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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Let the public vote on whether to tear down Hoover Elementary

The Save Hoover group is trying to get the issue of the demolition of Hoover Elementary School put on the ballot. The Press-Citizen has a good article about it. The district’s current plan, of course, is to tear down the building after the 2018-19 school year. The group hopes to place the issue on the September 12 school board election ballot and persuade people to vote No on it. The Q&A on the Save Hoover website gives a more detailed explanation of the petition effort.

I support the group’s efforts to get a public vote on the demolition of Hoover. There is a long list of reasons why the district’s plans for Hoover are bad policy. But the biggest problem for me has always been that the decision lacked the public support that such a major decision ought to have. I hope people will vote No on the issue, but if the voters do vote to tear the school down, I’ll be the first to say that the campaign to save Hoover is over and that people should move on. Without a public vote, though, the Hoover decision will always feel like it has been imposed by a small group without the support of the broader district community.

Disposing of a multi-million-dollar piece of property is a big deal, which is why there’s a state statute allowing people to petition for a public vote on it. The signature requirement is pretty high, though—roughly fifty percent higher than the requirement that applies to the district’s bond proposal. If you’d like to help get the question on the ballot, please print out the petition, fill out the information, and mail it in to:
Save Hoover Committee
P.O. Box 1653
Iowa City, IA 52240-1653
(There is no way to sign electronically.) The deadline for the group to submit signatures is June 29, so the sooner you mail it in, the better. Every little bit helps.

School board agenda for Tuesday, June 13

I’m late posting this week because I was on the road. Some of the topics on the board’s agenda tonight:

We’ll meet in an exempt (non-public) session to discuss the renewal and extension of the superintendent’s contract, as well as any possible changes in the contract language. This meeting is one step in the annual cycle of reviewing the superintendent’s contract. (More information on that process here.)

At our board meeting, we’ll discuss the report of the task force considering the district’s use of seclusion enclosures. (See posts here and here.) Two weeks ago, the state Department of Education issued a decision on a complaint about the district’s use of those enclosures; the task force apparently completed its report before that decision was issued.  News coverage of the state’s decision is here. Additional information on the use of seclusion enclosures is here.

We’ll also vote on whether to reapprove (and possibly amend) some of the district’s policies, including policies on good conduct, corporal punishment, student records access, the responsibilities of the superintendent, and on community comment at board meetings. This review is part of a scheduled cycle of policy reviews.

At our work session, we’ll discuss setting the district’s legislative priorities for next year.

We’ll also review a report from the administration’s transportation committee about busing in the district. The committee makes recommendations that include (1) increasing “attendance support” transportation at the elementary level, and (2) adding morning and evening activities busing at Northwest and North Central junior highs. One controversial point is the lack of any activities busing recommendation at the high school level for students in the Kirkwood neighborhood, who are now assigned to Liberty High, which cannot be reached from that neighborhood by public transportation. Related information here.

We’ll discuss the possibility of supporting a Future Farmers of America chapter in the district.

As usual, our work session also includes agenda items for the district’s bond proposal and facilities master plan.

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Where are we likely to exceed our enrollment projections?

Too-long-didn’t-read version: The bond proposal would build hundreds more seats than our enrollment projections tell us we’ll need even ten years from now. It’s true that our enrollment projections are very likely underestimating growth in the North Corridor—but that’s not where we’re putting most of those “extra” seats.

As I wrote about here, one of the reasons I’m not in favor of the district’s bond proposal is that it would build 1,896 more seats than our enrollment projections show that we’ll need even ten years from now. Is it possible that our projections are not fully capturing the amount of population growth that will occur? Yes; in fact, I think it’s likely in some areas. The problem, though, is that those aren’t the areas where we’re building most of those “extra” seats.

One way to judge whether the enrollment projections are capturing growth is to compare them to the “age progression” data we received last year. Age progressions show what the enrollment would be if we just kept moving our current students forward each year. In other words, they show what the enrollment would be if no one moves in and no one moves out; they show what the enrollment would be with zero growth.

In some parts of the district, the projections show more students than the age progressions show; this means they’re predicting some growth in those areas. For example, compare the age progressions to the enrollment projections for City High:


Similarly, though to a somewhat lesser extent, the projections show growth at West High:


At Liberty High, though, the enrollment projections are actually lower than the age progressions:


This aspect of the enrollment projections is striking and very hard to explain. North Liberty is one of the fastest growing cities in Iowa, and there are hundreds of housing units planned for the area around Liberty High in both North Liberty and Coralville. It’s very hard to understand how we could end up with fewer students at Liberty than even the zero-growth age progressions would predict.

In other words, our projections appear to be recognizing likely growth in Iowa City, but missing it in the North Corridor. So, if anything, you’d think our plans should track the projections in Iowa City, but exceed them in the Corridor. But the bond proposal exceeds them in Iowa City way more than it does in the Corridor. The proposal would build 1,388 more elementary seats than the enrollment projections show we’ll need, but 728 of those “excess” seats are in the City High zone, where it appears that the enrollment projections are already capturing a fair amount of growth. Only 166 of them are in the Liberty zone, where the projections seem not to be capturing any growth at all.

Maybe the growth patterns will surprise us. Enrollment projections are inherently speculative, especially when they reach many years out. In my view, that’s a good reason not to make plans that extend seven years out from the time of bond passage. But at the very least, the district should be trying to build its new capacity in the areas where it expects the growth to occur. Under that standard, the bond proposal is very hard to defend.

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A note on sources: The enrollment projections are here; see in particular pages 89, 91, and 93. The planned capacity figures are from Column O here, aggregating the elementaries into high school zones using the district’s feeder system. The high school age progressions are here. We were given age progressions for several different boundary scenarios; the ones that represent the boundaries that were ultimately approved are the ones labeled “City High School - 2015-16 students age progressed,” “West High School - 2015-16 students age progressed with Kirkwood ES moved to LHS,” and “Liberty High School - 2015-16 students age progressed with Kirkwood ES added to LHS.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

School board agenda for May 23

Busy week on the school board agenda. Among other things:

We’ll hear an update on the annual student climate survey, including comparisons to last year’s results. More information here.

We’ll review the report of the School Improvement Advisory Committee.

We’ll get a safety update from the facilities department.

At our work session, we’ll get an update on the district’s proposed contracts with the providers of our before-and-after-school programs. (Information here; see also this post.)

We’ll review the status of the Shimek playground project. The board approved the project in March, but there are still concerns about whether the planned playground is sufficiently accessible to students with disabilities. (More information here; see also this post.)

We’ll get an update on busing plans and costs from our transportation committee.

We’ll continue to discuss the district’s bond proposal and facilities plan, including its building capacity and enrollment projections.

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

One editorial comment: When I’m no longer on the school board, I won’t miss reading this kind of prose. Readers, can any of you tell what this company is going to do for the district?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What will go on the Hoover property?

It’s now been almost four years since the school board voted to close and tear down Hoover Elementary School. The demolition of the building is only about two years away. The district is about to ask voters for $191 million to pursue its facilities plan. Shouldn’t the district be able to tell the public what will happen on the Hoover property after the school is torn down?

Many Hoover neighbors are (very reasonably) worried that the site will become a parking lot for City High. So last week, I asked the superintendent:
Does the district have a plan for what will go on the Hoover property if the school is closed as planned?
His reply:
We have not done any concept work on the CHS campus yet so we do not have an answer to this question at this time.
I then asked:
Are there any plans to do that concept work before the bond referendum?
His reply:
The Business and Facilities office responded:
-The city high project is not scheduled to begin until 2019
-We currently do not have a design team in place for this project
-It would take several weeks / months and meetings to get a design team up to speed on this size of project
-The upfront design costs will be large for this project
-This is a bond funded project but we do not have access to those funds prior to the first bond sale after the vote
-To keep the FMP moving as it is we are already planning to put design teams in place for Mann, Lincoln, and the new elementary building yet this summer
-To fund these project designs prior to the vote we are holding back on PPEL life cycle implementation during the summer
-Should the bond pass we would “reimburse” the PPEL fund from the bond proceeds
-Should the bond fail we would have these design costs left in PPEL.
-We cannot afford to have City High design concept costs in PPEL at this time
The district is essentially saying to voters: First give us the $191 million, then we’ll tell you what will happen on the Hoover property.

The district is working very hard to promote its facilities plan before the bond vote. It now has separate web pages for each school in the facilities plan, describing the work that’s already been done and the future projects. If the district thought its future use of the Hoover property would be popular with the public, are those the answers it would give?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why I don’t support the bond proposal (short version)

This is just a quick post about why I don’t support the district’s $191 million bond proposal. (I’ll be posting in more detail about this topic in the weeks ahead.)

If the bond proposal were limited to the renovations to our existing school buildings and to building new capacity where there’s a demonstrated need for it, I would support it. I don’t support the proposal as it stands, though, because it includes too many projects that would expand capacity at schools where our projections do not show future enrollment to justify those expansions.

Our recent ten-year enrollment projections don’t come anywhere close to supporting the amount of capacity the plan would build, especially at the elementary level:


(Source: Pages 89, 91, and 93 here and Column O here.)

I do have some other concerns as well—for example, about some of the particular choices about where to add capacity and to some extent about our capacity assessments themselves, which have been a moving target. (More on those issues in future posts.) But my primary objection is that we’re building new capacity without any projections showing that we’ll have the kids to fill the seats.

Maybe our enrollment will exceed our projections! That’s certainly possible, especially in areas of the district where there’s a lot of potential growth. It’s even possible that we’re not planning enough capacity for some areas. (Some in the North Corridor are concerned that bond passage will lock them out of capacity that they will need sooner than expected.) It’s also possible that actual enrollment will be lower than projected in at least some areas. Enrollment projections, years out, are very uncertain. That’s a good reason not to commit to a capacity plan that extends seven years out.

It would make more sense to fund two or three years of needed projects—including the renovation and air conditioning projects, and the new capacity where there’s a clear need—and then re-assess the district’s needs at that time. I wish this year’s bond proposal had done that, but I think we’d be better off going back to the public next year with a better proposal than passing one this year that builds too many unjustified capacity expansions.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

“Something for everyone”

There are two competing approaches for how to design a school bond proposal that can appeal to the voters. The first is to create a proposal that identifies compelling needs and then convince the voters of the importance of the projects. The other is to create a proposal that contains “something for everyone,” so more voters will have a personal stake in some part of the proposal. The first approach appeals primarily to the voters’ public-spirited instincts; the second approach appeals at least as much to the voters’ personal interests.

When our school board was deciding how to structure its bond proposal, the second approach prevailed. It was important, the argument went, that the bond contain many years’ worth of projects spread throughout the district, so it would have broad-based appeal.

I’m much more comfortable going to the public with a list of compelling needs than with a larger list that is more geographically distributed. I believe this district’s voters will support projects that benefit other parts of the district when the need is clear. This was true, for example, in 1995, when 70% of the voters supported a bond to build an elementary school in Coralville.

Moreover, there are several problems with the “something for everyone” approach. One is that by pursuing it, the board is essentially admitting that need is not the driving principle. Second, the throw-it-all-in approach drives up the cost—which creates its own counterarguments, both public-spirited and self-interested. Third, bond elections bring out many voters who don’t have kids in the schools, and who thus don’t have the same degree of self-interest in school projects, but who might be persuaded by a smaller set of projects with more compelling need.

There is also a risk involved in encouraging voters to approach the bond by asking “What’s in it for me?” The bond proposal is big, but it has to stop somewhere. As a result, the district now has a list of “future needs” that will not be covered by the bond; those projects will need to secure funding some other way, such as with a future bond proposal. Yet a look at the list shows that those projects are not geographically spread out at all. Under the “something for everyone” philosophy, why would the east side of Iowa City—the part of the district with the greatest number of voters—ever support a bond for those projects?

Over the long term, it would make more sense to cultivate the voters’ willingness to support necessary projects regardless of where the needs arise.

Friday, May 5, 2017

School board agenda for Tuesday, May 9

This week, the board will hear a quarterly financial report; otherwise, the agenda is heavy on consent calendar items and light on much else. The full agenda is here; feel free to chime in with a comment on anything catches your attention.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Horace Mann drop-off issue

There was a good turnout—about eighty people—for last night’s listening post about the future design of the Horace Mann Elementary School site. People asked questions and gave feedback on several design options, especially the latest iteration of scenarios, which consisted of Scenarios “H-1,” “H-2,” and “Option Z.”

Several people raised questions about where parents would be able to drop off and pick up students. Each scenario contained some space designated for that purpose, but what looks nice on paper is not always so neat in practice. Option H-1, for example, put the drop-off area here:


But that would seem like a recipe for creating a backed-up line of cars on Dodge Street during rush hour, in the same area where any buses would be pulling up. Other options involved routing cars around the park behind the school.

I’m concerned, though, about whether we’re really grappling with just how much of an increase we’re likely to see in the number of cars dropping off at Mann. That increase isn’t because of the renovation; it’s because of the planned boundary change that will take effect when the renovation is done. Under the new boundaries, the Foster Road/Peninsula neighborhood, most of which was eligible for a bus to Mann, will no longer be part of Mann’s attendance zone. In its place, Mann will be gaining territory east of Seventh Avenue. Very few (if any) of the kids that are being added to Mann’s zone are eligible for a bus, and they’re far enough away that they’re unlikely to be walking. In short, Mann will be exchanging dozens of students who arrive by bus for dozens of students who will arrive by car. That means we can expect to see a steep increase in the number of cars dropping off and picking up kids.

I’m not sure whether that number of cars will be satisfactorily accommodated by any of the scenarios we’ve seen. There was some discussion of routing cars one-way through the roads around the park behind Mann, but I’d still be concerned about the potential volume of cars, especially since those are narrow, residential streets. (One comparison: at Hoover, there is a one-way drop-off/pickup route through the school’s parking lot, which does not simultaneously function as a city street, yet the drop-off/pickup line is often two or even three cars deep.)

None of the district’s drop-off/pickup situations are ideal, and maybe the neighborhood will be able to deal with the influx of cars. (Please chime in with comments about other possible solutions!) But I doubt there will be any alternative as effective as simply keeping Mann’s attendance zone roughly similar to its current zone. The kids who live in the Foster Road/Peninsula area will be bus-eligible no matter what school they’re assigned to. Keeping them at Mann is a way to reduce the number of cars converging on a school site that is particularly ill-suited to a high volume of drop-offs.

Next year, the board has to redraw some of the elementary boundaries it drew last year, because of the decision to build the new North Liberty elementary school in a different place than initially planned. When it does, it should also consider whether Mann’s planned boundaries are workable, given the site. It will be much easier to address any problems before the site is completed and the new boundaries go into effect than afterward.

Note: I see the drop-off issue as separate from the issue about on-site parking. It is hard enough on the Mann site to deal with the issue of staff, visitor, and disability-accessible parking; it is not feasible to use a parking lot to accommodate drop-off and pickup. Moreover, drop-off and pickup spaces have to be designed with traffic flow in mind.

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.

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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?