Wednesday, July 27, 2016

District buys news elementary school site in North Liberty

New school site is outlined in orange; click to enlarge.

The big news at the board meeting tonight was that the board gave a unanimous go-ahead to the purchase of land in northern North Liberty to use as the site for an elementary school. (We could not talk about the purchase in advance, for fear of derailing the purchase negotiations.)

Though the board did not make any decision about how the site would fit in with its long-term facilities plan, my own strong preference (and, I think, the likely outcome, though I can’t speak for the board) is to open Grant Elementary School on this newly purchased site in 2019, instead of on the site in northern Coralville (the “Scanlon site”) that the board initially identified.

There are several reasons why it makes sense to alter our plans in that way. Under our most recent information, there are currently 10 elementary school students within a mile of the Scanlon site. Go out two miles and you’ll find over 200, but many of those are very close to our existing elementary schools. The area around Scanlon is being developed, but the growth won’t happen overnight. So to fill that school in 2019, we would have to run many buses to it, which would require scarce general fund money. Alternatively, we could run fewer buses but open the school at significantly less than full capacity, which means it would not serve its intended function of alleviating overcrowding at the other North Corridor schools.

By contrast, the North Liberty location would enable us to fill Grant largely with kids who live within two miles and so minimize busing costs. (The Cedar Springs and Fox Run neighborhoods alone contain hundreds of students.) Unlike at the Scanlon location, the developments (and thus the kids) near the new site are already there, not just anticipated in the future. That means that the new site will enable Grant to have the greatest possible impact in alleviating overcrowding at the other North Corridor schools.

And by opening Grant at the North Liberty location, we avoid having to move the Cedar Springs neighborhood twice. Under the elementary boundaries the board adopted earlier this year, Cedar Springs, which currently attends Garner Elementary, was reassigned to Penn Elementary as of 2019. But it would make no sense to move Cedar Springs to Penn if we anticipate eventually opening a school near Cedar Springs and having to move those families a second time.

Another advantage of the North Liberty site is that it already has utility infrastructure in place, while there is some uncertainty about whether the Scanlon site will have infrastructure in place to enable construction to start on schedule.

Finally, opening Grant at the North Liberty location would make it easier to persuade people to vote for the bond that will be necessary to pay for the construction of a new school. It will be hard enough to persuade people to vote for a bond that will close and demolish an existing elementary school (which I will continue to advocate against). It will be that much harder if we tell people that we’re doing it because we’re building a new elementary school in an area of very high-end development where there are currently ten kids within a mile, and where the cost of the busing that would be required to fill that school when it opens could be nearly what it would cost to keep Hoover open. It would be much easier to convince people to build a school in a neighborhood where hundreds of kids will be within walking distance and where many are currently attending a school (Garner) that is projected to be three hundred kids overcrowded by 2018.

What should become of the Scanlon location? The district will still own the land there. It makes a lot of sense to consider that the location of the *next* North Corridor elementary school, after Grant. There is a lot of growth expected in the North Corridor, and our enrollment projections may justify another elementary school there in the not-too-distant future. But by then, the developments will be further along and we will be able to fill more of the seats with walkers.

Changing the location of Grant would have domino effects, however. For example, in my view, the board would have to reconsider the wisdom of adding 175 seats to Garner and would have to think about whether we should add capacity elsewhere instead.

Opening Grant at the North Liberty location would also require that we change the 2019 elementary boundaries that the board adopted earlier this year. It would not make sense to send Cedar Springs and Fox Run to Penn, since Grant would now be their walkable neighborhood school. In my view, it would also not make sense to send the North Lincoln area to Grant, and the same may be true of the northern part of the Wickham zone that was slated to become part of Grant.

I remain mystified by the board’s decision to approve those elementary boundaries. Not only did we do so over three years in advance of the opening of the new schools and without updated enrollment projections, we did so just hours after the closed session at which we agreed to pursue the North Liberty purchase. I still don’t understand why the board majority chose, on that very same night, to tell hundreds of people that they would be zoned for Grant Elementary—or why, as recently as six weeks ago, board members were saying that the elementary boundaries were “final”—when we all knew that we were pursuing a significant change. We were bound to keep the property negotiations confidential, but nobody forced us to rush elementary boundaries through in a way that would mislead so many people.

But this property purchase is great news, and I hope it will demonstrate that yes, the facilities master plan can be changed without the sky falling. In my view, we should continue to look for ways to improve the facilities plan as we head into the 2017 vote on the bond proposal (which is now estimated to be for approximately $190 million, unless the state approves an extension of the SAVE tax).

Please chime in with any comments about the property acquisition. Are there counterarguments to moving the location of Grant to the new site? If the location is moved, what changes would you suggest to other aspects of the facilities plan and to the elementary boundaries?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

School board agenda for Tuesday, July 26

At tonight’s meeting, we’ll swear in newly elected board member Paul Roesler, and we’ll discuss our legislative priorities for the coming year. At the work session afterward, we’ll start our discussion of activity buses, and we’ll be joined by staff of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency to discuss our district’s relationship with the agency and our recent interactions with the agency that led up to the state’s report about our special education practices.

The full agendas are here and here; feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

School board agenda for Tuesday, June 12

I’m afraid I got too busy to post about the agenda before our last meeting, and I have time for only a brief post about tonight’s meeting, which has a relatively short agenda. It does include a discussion of the state Department of Education’s accreditation report on our district’s special education practices. (On that subject: there is also a candidate forum on special ed issues tonight; details here.)

The full agenda is here; feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.