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.


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.


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.

Update: North Corridor elementary boundary decision postponed

In January, when the school board voted to approve the bond proposal, it also decided that the new North Corridor elementary school would be built on a different site than originally planned. The new site is about two and a half miles northwest of the original site. (See this post.)

Because of the site change, the board will have to adjust the elementary boundaries that it adopted last May. At this week’s work session, we discussed whether the board should redraw those boundaries now or wait until after this September’s board election and bond vote. The board decided to postpone that decision until after the election.

Two neighborhoods are particularly likely to be affected. Under the current boundary plan, the neighborhoods nearest the new site are zoned to go to Penn, but some of them will almost certainly be rezoned to attend the new school. (One of the advantages of the site change is that the new site has many more kids within walking distance than the old one does.)

The other area that seems most likely to be affected is the “North Lincoln” neighborhood. That area, which currently goes to Lincoln, was supposed to attend the new elementary school. But most North Lincoln residents are four or five miles from the new site. If the neighborhoods around the new site are added to the new school’s attendance area, some neighborhoods will have to be subtracted, and the North Lincoln neighborhoods are the farthest away.

Other areas could also be affected. For example, because the new school’s site was relocated, the board shrunk the addition that was planned for Garner (which is relatively close to the new site). That may mean that Garner’s new boundaries will have to be adjusted. Until the board gets right down to working out the details, it’s hard to know exactly who will be affected.

The district still owns the land that it had originally designated to be the site of the new elementary (just south of the new high school). There is a lot of development under way in that area, so there is a lot of potential for enrollment growth there. In a document summarizing “future needs,” the administration included a second new North Corridor elementary school, which would go on that site. But the board chose not to include that elementary school in its bond proposal, which covers the facilities plan through 2023-24. So, under the plan being presented to the voters, a school on that location would not be considered until some time after 2023-24.

I supported this week’s decision to wait until after the 2017 election to redraw the North Corridor elementary boundaries. During the elementary boundary discussion last year, I argued that it made sense to wait until after the election and the bond vote to draw new boundaries, rather than draw them three and half years in advance without updated enrollment projections. I still feel the same way. If the bond passes, there will still be two years before the new elementary opens, so the board can settle boundaries well in advance of opening the school. If the bond fails, the board will have to come back to the public with a different bond proposal, which could mean changing boundaries yet again. It just makes sense to wait until we know more before settling boundaries.

At the time, we heard a lot of arguments about how irresponsible it would be to put the 2019 elementary boundary decision off until after the 2017 election—it was even compared to not confirming Judge Garland!—but the rest of the board now seems to have come around to the idea. I still think we did the public a disservice by announcing boundaries that we knew would probably have to change before they took effect. It was particularly wrong to announce to North Lincoln families that they would attend the new elementary school when two hour earlier, on the very same night, in closed session, the board had decided to pursue the option of relocating the school site. In a democracy, all decisions are subject to change, but there was no reason to raise expectations that far in advance with so many possible changes on the horizon.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

School board agenda for February 28

Some of the topics on the board’s agenda for this week:

We’ll review a draft of the certified budget for fiscal year 2017-18. More information here.

At the work session, we’ll discuss a possible resolution to express support for students from undocumented and immigrant families, and we’ll review how the district currently handles immigration-related issues.

We’ll also continue to discuss the district’s bond proposal, and we’ll review the recent history of the district’s attempts to determine the capacity of its school buildings. (There is quite a set of charts here (link fixed).)

We’ll also discuss the possibility of changing the elementary attendance zones in the North Corridor area, which will be necessary if the board chooses to build the new North Corridor elementary school in a different location that originally planned. (See this post.)

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Board agenda for February 14

My very quick summary of topics on tonight’s board agenda: A legislative update; a report on post-secondary readiness (see also this post); a quarterly financial report; and an update from the Integrated Pest Management task force. At the work session, we’ll talk more about the bond proposal; we’ll hear about the district’s planned 1:1 computer policy; we’ll discuss the district’s policies about student use of cell phones. We'll also consider a resolution supporting the existing collective bargaining laws. And more! Full agendas here, here, and here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Update on the bond proposal

The board tonight voted 5-2 to ask the voters for roughly $188 million in borrowing to fund its facilities plan through 2023. It also approved some changes to the plan. The list of projects is in the bottom (greenish) portion of the fourth column of this chart. I voted against the proposal, for the reasons I discussed here. Board member Phil Hemingway also voted against the proposal.

I’ll be posting more about the bond issue as time goes on. The one striking feature of tonight’s discussion was that the board’s proposal was based on a substantially revised set of building capacity numbers. From the time the district adopted the facilities plan in 2013 until this evening, the plan had been based on capacity numbers calculated by a consultant, BLDD, which were supposed to have been the result of careful measurements of all aspects of the buildings, rather than simply multiplying the number of rooms by a number of kids (as the district had done in the past). Tonight, we were presented with a new, very different set of building capacity numbers, also supposed to have been calculated on the basis of careful measurements and on the buildings’ intended use.

I agree that the BLDD numbers were flawed. But this new set of numbers—the final version of which we received less than twenty-four hours before tonight’s meeting—has not been vetted sufficiently to make it the basis of a $188 million dollar proposal. For one thing, we received unclear answers about whether the new numbers reflect our anticipated ability to staff the classrooms, whether they reflect the weighted resource allocation model, and whether they reflect a building’s current use. And the numbers themselves raise questions:

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Alexander Elementary had a capacity of 500. In fact, as soon as the enrollment rose into the 400s, the school added two temporaries and converted three non-classroom spaces into classrooms. So the new numbers will recognize that the old numbers seriously overstated Alexander’s capacity, right? But actually they say that the addition of four classrooms will result in a 575-student capacity.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district had been telling people for years that Garner Elementary had a capacity of 445 and needed a 175-seat addition to bring its capacity up to 620. The new plan deletes the seven-classroom addition and simply adds a music room and an art room—yet Garner’s “new” capacity will be 633.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that South East Junior High could hold 764 students, and that it needed an addition so it could hold 854. Under the new plan, South East still gets two new classrooms, but its “new” capacity will be 750—lower than we told people it was before any addition. Now the district can justify the addition that was already in the plan before this justification was created.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Wickham Elementary’s capacity was 428. Under the new plan, Wickham gets a new art room and a new music room—and its “new” capacity will be 575.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Kirkwood Elementary’s capacity was 306, and that it needed six new classrooms so it could hold 456 students. Under the new plan, Kirkwood receives only two new classrooms, plus an art room and a music room. Yet its “new” capacity is 468—even higher than we said it would be with six new classrooms.

  • Under the new capacity calculations, planned elementary capacity in the North Corridor exceeds projected enrollment by almost 400 seats—a bad sign for convincing voters that we need to spend $19 million to build a new elementary school there. I think the new elementary school is necessary—but if we ignore our capacity numbers and enrollment projections whenever we think we know better, why should voters trust them at all?

  • District-wide, under the new capacity calculations, the planned elementary capacity exceeds projected enrollment by over 1600 students. But don’t worry, the administration would never propose more school closings.

Maybe the district finally has the capacity numbers right this time. But I came out of tonight’s discussion even more convinced that it’s a mistake to rely on our capacity numbers and enrollment projections to commit to additions (as opposed to renovations) too far in advance of seeing whether we actually need them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Some thoughts toward a bond proposal

This month, the school board has been discussing what sort of bond proposal to make to allow continued funding of projects in the district’s facilities plan. Without some new source of revenue, the district will not be able to move forward as planned with projects scheduled to occur after the 2017-18 year. A bond proposal would need 60% voter approval to pass; the proposal would likely appear on this coming September’s school board election ballot.

Some of the questions we’ve been discussing are: How many years of projects should the bond proposal fund? Should some of the planned projects be changed? Should the order of projects be changed? Should there be changes to overall facilities plan, even if the whole plan is not funded by this proposal?

The board majority seems to be headed toward a very large proposal, one that would fund six years of projects. The exact details are not yet settled, but it looks like that proposal would be somewhere in the $190 million range.

Broadly, there are two issues the board needs to worry about. The first is whether the bond proposal and facilities plan make sense. The second is whether the bond proposal has a realistic chance of passing. These two concerns are related but separate. A plan that is hard to defend is going to be hard to pass, but even a good plan may be hard to pass if the price tag is too high. Here are the specific concerns I have about a $190 million proposal:


Sheer size. I think it will be very hard to achieve 60% voter support for a bond proposal as large as $190 million. According to our administration, that proposal would be more than twice the size of the largest school bond ever passed in the state of Iowa, and apparently it would be more than three times the largest school bond ever passed in our district. Granted, we have more taxpayers now than in the past, and there are many ways to measure the magnitude of a bond proposal—but no matter how you slice it, $190 million is an enormous number.

You don’t have to look too far to find other districts in Iowa that have recently struggled to pass school bonds. A few months ago, for example, voters in Mount Vernon rejected a bond proposal that would have had an impact on their taxes comparable to the one a $190 million bond would have in our district. Only 37% voted in favor. (See also, for example, the news here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Our own district’s history of bond measures is a mixed bag of successes and failures. (See my comment on this post.) When the district asked the voters in 2013 to support its Revenue Purpose Statement, which gave the district access to approximately $100 million in sales tax revenues, the “yes” vote was only 56%—enough to pass that proposal, but not enough to pass a bond.

Our district has not exactly maximized its opportunities to earn the trust and confidence of the voters. In 2013, many voters felt betrayed when the district waited until just after getting voter approval of $100 million in spending authority before raising the possibility of multiple school closures (and ultimately approving one closure). There was dissatisfaction with the district’s special education practices for years before the state issued its report last year citing the district for non-compliance with special ed laws; the district has yet to squarely acknowledge that its non-compliance may have affected whether kids received services they were entitled to. The district’s reputation for a retaliatory culture also predates that report—I even raised it in my campaign for the board—and more evidence of it emerged in our recent special ed staff climate survey. The board’s recent decision to give the superintendent a sizable raise—the biggest in the district, and not just one raise but another for next year—will rightly be seen as brushing off the legitimate concerns people have about the district’s practices and climate.

I share a lot of those concerns and yes, they do make me at least pause before entrusting the district with a large amount of spending authority. Many voters will do more than just pause and will vote “no” on a bond to express their displeasure with other aspects of the district’s performance.

The arguments for a $190 million proposal often strike me as variations on the sunk cost fallacy. So much time and effort has gone into the facilities plan, the argument goes, that we shouldn’t turn back now by asking for anything less than the full funding. But if that proposal is unlikely to pass, the sooner we realize that and act on it, the better.

For all of those reasons, I lean toward a significantly smaller bond proposal, one that encompasses projects that are necessary and make sense to complete in the short term. On that list, I would include:

  • A new elementary school to be built at the newly acquired location in North Liberty. According to our projections, the enrollment in North Corridor elementary schools will be almost 500 students over capacity in 2019 if that school is not built.

  • The renovation of Horace Mann Elementary. Renovating Mann is an important part of keeping Iowa City’s central core schools open, and the updates are long, long overdue.

  • A renovation and expansion of North Central Junior High. Under the secondary boundaries that will take effect next year, North Central’s territory becomes significantly larger. This change will quickly push it over capacity. As a result, it needs an addition sooner rather than later.

  • One of the larger east side renovation projects—either Southeast Junior High or phase II of the City High renovation, but without the additions to capacity. (See below.) These renovations are overdue and affect a large number of students and staff.

I would happily go to the public and defend those projects. There are certainly other worthy projects in the plan, too, but those few already put the proposal into the $50-60 million range. It will be hard enough to pass a bond that big; making it bigger will only put those projects at even more risk of delay.

Would a relatively scaled-back proposal mean changing the facilities plan? It would, since it would mean re-ordering some projects and proceeding at a somewhat slower pace. But I just don’t see any pathway from a completely unchanged plan to 60% voter approval. I’m (reluctantly) open to adding a few more projects (West High?), but if the proposal grows so large that it sinks under its own weight at the polls, we’ve gained nothing.

Keep in mind that a smaller bond proposal does not mean that we’re cutting the remaining projects from the plan. It just means that the remaining projects would then have to be funded through other means, such as additional bond proposals in later years.


Hoover closure. I’ve been pointing out for years why it makes no sense to close Hoover Elementary School. It is a school big enough to house fourteen gen-ed classrooms (which means about 350 kids or more) in addition to two preschool rooms, two special ed rooms, an art room, and a music room, with a room to spare. In terms of square footage and number of classrooms, it is bigger than Hills, Lincoln, Mann, Longfellow, Shimek, and Lemme. It has more kids within a square mile than all but two other district elementaries—in many cases, way more. It can easily be filled without running a single gen-ed bus. It is a mainstay of a central Iowa City neighborhood, and plays an important role in maintaining a livable, family-friendly central core to the Iowa City metropolitan area. And just two years ago, the district invested almost a million dollars in updating it, including the installation of air conditioning.

I do not understand how we can ask the public for tens of millions of dollars while we’re simultaneously throwing away a $10-12 million asset. In fact, the facilities plan currently contains an $8 million dollar project that includes adding five classrooms to Lemme Elementary that would be unnecessary but for the closure of Hoover, and that project makes up for only a fraction of the capacity that is lost by closing Hoover. If you throw away over three hundred seats of elementary capacity in a growing district, you will eventually need to replace those seats; you’re creating a capacity need that will compete with real needs in other parts of the district.

As for its effect on the likelihood of bond passage: Tying a school closure to a bond proposal is like tying a rock to a kite. This is especially true when the district has for years been unable to answer basic questions about the justification for the closure and the planned use of the property. It is even more true when the closure came despite supermajority opposition to school closures at the district’s community workshops on the facilities plan. It is even more true when it asks Iowa City voters, many of whom are concerned about the issue of urban sprawl, not only to fund new schools on the outer edges of the district, but to do so while closing a school in the city center. If we’re serious about passing a bond proposal, why persist in needlessly alienating a big chunk of voters?

I would support a bond proposal like the one I describe above—one focused on a limited number of significant short-term needs—even if the Hoover decision remains unchanged. I would at least consider a somewhat larger list of projects. But the combination of a high price tag, a school closure, and the inclusion of unnecessary projects (see below) is beyond what I can support, and well beyond what I think can pass.


Unnecessary or questionable projects. Some of the projects currently in the facilities plan are simply too hard to defend. In particular, I think it’s unwise to commit the district to additions—as opposed to renovations and upgrades, such as air conditioning—years before we know whether we will have enough enrollment to justify them, and when our own projections do not show a need for them. For example, the current facilities plan includes a four-classroom addition to Borlaug Elementary six years from now—even though Borlaug’s enrollment is under its current capacity and our projections show its enrollment declining by over a hundred students over the next ten years. Yes, I take our projections with a big grain of salt, especially as to ten years out, but I would not include additions in the facilities plan until we have better reason to believe that we’ll need them. That is exactly the kind of project that should be left to future funding sources, if it ends up being needed at all.

The facilities plan also includes additions to Northwest Junior High, South East Junior High, Lemme Elementary, Garner Elementary, and City High that are not justified by our enrollment projections, even ten years out. The enrollment projections for Northwest Junior High never rise above its current listed capacity. The projections show South East’s enrollment being under its current capacity for nine of the next ten years. If the new elementary school is built at the new site, there is no urgent need for a Garner addition; if there is eventually an elementary school near the new high school, we may never need the Garner addition. The City High zone is projected to have between 31 and 96 students over its current listed capacity, but the projections do not account for the fact that some of City’s students (probably at least 50) will end up at Tate Alternative High School—yet the plan calls for adding 150 seats to City.

(I understand that some buildings need larger common areas (cafeterias, libraries, etc.) even to accommodate their expected enrollments. My objection here is to classroom additions that are designed to accommodate increases in enrollment that our projections don’t support.)

The plan also includes an addition to Wood Elementary, and the board is considering including an addition to Alexander Elementary. Alexander is certainly over capacity, and our projections show growth at Wood. But before spending millions on additions, the board should at least consider simply making those schools’ attendance zones smaller and reassigning some of their areas to other schools where there is available capacity. Instead, without any discussion of that option, the plan’s solution is build, build, build, no matter how high it pushes the bond’s price tag.

Liberty High’s enrollment is projected to be 322 students above its initial capacity ten years from now. But the plan calls for a 500-seat addition. I tend to think the growth in that area will exceed that projection and that enrollment will probably eventually approach 1500. But the addition is still five years out; why commit to borrowing $6 million for a 500-seat addition that far in advance of knowing what the need will be?

Facilities planning will not come to an end in 2017. If additions become necessary, the board can incorporate them into the ongoing long-term plan. Until there’s a better indication that we will need them, it strikes me as very unwise to commit the district, years in advance, to paying for them.


Finally, I’d like to see the district commit to developing a career and technical master plan. We need to take a close look at whether we could better serve the significant number of students in our district who are not college-degree-bound. That would entail both curricular and facilities planning; but since we haven’t yet done that planning, it would be premature to identify those facilities needs in this bond proposal.


I’d like to be a “yes” vote, because I know that there are worthy projects that need funding. The concerns I list above are my starting point; again, I’d be willing to compromise on the list of projects, but there are some proposals I could not in good conscience support. I assume all of the board members have limits to what they can support, and it may well be that there is no common ground on which everyone can agree. On a bond proposal, unanimity is worth trying for, but it’s not the supreme value; in my view, the voters are entitled to know a board member’s candid assessment of any proposal. Ultimately, the decision is up to the voters; if the arguments for a proposal are persuasive enough, it will pass. I could be wrong about how the voters will react to a $190 million proposal, but my instinct is to err on the side of creating the most defensible proposal possible.

Update here.