_________________________________________________________________

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A response to Jeff McGinness

Well, bond campaign season is upon us, and it sometimes seems as if the supporters of the bond were expecting no one to point out counterarguments. I was quoted in a Gazette piece today, and former board member Jeff McGinness, who co-chaired the committee that developed the initial facilities plan recommendation, had this to say about it:


McGinness’s statements that I “essentially campaigned on killing the bond” and that I’ve “voted against virtually every admin proposal” are demonstrably false. As to the former, my campaign position is the same one I have now:
The district will need to ask the voters to pass a bond to follow through on the district’s facilities plan. We need to make sure the proposal makes sense and that the voters trust the district with the money. Passing a bond requires not cheerleading or groupthink but transparency, candor, inclusiveness, and critical thinking.
Some might prefer the cheerleading approach, but that is hardly campaigning on killing the bond. In my view, what risks killing the bond is having it cover capacity expansions—some of which are up to seven years out on the timeline—without any indication that future enrollment will justify them.

As for the statement that I’ve “voted against virtually every admin proposal,” I just reviewed all the votes at our regular board meetings: I have voted “no” 29 times and “yes” 231 times (and that’s not even counting consent calendar items separately). At 60% of the meetings, I did not cast a single “no” vote. Not all the “yes” votes were supporting administrative recommendations, but a whole lot of them were. Again, some people want board members to vote “yes” more than 89% of the time, but that’s hardly voting against every administrative proposal.

McGinness says that my blog contains intentional misstatements, but since he doesn’t cite any, I can’t refute the charge or correct any errors.

As for Sullivan’s Gazette piece, it was pretty faithful to what I said to him when he called me. One arguable inaccuracy in his piece is that the bond wouldn’t “fund a replacement for Hoover Elementary,” at least if that’s meant to refer to Hoover East, which is not bond-funded and which does not actually “replace” Hoover. Sullivan cites my blog (which cited this) for the statement that the plan would put elementary capacity at 1600 seats more than projected enrollment; the district has since revised its capacity numbers, and then revised them again, but that figure is still pretty close to what the district’s own documents show. (Compare Column O with Column M.) In general, my concern is that the enrollment projections are speculative enough that we shouldn’t use them to justify commitments that are years out on the timeline; more on that in an upcoming post.

The bond vote is still four and a half months away. There is lots of time for making arguments and counterarguments before anyone has to vote. When I make my arguments, I try always to include links for any factual assertions. My advice to voters is: take your time and consider both sides. If the proposal is as strong as its supporters contend, they should have nothing to worry about.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Community meeting about Horace Mann Elementary


This coming Tuesday, May 2, the school board will hold a community meeting to get public input on how to design the site plan for the renovations to Horace Mann Elementary School. The meeting will go from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at Mann. The meeting agenda is here.

The attachment to the agenda shows several possible scenarios, which are not intended to be exclusive of other potential ideas. The most recent scenarios, developed after the board’s joint session with the Iowa City City Council, are “H-1” and “H-2.” At last night’s meeting, a community member presented an interesting alternative, labeled “Option Z” (shown above; click to enlarge). It’s possible that the agenda could be further supplemented before Tuesday’s meeting.

Discussions so far have focused on (1) how placement of the new addition will affect outdoor play spaces, and (2) how to deal with space for parking and parent drop-off. One possible area for discussion is whether there are ways to think outside the box about how to accommodate parking needs without unnecessarily burdening outdoor play areas and the neighboring park (which has served informally as a kind of extension of the Mann play areas).

Comments welcome!

UPDATE: Some have asked about gym size comparisons with other schools. Here is a chart showing current and planned gym sizes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Should before- and after-school programs be responsible for raising test scores?

At tonight’s meeting, the board will get an update on the district’s contract negotiations with the providers of our before- and after-school programs (BASPs). Two of the proposed changes to the contracts have prompted some discussion.

First, the district is asking the BASPs to commit to furthering the district’s goals of raising math and reading proficiency rates and “creating culturally inclusive and responsive school environments and classroom instruction, with a focus on equitable outcomes for students in protected classes.” (See also the BASP Q&A here.)

It is not clear to me exactly what changes the district is expecting from the BASPs to help raise reading and math proficiency rates. It’s my understanding that the BASPs currently give the kids a number of activity choices, including reading or homework time, but that they don’t engage in actual instruction per se. The children are already spending seven hours of the day in school; when the district added a half hour to their school day two years ago, we heard ongoing concerns about the long day that we were imposing on young kids. Recess and lunch time during the school day is minimal. I’m not at all persuaded that “more is always better” when it comes to instructional time. (See this post from years ago.) Especially given the lack of concrete details about what this new clause will require, I don’t blame people for being concerned about it.

Second, the district is asking the BASPs to commit to holding a certain number of spots open at each site to serve students experiencing homelessness or other emergency situations. This seems like a worthy goal, but it does impose a cost on the BASPs (who may have to turn away families on their waiting lists to leave those spaces open), which could affect their staffing and programming. I don’t have an immediate opinion on what is reasonable to expect from the BASPs here, but I’d like to hear the pros and cons.

The Q&A gives the impression that the district is playing hardball with the BASPs. It goes out of its way to state that BASPs that don’t like the proposed terms may end up getting charged for the use of the school buildings or even replaced with different providers. Maybe the district can offer a persuasive rationale for this approach, but it does come as a bit of a surprise, given that the BASPs are non-profit organizations, often run by parent boards, which in many cases have longstanding relationships with the district and with district parents.

____________________

Meanwhile, in related news, President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds before- and after-school and summer programs, on the grounds that “The programs lacks [sic] strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.” In my view, providing child care to working parents who need it is a perfectly good objective in and of itself, regardless of whether it raises anyone’s test scores. (See Freddie deBoer’s post here for an extended version of that argument.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

School board agenda for April 25

Some of the items on the board’s agenda this week:

We’ll vote on bond proposal language to put on the ballot in September. See this post for details.

We’ll get an update on the district’s negotiations over possible changes to the district’s contracts with its providers of before-and-after-school programs. (Update: For more information about this issue, see this post.)

We’ll consider a recommendation for 2017-18 salary and benefits increases for our non-unionized groups of employees.

We’ll hear a review of the district’s grounds care practices and get an update from the Integrated Pest Management task force, which has been examining the district’s use of pesticides and herbicides on school grounds.

We’ll consider whether to approve $2.4 million in expenditures to buy and lease computer equipment, much of which will go toward funding the district’s plan to provide all secondary students with Chromebook laptops for use in the classroom and at home. I describe my concerns about this recommendation in this post.

At our work session, we’ll continue our discussion of the planned renovation of Horace Mann Elementary. The latest scenarios are here. We’ll also continue to discuss the bond and the facilities plan generally.

All that and more! The full agendas are here and here. Feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

A laptop in every backpack: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Our district has been moving forward with a plan to provide every secondary student with a Chromebook laptop for use in the classroom and at home (and to provide more devices in elementary schools as well). At this week’s meeting, the board will be asked to approve a $2.4 million technology purchase and lease, much of which will go toward funding this 1:1 laptop initiative. That money represents the tip of the iceberg of what will become a continuing expense, since the laptops are expected to have a three-year lifespan.

I’m not yet persuaded that the benefits of this initiative outweigh the costs. Our administrators have conceded that there is no hard data to show that providing every student with a laptop will increase student achievement (however defined). One the one hand, I’m glad to see anyone recognizing that test scores don’t capture the full effect of any educational practices; I’d be more persuaded, though, if this stance weren’t so selectively deployed. During our discussion of it at a recent work session, the initiative sounded less like the result of a careful consideration of costs and benefits and more like we are simply following a trend among districts elsewhere.

(To hear the response to the question, “Can we expect a measurable increase [in test scores] from this?”, and to hear some of the arguments in favor of the initiative from board members and administrators, listen for a few minutes here. See also Karen W.’s post here.)

As is too often the case at our meetings, the board made little or no attempt to grapple with counterarguments or to consider opportunity costs. It is not hard to find arguments that the proliferation of screens in school (and at home) does not promote and may even undermine learning. See here, here, here, and here, for just a few quick examples. I’m not endorsing those conclusions, but the board is not doing its job if it considers only arguments in favor and not arguments against. (See this post.)

There are also unresolved questions about the effect of the 1:1 initiative on the privacy of student data and on the district’s selection of textbooks. Will the district shift toward e-books and online-only materials instead of textbooks? If so, how will that affect curriculum and instruction?

There is also the fact that the money to fund the 1:1 initiative comes from SAVE, which is also a source of money for our facilities plan. If the pending bond proposal does not pass, we may wish that we had not spent those SAVE funds on student laptops, especially since the dollar figure here is actually larger than some of the smaller projects in the facilities plan.

There is, of course, enormous money to be made by selling technology to school districts, which ought to make the board give particular scrutiny to a large, ongoing expense like this one. Read about Los Angeles’ disastrous 1:1 iPad experience here.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Am I being too skeptical? Is it futile even to consider holding back the tide on school-provided devices?

Latest version of bond proposal language

This Tuesday, the board will vote on the bond proposal language that will appear on the ballot this September. Here is the draft language that appears on the meeting agenda:
Shall the Board of Directors of the Iowa City Community School District in the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to contract indebtedness and issue General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $191,525,000 to provide funds to address health, safety, and accessibility issues in all school buildings, including air conditioning all school buildings, reducing the use of temporary classroom structures in the District, addressing classroom, lunchroom, and gymnasium overcrowding, and dedicating rooms to art, music, prekindergarten, and science by constructing, furnishing and equipping a new building, constructing additions to and/or remodeling, repairing, and improving the school buildings remaining in the District’s Facilities Master Plan, as follows: Mann and Lincoln renovations, Liberty High athletic facilities construction and site improvements, new elementary school construction in North Liberty and site improvements, West High renovation, South East and North Central Junior High additions, Shimek renovation, City High addition and upgrades, Wood addition, Wickham upgrades, Garner and Northwest additions, Liberty High addition, Horn renovation, Kirkwood addition, Borlaug, Alexander, and Lemme additions, and Tate High addition and upgrades?
It’s possible that the board could still make changes to the language, our administration has told us that we cannot wait any longer to settle the language, so significant changes are probably unlikely.

Here is a red-lined version showing changes from the previous draft (underlined portions represent new language):
Shall the Board of Directors of the Iowa City Community School District in the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to contract indebtedness and issue General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $191,525,000 to provide funds to address health, safety, and accessibility issues in all school buildings, including air conditioning all school buildings, reducing the use of temporary classroom structures in the District, addressing classroom, lunchroom, and gymnasium overcrowding, and dedicating rooms to science, music and art, music, prekindergarten, and science by constructing, furnishing and equipping a new building, constructing additions to and/or remodeling, repairing, and improving the school buildings remaining in the District’s Facilities Master Plan, as follows: Mann and Lincoln renovations, Liberty High athletic facilities construction and site improvements, new elementary school construction in North Liberty and site improvements, West High renovation, South East and North Central Junior High additions, Shimek renovation, City High addition and upgrades, Wood addition, Wickham upgrades, Garner and Northwest additions, Liberty High addition, Horn renovation, Kirkwood addition, Borlaug, Alexander, and Lemme additions, and Tate High addition and upgrades?
I don’t know what motivated the change in the order of science, music, and art. The one word that has been added is “prekindergarten,” apparently to address the objections of those who want some attention to expanding preschool space in the district. I’m not sure how much weight to put on the addition of that word, however, since it is not tied to any particular building, and is unaccompanied by any change in the bottom-line dollar figure. Is it just lip-service to the preschool idea without any associated funding? Is it there to enable a future board to change the facilities master plan to direct some of the bond funding toward preschool rooms and away from its currently designated uses? Or is there another possible meaning?

Many people have asked about whether passage of the bond referendum locks the district in to doing the projects listed in the bond language or in the district’s facilities plan. That turns out to be a complicated legal question to which the answer is not entirely certain; I’ll be posting more about that issue.

Please chime in with comments about the draft language.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ballot language for the bond proposal

This afternoon, the district’s administration released the following proposal for language to use on the ballot for the district’s bond proposal:
Shall the Board of Directors of the Iowa City Community School District in the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to contract indebtedness and issue General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $191,525,000 to provide funds to address health, safety, and accessibility issues in all school buildings, including air conditioning all school buildings, reducing the use of temporary classroom structures in the District, addressing classroom, lunchroom, and gymnasium overcrowding, and dedicating rooms to science, music, and art by constructing, furnishing and equipping a new building, constructing additions to and/or remodeling, repairing, and improving the school buildings remaining in the District’s Facilities Master Plan, as follows: Mann and Lincoln renovations, Liberty High athletic facilities construction and site improvements, new elementary school construction in North Liberty and site improvements, West High renovation, South East and North Central Junior High additions, Shimek renovation, City High addition and upgrades, Wood addition, Wickham upgrades, Garner and Northwest additions, Liberty High addition, Horn renovation, Kirkwood addition, Borlaug, Alexander, and Lemme additions, and Tate High addition and upgrades?
The new language was added to tonight’s board meeting agenda, which means the board could vote to approve it tonight—though, since it will have been public for less than six hours before the meeting, the board could choose to postpone approval until our April 25 meeting.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

School board agenda for April 11

Some of the items on the board’s agenda this week:

We’ll start the meeting by holding “public hearings” on the proposed certified budget for fiscal year 2018 and the Shimek playground renovation proposal. (At our last meeting, the board approved the purchase of the playground equipment; this hearing is about the renovation work itself.) Members of the public will have the opportunity to speak and to ask questions about those topics. I posted about the Shimek playground proposal here.

We’ll vote on adopting the certified budget, which we have to submit to the state by April 15. (More detailed information here.) At our last meeting, I pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to schedule the public hearing on the certified budget on the same night that we have to vote on it, since we’d have no time to incorporate any feedback we receive at the hearing. In other words, the board seems to treat these public hearings (and arguably the entire budget-setting process) as perfunctory. In the future, I’d like to see the board take a meaningful look at how it’s allocating the district’s resources and whether it reflects our real priorities; that should involve consideration of community input, too—all well in advance of the state deadline for budget certification.

We may vote on bond proposal language to appear on the ballot in September; it’s not clear whether the final proposal will be ready this week, or whether we’ll continue to discuss the proposal at our work session and then schedule a vote for the next board meeting.

We’ll hear updates on special education and on the legislative session.

We’ll review proposed amendments to our board ends policies (here and here), to some of our policies directed at students, and to the charter for our Education Committee board committees. (UPDATE: The item about the committee charters has been removed from the agenda and sent back to committee for further consideration.)

At our work session, we’ll discuss the facilities master plan, the bond proposal, and our future use of the ThoughtExchange platform. Previous post on ThoughtExchange here.

All that and more! The full agendas are here and here. Feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Information on tonight’s meeting about the renovations to Horace Mann Elementary


The school board will meet with the Iowa City City Council tonight (at 5 p.m. at the Educational Services Center) to discuss options for the renovations to Horace Mann Elementary School. The project is part of the district’s facilities master plan, but the details of the renovation project are still unsettled. Board members and council members just last night received a PowerPoint document showing several options for how to proceed with those renovations. There is no public comment period on tonight’s agenda; I’m assuming (hoping?) that tonight’s meeting will be just the first step in presenting options to the community for discussion. Feel free to chime in with a comment below!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Rubber stampism

Shimek Elementary School playground, 2017

Should elected board members automatically approve decisions that are recommended by district committees?

At last week’s meeting, the board considered a proposal to replace the play structure at Shimek Elementary School. The proposal was recommended by the district’s central administration and endorsed by a Shimek PTO committee, but some Shimek parents raised objections. They argued that the proposed play structure was not sufficiently accessible to disabled students—one of the speakers was accompanied by her son, who was in a wheelchair—and that the district had, in short, given them the runaround in the way it handled the proposal.

Board members didn’t receive the parents’ objections (which were lengthy) until less than twenty-four hours before the meeting, which was fairly understandable, since the item didn’t appear on the agenda until a few days before that. So I suggested that we table the issue for two weeks to give us more time to consider the objections that parents had raised.

During the discussion, my fellow board member, Brian Kirschling, argued that when there is an internal process in place for developing a proposal, the board should defer to that process and accept its outcome. Though I’ve seldom heard this argument made so explicitly, there’s little question that some version of it seems to drive many board decisions. Once an administrative recommendation has been made, it often seems as if some board members are hunting for ways to justify it and reject other possibilities.

I very much disagree with this philosophy. There’s no question that board members do rely on administrative recommendations all the time—as a practical matter, we have to. Moreover, committees and task forces play a valuable role in evaluating the options for addressing a given issue. But when someone raises plausible objections to a recommendation, the board should not just rubber-stamp the recommendation without exercising independent judgment. It’s the board’s job to provide oversight and to be a conduit for community input, not to simply let the institution run itself.

Many of our committees, for example, are composed mostly of district staff, and even when they aren’t, they often have to rely on staff for the information they need. It certainly makes sense to draw on the insights and knowledge of staff in any kind of decision-making, but it would be unrealistic to ignore the fact that staff members have to worry about pleasing their supervisors—especially in a district with a reputation for having a retaliatory culture where dissent is often unwelcome.

And many times it’s the our administrators who determine committee membership in the first place—which can certainly have a big effect on what a committee ends up recommending. Even when all of the committee members are working in good faith and bringing valuable knowledge to bear, this kind of process can end up being used to give a veneer of community input to what are actually predetermined outcomes.

The hands-off approach seems particularly unwise on an issue involving the needs of disabled students, who make up a small fraction of our student population. The mere fact that a proposal wins majority support of a committee does not mean that the needs of a small minority have been fairly considered.

None of this means that the Shimek playground proposal was a bad one or that the process leading to it was faulty. But the board owed it to the public to take a closer look than it did.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

School board election preview

Karen W. at the Education in Iowa blog has a new post up previewing this September’s 2017 school board election (and bond vote) in our district. Check it out.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

School board agenda for March 28

Some of the items on the board’s agenda this week:

We’ll vote on resolutions supporting students and families impacted by immigration enforcement and creating a task force to plan additional supports.

We’ll hear a legislative update.

We’ll get an update from the committee that is considering transportation issues (such as the provision of activities buses at the secondary schools).

We’ll consider the superintendent’s recommended fiscal year 2018 budget and 2018 physical plan and equipment levy (PPEL) life cycle budget.

We’ll get an update from the committee addressing the issue of the district’s use of seclusion enclosures (see these two posts).

We’ll examine the draft ballot language for the district’s $191 million bond proposal.

There are several other items of potential interest as well. The full agendas are here and here. Please chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Plan B

Some people have asked what the district’s “Plan B” is if its facilities bond proposal fails. When that topic came up in one of the board’s work sessions, our board chair made it clear that he was against any attempt to specify a Plan B, and the board followed suit.

It’s understandable that voters would like to know Plan B, but I agree that the board should not try to state one. We can each advocate for what we think the back-up plan should be, but it would be misleading for the board to say what it will be, for three reasons.

First, this board simply doesn’t have the right to decide Plan B. That decision can only be made by the next board, which will include three members to be elected this September (at the same time the bond vote occurs). If the bond does fail, why would anyone think that the same board that created the failed proposal should get to tell the next board what the back-up proposal must be?

Second, if the proposal fails, any revisions to it will have to depend on an assessment of why it failed. The board can’t possibly assess that until after the bond vote occurs.

Third, a board that wants to pass a bond has an incentive to make Plan B sound as awful as possible—otherwise, voters might decide they like Plan B better than Plan A! Be prepared to hear lots of arguments about the disastrous consequences that will follow a “No” vote, and be equally prepared to scrutinize all of them with a critical eye. What we know is that a bond defeat means a one-year delay in the facilities plan as the next board revises the proposal for another try at passage. That one-year delay and the resulting uncertainty do have real costs and disadvantages, but so does passage of the proposal, which in my view significantly overcommits the district. How to weigh those costs and benefits is ultimately what the voters have to decide.

What if the bond proposal fails?

In January, the school board voted to move forward with putting a roughly $188 million bond proposal on the September ballot. The proposal would authorize bonding to fund six years of projects in the district’s facilities plan. Under state law, it will need 60% voter approval to pass.

What happens if the bond proposal fails? Our board chair has said that if the proposal fails, the facilities plan will come to a virtual “full stop,” with projects going forward only on a much, much slower basis. This is something of an exaggeration. It’s true that if the proposal fails, the district could not go forward as planned with the projects that are scheduled to occur after 2017-18. But the board would almost certainly come back to the voters at the first opportunity with a revised proposal. By law, the district would have to wait at least six months to put another bond proposal before the voters. Since the facilities projects are scheduled around academic years, even a six-month delay probably means a one-year delay for the remaining projects in the plan.

If the bond fails, it’s possible that the district could rely on SAVE tax revenues to fund projects in the plan. But that can happen only if the legislature extends the SAVE tax, and even then the district may have to get voter approval to use the SAVE revenues. (More on this in an upcoming post.) Moreover, if the voters reject the bond proposal, the next board may feel compelled to revise the long-term plan in light of that feedback.

In sum, if the bond fails, you can expect a one-year delay in the facilities plan as the board comes back to the public with a revised plan designed to win passage.

This is a community that values education and has often supported school bond proposals and levies in the past. My guess is that if the bond fails, it won’t be because of outright “No” votes, but because of people (like me) who want to see a better plan. When the board finally presents a compelling proposal, I don’t doubt that it will pass. I just wish the board had tried harder to come up with a sound and supportable initial proposal.