Monday, February 29, 2016

Capacity v. proximity

As the board embarks on redrawing elementary boundaries in preparation for opening two new elementary schools in 2019, we’re getting a lot of input from people about which zones they’d like to be in. We’ll hear more of that input at our special board meeting tomorrow night (Tuesday, March 1).

We’re hearing a good deal of discussion about how much (if at all) the board should try to create “balanced” school populations, socioeconomically and in terms of English-language learner and special-education status. That’s certainly a topic worth discussing. But we don’t hear nearly as much acknowledgement of another factor that’s likely to affect redistricting: building capacity. I wonder if people are aware of the role capacity is likely to play.

All other things being equal, I think it’s safe to say that most people would like to be assigned to their closest school. One problem that can arise, though, is that the number of kids who are closest to School X might be larger than the capacity of School X. In that case, the proximity concern runs up against a concern about overcrowding. At some point, capacity constraints could force is to send some kids to a school that isn’t the closest one. We couldn’t send a thousand kids to a school that can only hold six hundred.

I suspect we will run up against capacity concerns like that in some instances. For example, under the capacity calculations that the district has based its facilities master plan on, Penn Elementary can hold 587 kids. I wouldn’t be surprised if significantly more than 587 kids can say that they live closer to Penn than to any other school. If so, how could we put them all at Penn?

Garner is very close to Penn, but unless we change its boundaries, Garner is projected to be almost 150 students overcrowded even after it gets its addition in 2019. The closest school for the wide majority of its students is probably Garner itself or Penn, which is also projected to be over capacity in 2019. It may well be impossible to alleviate that overcrowding without sending some kids to a school that is not their closest school.

The flip-side may also be true. How many kids will be able to say that the new Grant Elementary is their closest school? That number could be well below the six hundred kids that the school will be able to hold. So if we want to make as much use as we reasonably can of Grant’s capacity—to help alleviate the overcrowding at the other North Corridor schools— we may have to send some kids to Grant who live closer to other schools.

(Those are just possible examples; similar concerns may arise in other parts of the district as well.)

In the longer run, it may make sense to address some of those concerns by building new capacity—either new schools or additions to existing schools—where the population is growing. But our current facilities plan already exceeds the money available to us, and therefore depends on voter approval of a large bond. So building additional capacity has its own challenges.

I’m not saying that I have great answers to any of these questions—just that if we end up not being able to send some neighborhoods to the closest schools, there’s a good chance it will be because of capacity issues.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

March 1 special board meeting on redistricting

This Tuesday, March 1, the school board will hold a special meeting to hear public comment on the redistricting of attendance zones.

The board has to draw new elementary school boundaries because it plans to open two new elementary schools in 2019—Grant Elementary in the North Corridor and Hoover East Elementary on the far east side of Iowa City. This redistricting may also give the board an opportunity to address some of the overcrowding that is projected to occur under our current boundaries. (By “overcrowding,” I mean situations where projected enrollment will exceed a school’s capacity.)

The elementary redistricting will also affect secondary school assignments. The previous board settled on a secondary feeder plan under which certain elementary schools would feed into certain junior highs, which would then feed into certain high schools. Some of the current board members appear to be interested in reconsidering that feeder plan as part of this redistricting process. But even if the plan stays in place, some people’s secondary destinations will change if they are rezoned into different elementary schools than they currently attend. For example, it’s possible that some families currently in the Wickham attendance area will be rezoned into the new Grant attendance area, which would change their junior high and high school destinations.

The new elementary school zones will take effect in 2019, when Grant and Hoover East open. But the secondary feeder plan, based on those redrawn elementary zones, will take effect in 2017, when Liberty High opens. (See this post.)

At the meeting on Tuesday, members of the public are invited to address the board about their redistricting preferences. We’re expecting that some of the speakers will be speaking on behalf of their neighborhoods, having submitted a neighborhood input form. The board members will have an opportunity to ask questions of the speakers to make sure we understand the input.

More information here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

School board agenda for February 23

Some of the items on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting:

Transportation appeals. One major item of business will be addressing appeals of our decision to cut discretionary busing from many areas that were accustomed to receiving it. (See posts here and here.) These appeals fall into two (sometimes overlapping) categories. First, there are appeals from people arguing that they are more than two miles from their elementary school or more than three miles from their high school. If they’re right, state law entitles them to busing. Second, there are people asking to us to reconsider our decision to cut discretionary busing from their area, even though they may not be so far from their schools that the state requires us to provide a bus.

Secondary boundaries. The previous board decided on a “secondary feeder” plan that would take effect when Liberty High School opens in 2017. (More info here.) The plan looks like this (click to enlarge):

Five of the seven board seats changed hands in the September election, however, and some of the new board members (including me) have balked at some aspects of the secondary feeder plan. For example, the plan sends Alexander-, Kirkwood-, and Wickham-area kids to more distant junior high schools when closer options are available. (The plan does give Kirkwood families the option of choosing the closer junior high, however.) The busing that will be necessary to execute those secondary assignments is estimated to cost $240,000 annually. That figure doesn’t include the cost of activity buses that the board may decide are necessary to enable kids to participate in after-school activities at schools that are far from home.

The plan helps balance the percentage of kids at each secondary school who are receiving free or reduced-price lunch, special ed services, or English-language learning instruction—all groups that have shown significantly lower-than-average proficiency on tests of reading and math. It does so, though, by greatly increasing the distance to junior high for kids in some of our highest-poverty areas. I have a hard time seeing how kids from those areas will be better off attending much more distant junior high schools.

Re-routing those elementary schools to different junior highs, though, would then raise the question about high school destinations. If, for example, Alexander kids go to Southeast Junior High, should they then proceed to City High, as the other Southeast kids do? Or should we “split the feeder” and send them to West High? Concerns about distance, “balance,” capacity, and parental preference come into play in making that kind of decision.

I have enough concerns about the existing plan that I supported putting this topic on the agenda for further discussion. (See this post.) I do not feel even close to being in a position to reach a conclusion about a feeder plan on Tuesday night, however. My preference would be simply to acknowledge that we are no longer settled on the previous board’s plan, and then to continue to discuss the issue as we draw new elementary boundaries over the next two months. By the end of that process, we should settle on a feeder plan that would be informed by the new elementary boundaries.

We’ll also be hearing the preliminary certified budget and a report from our equity director, among other things. The full agenda is here. Feel free to leave a comment below about anything that catches your attention.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


This is not a major issue, but I’m upset with myself about it, and I just want to admit that I don’t think I handled it well. At last night’s Education Committee meeting, the school board heard a proposal to bring back the funding for seventh-grade football. Seventh-grade tackle football was one of the things the district cut two years ago when it had to cut $3.6 million from its annual budget. The cut saved the district $30,000, a relatively small amount in the scheme of things. Other cuts included fourth-grade orchestra ($444,000), junior high foreign languages ($239,000), and high school German ($124,000), among many other things.

At the meeting, we heard a brief presentation of the proposal. Given the dollar amount, a formal board vote wasn’t requested (which couldn’t have occurred at a committee meeting anyway). But it’s a sufficiently sensitive topic that the administration (understandably) didn’t want to act without getting a reaction from the board first. We talked about it and there seemed to be a consensus that it wasn’t objectionable and that the superintendent could go ahead with it.

As soon as the meeting was over, I regretted not speaking up to slow the process down. Even though the issue didn’t actually require a vote, once we signaled support for the idea, we owned it. I wasn’t ready to, and I should have said something.

The proposal might well be a worthy one. I’d like to bring back all the things the district cut. But I don’t like the idea of addressing one of them in isolation from the others (and from other possible uses of scarce general fund money) just because that one happened to work its way onto our agenda. Just a few weeks ago we made a major cut to discretionary busing for many neighborhoods that had grown to rely on it. The dollar amounts are not comparable, but if we’re cutting services, we need to be sensitive to how we’re making decisions about competing items, no matter how minor. I should have suggested that we sleep on it, solicit additional viewpoints, and revisit it at a board meeting where there could be community comment. We may well have reached the same decision in the end, but the process matters.

Not blaming anyone but myself here. So many things come at us on these agendas that being on the board sometimes feels like being the goalie in some crazy video game. I just need to do a better job of recognizing when something is rushing past that ought to be explored more fully before we act on it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Transition to new secondary boundaries

Because our school district is opening a new high school in 2017, it will need to transition to a new set of secondary (i.e., junior high and high school) boundaries. There are so many moving parts to this issue that it can make your head spin. Here’s my attempt to summarize the issue. As usual, I’m speaking only for myself here, not for the full board or the district. This will be a very long post that will not be of interest to everyone.

Last year, the board addressed what our secondary school boundaries will be when Liberty High opens in 2017. Technically, the board didn’t actually set the boundaries for the new high school; it just determined the “feeder system.” It decided to use a (mostly) “clean” feeder system: Southeast Junior High kids will go to City High; Northwest Junior High kids will go to West High, and North Central Junior High kids will go to Liberty High. It also determined which elementary schools would feed into which junior highs.

So the actual boundaries for the secondary schools will depend on what the elementary school boundaries are. The board has to draw new elementary boundaries because it’s opening two new elementary schools in 2019—Grant Elementary in the North Corridor and “Hoover East” on the far east side of Iowa City. Even though those schools won’t open until 2019, it makes sense to set the boundaries now, because they affect the secondary boundaries that will go into effect in 2017. The board plans to determine those boundaries over the next couple of months, finishing by May.

So, for example: Suppose you live in Coralville and have a kid who will be in seventh grade in 2017-18. You might not have any kids in elementary school, and you know that Grant Elementary won’t open until 2019 anyway. But you’d still like to know if your house will be in the Grant attendance area, because if it is, your child will end up Liberty High someday. And if that’s true, you might prefer to have your seventh-grader go to North Central Junior High, with all the other kids who will end up Liberty, instead of Northwest, where most kids will end up at West High. So it makes sense for us to draw the Grant Elementary boundary now. Then we can have those Liberty-bound kids start junior high in 2017 at North Central instead of Northwest.

But then another issue arises, and this is the one we discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting. What about kids who will start junior high next year, in 2016? Our new secondary feeder plan doesn’t go into effect until 2017, but if you know your child will end up at a particular high school under our plan, you might want her to start at the junior high that will eventually feed into that high school. This year’s sixth-graders are already signing up for their junior high courses; if we’re going to change their junior high destination for next year, we would need to do that as soon as possible.

More thoughts on discretionary busing

A couple of weeks ago, as I posted about here, the school board changed our district’s system of providing discretionary busing to some areas that do not otherwise qualify for busing under state law. The result is that many neighborhoods that were receiving discretionary busing won’t receive it anymore. The proposal we adopted is here; additional information is here; board member Brian Kirschling wrote more about the board’s decision here.

People are free to appeal busing decisions to the board, and a number of appeals have now been filed. Information about how to appeal is here. Relevant state statutes are here.

Some of the appeals are from people arguing that their homes are more than two miles from their elementary school. If they’re right, then state law entitles them to elementary busing.

Some people have mentioned that they’d be willing to pay to get continued busing service. The district currently offers a limited Pay-to-Ride system “on a space-available, time-available, first-come, first-served basis.” I don’t know whether there are obstacles to expanding this system to enable people to cover the cost of continuing to receive discretionary busing, but it’s a question that the board should examine.

Many of the appeals are arguing that there are safety issues in particular neighborhoods that make walking to school too hazardous. In the past, this was often what discretionary busing appeals were about. Of course, people are free to make any argument in their appeals, but these arguments strike me as not squarely addressing the board’s rationale for changing the policy. The board did not determine that there were no longer any safety concerns. In effect, the board decided that parents, not the district, will have to bear the responsibility for getting kids safely to and from school. (We made an exception for neighborhoods with high levels of economic need that would pose barriers for parents getting their kids to school.)

For me, that decision was driven partly by the fact that state school funding is increasingly tight, but also partly by a concern about arbitrariness. Many, many parents in the district—far more than we have provided discretionary busing to—do not feel that their young children can walk safely to school on their own. It’s the rare parents who will allow their kindergartner or first-grader to walk a mile (or more) by themselves to school. These parents have always had to deal with finding some way to get their kids safely to school—either driving them, walking with them, carpooling, or some other arrangement. If we had to provide discretionary busing to every parent in that position, the cost would be enormous.

So there was an arbitrariness in providing busing to some neighborhoods but not to other ones where parents feel just as compelled to bring their kids to and from school. At my family’s elementary school, for example, where no one receives discretionary busing, there is a double (sometimes triple) line of cars in the parking lot every morning dropping off kids. The situation is far from ideal, but a school bus has never been an option.

Nobody on the board was happy about cutting busing from neighborhoods that have grown to rely on it. It’s not hard to come up with good arguments why it would make sense to provide busing to a particular neighborhood. It’s harder, though, to distinguish the case for providing busing to one neighborhood from the case for doing so for many, many others. Any argument for discretionary busing needs to confront that issue.

As usual, I’m speaking only for myself here, not for the full board or the district.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tonight’s school board meeting agenda (February 9)

The board actually has three meetings tonight: one in closed session as part of our ongoing evaluation of the superintendent, one regular board meeting (agenda here), and one work session (agenda here).

Some of the items on the agenda(s):

  • The bell schedule. The board now has input from the task force and from two listening posts and may be ready to make a decision. The community input leaned heavily toward starting the elementary schools before the secondary schools. There was a lot of discussion about starting elementary school as early as 7:45 or as late as 8:00. To remain roughly cost-neutral, we’d need to start secondary schools at least 50 minutes later, and we save almost $200,000 annually by making it 55 instead of 50. If the elementaries start at 7:45, the secondaries could start at 8:35 and would get out at 3:45 or 3:50. If the elementaries start at 8:00, the secondaries could start at 8:50 and get out at 4:00 or 4:05. Agenda info here. For a more complete discussion, see this post.

  • Attendance area transitions. Last year, the board had to change our secondary boundaries in anticipation of opening Liberty High School in 2017. Technically, the board didn’t actually set the boundaries for the new high school; it just determined the “feeder system.” It decided to use a (mostly) “clean” feeder system: Southeast Junior High kids would go to City High; Northwest Junior High kids would go to West High, and North Central Junior High kids would go to Liberty High. It also determined which elementary schools would feed into which junior highs. All of those changes were set to go into effect in 2017. At tonight’s meeting, we’ll discuss whether it makes sense to implement those changes as to junior high students in 2016 instead. Info here. (This is a very complicated topic that’s hard to summarize briefly—I hope to post something longer on it soon.)

  • We’ll hear a report on the district’s efforts to implement a multicultural/gender-fair curriculum. Info here.

  • We’ll hear an update from the committee working on revising the district’s policy about pesticide and herbicide use on school grounds.

  • We’ll hear the quarterly financial report. Info here.

  • At the work session, we’ll continue our discussion of our process for drawing new elementary attendance zones in anticipation of opening two new elementary schools in 2019. Info here, here, and here.

Feel free to comment on anything you see (or don’t see!) on the agendas.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Community input on redistricting

The school board is beginning the process of drawing new elementary attendance zones in anticipation of opening two new elementary schools in 2019. We’re drawing them now because, even though those elementaries won’t open until 2019, they could affect the attendance zones for junior high students as of 2017 or even as of next year.

The board has invited public input on attendance zones. You can provide your thoughts via email to board@iowacityschools.org, or by attending our public hearing on the issue on March 1 at 6:00 p.m. at the Educational Services Center, or by speaking at public comment before one of our board meetings. The board won’t be able to accommodate everyone’s preferences, but they are certainly a factor we should take into account.

The board also posted a “neighborhood input” form, which you can use, if you’d like, to aggregate the comments of people in your neighborhood (however you choose to define your neighborhood). I’m not crazy about the form, because it seems to require a degree of organization and agreement that I think many people would not have the energy for, and I worry that it could function as a barrier to participation. But it’s just one way to provide input; you can always use a simple email if you’d rather.

Some in the Hoover neighborhood have wondered how they should provide input. The board’s current plan is to draw districts that would eliminate the Hoover attendance zone, since the current plan is to close the school in 2019. Hoover area residents want to have input into the rezoning process, but many of them do not want to be perceived as approving of the closure itself. How should they express their input?

I don’t think Hoover area residents should pass up the opportunity to provide input into the districting process. The board is well aware that many people (there and elsewhere) oppose the closure. Feel free to tell the board that “Old” Hoover is your first preference, but then go ahead and identify your second and third (and even fourth) preferences. You can do that with a simple email or by using the neighborhood input form.

This public input process is not intended to measure support for the closure, but just to enable the board to draw up a zoning plan. The fact is: we don’t know whether Hoover will close. Three of the seven current board members (including me) oppose the closure. This board or the next one (with three seats to be filled in 2017) could decide to reverse the closure decision. In fact, the difficulty of drawing workable attendance zones without Hoover could provide another occasion for revisiting the decision. Either way, it will be helpful to know what people’s preferences are when it comes to attendance zones.

You’re most likely to be affected by this rezoning if you live in the areas near the two elementaries that will open in 2019. Grant Elementary will be in the North Corridor (map here); “Hoover East” will be on the far east side of Iowa City (map here). But it’s hard to know what the ripple effects might be; it’s a good idea to provide input no matter where you live. The current elementary school attendance zone map is here.

If you’re going to send input, it would be best do it by March 1.

On discretionary busing

Last week the board voted unanimously to change our current system of discretionary busing. Busing is considered “discretionary” when we give it to areas that aren’t far enough away from school to be entitled to busing under state law. State law requires that we offer busing to K-8 students who live more than two miles from school and to high school students who live more than three miles from school. Our district has chosen to offer busing to other neighborhoods, too, often on the rationale that there were safety concerns that made walking to school difficult. The new policy is to focus discretionary busing on areas that face socioeconomic barriers to transportation. In other words, economically better-off areas will be less likely to qualify for discretionary busing.

There were several reasons for the change. Money is increasingly scarce, since the legislature has been stingy with school funding. Money for buses competes with many other priorities, including keeping class sizes manageable and addressing the proficiency gaps we’ve seen among more vulnerable student populations. It was also hard to identify consistent criteria for who would be entitled to discretionary busing under the safety rationale. In reality, the state’s idea of “walking distance” is unrealistic for many, many families, especially if their kids are in the very early grades. I doubt there are many kindergartners walking 1.8 miles to school. But we can’t possibly afford to give busing to all of those families, so there was an arbitrariness in providing discretionary busing to some neighborhoods but not others.

Although the issue has been discussed at several board meetings, the specific proposal we adopted appeared on the school board agenda just five days before we voted on it. At the meeting, I raised the idea that we should wait until the next meeting to vote on it, to give more of an opportunity for public input and for people to identify counterarguments. The full board did not appear receptive to that idea, and I didn’t push it. In retrospect, I wish I had made a formal motion to that effect, but in the end, I strongly suspect the two weeks wouldn’t have changed anyone’s vote (mine included).

The proposal that we adopted states, “Neighborhoods whose top priority is to receive a bus should provide this input into the Elementary Attendance Zone review.” I think the idea behind that sentence is that if we’re busing a particular neighborhood anyway, we may as well use that busing to meet our other goals—such as making the best use of available capacity or trying to achieve “balance” socioeconomically and in terms of English-language learner and special-education status. Personally, I have my doubts about spending money on busing to pursue that kind of balancing. That said, I can at least see the logic of saying that neighborhoods that receive discretionary busing should have to be flexible about which school they end up at.

Though the new policy will result in cuts to some discretionary busing, we don’t yet know exactly who will lose their busing. It might be possible to continue to serve some neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise qualify under the new policy simply because there is room for them on buses that we’ll be running anyway. All of those decisions can be made, I assume, only after the board has settled the new elementary school boundaries, which we hope to do by May of this year.

Defeated by email

After a struggle, I find that I just can’t keep up with the amount of email I’m receiving as a school board member. At first I was able to respond individually to most emails, but the volume has just grown to the point where there are not enough hours in the day. I do read them all, and I hope people will keep sending them, but I’m now resigned to the fact that I will have to start sending non-individualized acknowledgements, so people will at least know that I have received and read their emails.

Even if can’t respond to each email individually, I hope I can sometimes use this blog to post my thoughts on topics that I get a lot of emails about, so I can at least refer people to those posts. I have two posts like that on their way tonight.