thought the benefit to City High justified it. But what was the benefit?

So at last night’s board meeting, one of the items on the agenda was how the Hoover land would be used after the closure. Here was the opportunity for the board to finally answer the question—“for what?”—and maybe even win some Hoover people over. So the district was ready with a persuasive response, right? Wrong.

The only way to answer the question, the administration said, would be to create the schematic design of what will go on the Hoover property, and to do that would cost as much as $484,000. And to do it before the bond vote, the money would have to come out of another source—probably the playground rejuvenation funds! So do people really want to know that badly?

When board member Tuyet Baruah asked why the board decided to close the school without knowing what it needed the property for, the administrators and her fellow board members fumbled for an answer. The other high schools have lots of land, board member Marla Swesey said. There was “the feeling of needing the space,” the district’s Chief Operating Officer said. No specifics.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think you have to spend $484,000 to identify the needs that led you to close an elementary school and take its 5.7 acres for another use. If all you can do is cite projects that add up to less than half an acre, then you haven’t explained why you need to close the school—whether you pay for a schematic design of it or not.

You’ve got to feel for the administration and board. If they don’t answer the question, people will be upset. But if they do answer it, people will also be upset—because the answer is so lame. What’s a district to do?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The City High addition can’t explain the Hoover closure

Tonight’s board meeting includes a discussion of the plans for City High and how the Hoover land will be used after the closure.

This is a good moment to point out that there is a difference between the City High addition—which is mainly about classroom space—and athletics improvements. Some closure proponents would like you to think that Hoover needs to close so City can have more classrooms, but in fact the addition cannot explain the closure. Here’s why.

First, everyone agrees that the addition will not be built on the Hoover land.

At most, the addition might displace something (parking, tennis courts) that would then have to be relocated. But the addition will not displace much. The first phase of the addition is being built on top of the building and will displace nothing. The second phase includes six classrooms and cafeteria and library expansions. Six classrooms, plus accompanying corridors, takes up about .2 acres. Suppose the cafeteria and library expansions take another .2. That’s less than half an acre displaced.

Hoover’s property is 5.7 acres. Displacing four-tenths of an acre does not explain taking 5.7 acres and tearing down an elementary school. If the district really needed to take 7% of Hoover’s land for City, it could do that without closing the school.

So what will happen to other 93% of Hoover’s land? The most likely uses are an expansion (not just displacement) of City’s parking lot (at a time when its enrollment will be significantly decreasing because of the new high school) or a baseball field or stadium so the baseball team doesn’t have to keep playing at Mercer Park (oh the horror!) or both.

Parking and baseball, not classrooms. Is that a good enough reason to close and tear down a three-hundred-kid neighborhood elementary school?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Using math like this, how many more schools should close?

Still shaking my head at the superintendent’s analysis I quoted here. By using district-wide average costs, instead of the actual cost of running Hoover, and by pretending that relocating over three hundred students won’t cause any increase at all in non-teaching expenses at their new buildings, the superintendent concluded that it would cost $675,000 annually to keep Hoover open. The real figure is probably much closer to $200,000. (I say “probably” because I live in a district where information often has to be pieced together imperfectly by bloggers or on Facebook, rather than provided with any accuracy or transparency by our paid administrators.)

By substituting the average cost for the actual cost, the administration not only inflates the cost of running Hoover, it also understates the cost of running the new, much bigger schools that it has already committed itself to building. In my view, there’s no looking back on opening the new elementaries; the district should open them at less-than-full capacity and allow them to grow as neighborhoods are built around them. But the administration should be candid about how much it’s going to cost to run those schools.

Given the superintendent’s math, it’s little wonder that the administration keeps talking about closing more schools. Two great questions for school board candidates: Do you agree with the superintendent that we can save $675,000 annually by closing a school? If we can reap that kind of savings by closing schools, how many more schools should close?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Is our district run by used car salesmen?

Since the school board voted to close Hoover two years ago, people have debated just how much it would cost in annual operating expenses to keep Hoover open. The most well-supported analysis I’ve seen is from Michael Tilley, who estimated in 2013 that the annual cost of keeping Hoover open would be just under $200,000. But no one knows with certainty, because the board never sought the information and the district never provided it to the public.

Recently, enough people have been raising the question that the superintendent felt compelled to respond. He sent the following message to a school board member:
Good morning.

I have been approached recently by several members of the community regarding the base line cost to operate an elementary building. They have asked this in relation to keeping Hoover Elementary open and opening the new east-side elementary school. After asking clarifying questions, I think I have the information that they are seeking and I wanted to share it with you first.

All buildings require the following staff: Principal, Teacher Librarian, Guidance Counselor, Building Secretary, Media Secretary, Custodian(s), and Maintenance. Averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the combined costs for these staff are approximately $475,000.

All buildings also require Regular Education Teachers, Special Education Teachers, and Specials Teachers. These numbers are dependent on the number of students in the building and therefore are not included in the above cost total.

All buildings have utility and supply costs. Again, averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the cost for utilities and supplies are approximately $175,000.

The combined total is $675,000. Please keep in mind that these figures are in 2014-15 dollars and will go up for next year bring the total for next year to @$700,000.

The bottom line in response to the questions asked is for the District to keep Hoover Elementary School open AND open the new east-side elementary would require a minimum of $700,000 in additional general fund expenditures every year.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

The superintendent does not seem to care much about the district’s credibility. Here are all the reasons to question his analysis.

  • First, 475,000 plus 175,000 does not equal 675,000. The superintendent later corrected the arithmetic and revised his cost figure downward by $25,000. An excusable error, maybe, but funny how all the errors in his message tend toward inflating the cost estimate.

  • The superintendent’s reasoning is: The average cost of operating an elementary school is $675,000. Therefore it costs $675,000 to keep Hoover open. I would hope that most ICCSD students could spot the logical flaw.

  • Of course, the use of an average obscures the fact that bigger schools cost significantly more to run than smaller schools. For example, “All buildings require . . . a Guidance Counselor.” Except Hoover gets only 60% of a guidance counselor, since it shares its counselor with other schools. The superintendent makes no adjustment for that fact. How many of the other staff members that he identifies have less than a full-time equivalent at Hoover, and a significantly larger expense at bigger schools? You won’t find the answer in the superintendent’s message, which acts as if all elementary schools have the same number of non-teaching staff.

  • Is it really possible that the district would move over three hundred students to other schools without increasing the assignment of guidance counselors, custodians, support staff, etc., at those schools? That’s the implication of the superintendent’s analysis. It’s almost certainly not true, but it helps make Hoover look more expensive, so in it goes.

  • In fact, the district certainly knows what it spent on staff and other expenses at Hoover last year. It could easily produce that figure. There is no better basis for estimating what Hoover would cost in the future. That the superintendent chose not to disclose that figure, and to use a district-wide average instead, speaks volumes.

  • The superintendent includes $175,000 for “utilities and supplies.” Yet if Hoover closes, the students won’t disappear. Wherever they go, they will require additional heat, air conditioning, plumbing, and electricity. The need for “supplies,” whatever they might mean—cleaning supplies? paper goods for the bathrooms? books?—will also follow the students.

    The district is not planning to simply cram all the ex-Hoover students into existing spaces and make them share existing supplies; it is building new buildings to accommodate the district’s growing capacity. The new buildings include not only the new schools, but also the planned additions to existing schools, such as the planned 125-seat Lemme addition, which will be entirely unnecessary if Hoover stays open. Those new buildings will cost millions of dollars to build, which is a whole separate issue from operating expenses. But they will also, of course, require ongoing utilities and supplies.

    Maybe there will be efficiencies, or maybe not. (New construction, believe it or not, is not always superior to old construction.) But the superintendent doesn’t inquire. He simply counts the entire cost of utilities and supplies as if it will disappear if Hoover closes and the kids go someplace else.

  • Even the superintendent’s average cost figures are in the form of assertions; we’re supposed to trust him that they are accurate. But given how hard he is striving to inflate the cost of keeping Hoover open, how willing should we be to trust even those numbers?

  • Look at this document from 2011. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $306,878. Again, only a portion of that figure can be saved by closing the school, so Tilley’s $190,000 figure still looks pretty reasonable. But the superintendent tells us we can save $675,000 annually by closing the school.

  • Look at this document from 2013-14, just three years later, right after the board voted to close Hoover. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $420,152—a full 36% increase over the 2011 figure, right when it became in the administration’s interest to make Hoover look expensive. The lack of any consistency in how the numbers are broken down does not inspire confidence. In any event, if you only have $420,152 to work with, how are you going to find savings of $675,000?

The level of hucksterism in the superintendent’s message is just embarrassing. Does this administration care about providing accurate information so the board can make good policy decisions? Or does it just care about selling its own agenda, complete with Madison-Avenue-style puffery?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Linn-Mar or Liberty?

Some friends are contemplating moving and are considering the Linn-Mar and Iowa City school districts. They are particularly wondering about the quality of the high school experience in each district, as their kids are approaching high school age. If they move to the ICCSD, they would probably be in the North Corridor area and so ultimately at Liberty High, and I realize that it’s hard to compare Linn-Mar High with a high school that doesn’t exist yet. Nonetheless, they do have to make a decision. What say you, readers? Linn-Mar or Liberty, and why?