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Saturday, September 9, 2017

“Brush-off culture” led to flawed bond plan

I wrote the following opinion piece that appeared in both the Gazette and the Press-Citizen. I have updated it and added links below.

As a school board member, I had hoped to be able to support the district’s facilities bond proposal. I’ve always voted for school bonds in the past, and I publicly supported the 2013 ballot proposition giving the district the initial funding for its facilities improvements. But I’m voting “No” on the proposal that’s on the September 12 ballot.

Many have discussed the substantive problems with the bond plan, which funds capacity expansions that extend seven years out on the timeline, in many cases without any enrollment projections showing a need for them. A more sensible proposal would bond for a couple of years of projects, then reassess capacity needs based on updated projections.

How did we end up with such an enormous proposal? I believe it’s the result of serious problems with the district’s decision-making culture. In short, the district is resistant to any community input that doesn’t support its preconceived conclusions.

This culture has affected many district decisions. For example, it’s at the root of the district’s troubles with special education. Special ed parents had raised concerns about the district’s practices for years, yet the problems were ignored until outside authorities intervened, ordering the district to stop violating the law. An employee who raised concerns about the district’s seclusion enclosures was terminated for insubordination.

A related example arose last year when the board extended the superintendent’s contract and committed to giving him two large pay increases. When the mother of a student in special ed wanted to object to that decision—in a well-reasoned, thoughtful comment—a board member rebuked her and warned her that she could be held liable for defamation. When three board members explained why they opposed the proposal, the superintendent warned them that district policy banned board members from publicly expressing negative judgments of him (though the policy does not prohibit favorable comments).

Administrative proposals have routinely come with one-sided arguments—all pro, no con—and are sometimes presented at the eleventh hour, giving the board little choice but to approve them. When 2,500 residents submitted a legal ballot petition on the demolition of Hoover School, the board rejected it. The district then spent scarce funds defending that decision, only to lose in court.

This same “brush-off culture” characterized the process that led to the bond proposal. The district held elaborate “listening posts” only to disregard the input it received. Many people had legitimate concerns about the size and content of the proposal, but rather than pursue compromise and consensus, bond proponents doubled down on the existing plan, putting an extraordinary seven years of projects into the bond. Anyone who had doubts was either uninformed or not supportive of “the kids.”

Such a closed environment is inevitably liable to capture by well-funded interests. Now we have an enormous bond proposal, with proponents raising huge amounts of campaign money—twenty or thirty times what a typical school board campaign costs—and with the large majority of it from a small handful of banks, developers, and construction interests.

This is the district on its best behavior, with its hand out for $191 million. If it receives that entire spending authority all at once, there will be little reason for it to change its ways.

Good decisions don’t come out of a culture that is so resistant to differing points of view. The bond proposal is one product of that culture, and it shows. The board should come back with a more reasonable proposal next year, and in the meantime should strive to show progress in repairing the district’s broken decision-making culture.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Updated campaign finance reports

Both sides of the bond campaign had to file contribution and expenditure reports today. The “Yes” side’s report is here; it’s previous reports are here and here. The “No” side’s report is here; its previous report is here.

So far, the “Yes” campaign has raised $99,429.16—that’s over thirty times what the average board candidate raised. Nineteen donors have given a total of $1000 or more; those donors accounted for almost two-thirds of the total. They are:

Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce
$ 17,500
Hills Bank
$   8,006.85
University of Iowa Community Credit Union
$   8,000
MidwestOne Bank
$   7,506.31
Southgate Development Service
$   4,000
Gary Watts Real Estate & Development
$   2,500
Neumann Monson, Inc.
$   2,000
Hayek, Moreland, Smith, Bergus, L.L.P.
$   2,000
Arlington Development, Inc.
$   2,000
Maxwell Construction
$   2,000
U.S. Bank
$   1,200
Houser Enterprises
$   1,000
RPB Properties, L.L.C.
$   1,000
Rohrbach Associates, P.C.
$   1,000
TLD, Inc.
$   1,000
Cedar Rapids Building Trades, CR/IC
$   1,000
Veridian Credit Union
$   1,000
Mark Moen and Bobby Jett (jointly)
$   2,000

On the “No” side, there were no $1,000 donors. The largest contribution was $250. So far they’ve raised a total of $2502. That means the “Yes” group has raised almost forty times as much as the “No” group.

School board candidates also filed campaign finance reports today. Here’s how much each candidate has raised (click on the candidate’s name to see the report):

$ 7,425.31
$ 6,395
$ 3,352.89
$ 2,700
$    985
$    770
$    760
*Includes $902.89 carried over from his previous campaign.

The biggest single contributor to school board candidates appears to be Adam Ingersoll, who gave $500 to Janet Godwin and $1,000 to Ruthina Malone (as well as $1,000 to the “Yes” campaign). Ingersoll is a college admissions test prep consultant.

Finally, the Save Hoover Committee raised $602.40 (including $382.40 carried over from the previous campaign cycle).

Contributions made after September 2 will not be reported until January.

School district needs to stop breaking the law

The Johnson County district court ruled today that our school board majority acted illegally by refusing to forward the Hoover ballot petition to the County Auditor for placement on the September 12 ballot. The decision is here.
Plainly, if the injunction is not granted, the electors and voters, including Plaintiffs, will lose their ability to call to vote and vote upon a matter which the relevant statutes provide to them a right and power to vote. Moreover, their inability to call to vote and vote on the matter would occur despite their proper exercise of the right and power accorded by the relevant statutory provisions.

. . .

Finally, the court finds that the public interest in granting injunctive relief weighs in its favor, particularly in light of the fact that the relevant statutory provisions provide the clear right and power to voters and electors to vote on these matters of public interest.

(Emphasis added.) The court ordered the board to forward the petition to the Auditor. What will happen next is not entirely clear. The court decided that it did not have jurisdiction to order the issue placed on the September 12 ballot and that it would be impractical to do so at this point in any event. The September 12 election will go forward with the currently planned ballot.

I’ll update this post later with more details. But please keep in mind: If the board had forwarded the petition to the Auditor as it was legally required to do, this matter would have cost this district and the county nothing other than a bit of ink (since there was an election occurring anyway). How much has the district now spent—from the general fund, which pays for teachers in the classrooms—to defend the board’s illegal action?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Change versus more of the same

I’m a believer in meaningful democratic control of the public school system. I think it’s at the heart of generating good decisions about school policies and practices. At some level I think everyone knows that a big bureaucratic institution, left to run itself without democratic oversight, will not always act in the public interest—even if, like ours, it’s staffed by many good people. The primary role of the elected board is to ensure that the institution belongs to and answers to the public.

There is a real danger, though, of what they call in other contexts “regulatory capture.” Board members—who are unpaid part-time volunteers, after all—come to depend on the administrators who they’re charged with overseeing, and come to rely on them for most of the information they receive. Before long, it can start to seem like the board is working for the administration, rather than the other way around. It can be uncomfortable for a board to exercise real oversight over the people it works with all the time, just like supervising any employee can sometimes require hard conversations. But if board members back away from that responsibility, the public interest suffers.

What I want for this district is a board that’s willing to exercise that responsibility, even when it’s uncomfortable. I believe our current board has failed in that task. The clearest demonstration of that was the board’s decision last October to extend the superintendent’s contract out to three years and to give him the largest raise in the district and to commit to another large raise the following year—at a time when the district had experienced serious problems with legal non-compliance and also with its culture and climate. (See this post.) There should not be such a disconnect between the board’s oversight of the administration and the reality of the district’s performance.

So my main criteria for choosing candidates is whether I think they will change this pattern—whether they will withstand the subtle and overt pressures to take a hands-off approach to oversight. In my judgment, the candidates who are most likely to take administrative oversight seriously are Karen Woltman, Laura Westemeyer, JP Claussen, and, for the two-year seat, Charlie Eastham.

I’m not saying that the candidates have to be pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries. Karen Woltman, for example, is as judicious, considerate, and reasonable as anyone you’ll meet. But she knows how to think critically about a proposal and how to withstand the pressure to join a bandwagon, as she showed when she was sole dissenter on the state assessment task force’s recommendation to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced Assessments. (See this post.) Her ability to explain her point of view persuasively and stay focused on issues, rather than personalities, is her strength.

I know from Charlie Eastman’s longstanding involvement with equity issues in the district that he’s capable of pushing back against district decisions when he thinks they’re wrong. In my experience, he’s a straight shooter and is serious about engaging with people who raise questions about district practices and policies. Similarly, I’ve seen JP Claussen ask hard, challenging questions, both to his political opponents and his supporters, in situations where the easy thing would have been to remain silent. I believe that both of them are well suited to engaging in meaningful administrative oversight.

Of all the candidates, Laura Westemeyer has been the most openly critical of the district, and she’s the only candidate who has said she will vote against the bond. She’s been particularly critical of the district’s handling of special education—and why shouldn’t she be? If our district had been more open to what special education parents (and others) were telling it for years, there might never have been a Westemeyer candidacy. In any event, she’s more than demonstrated that she’s unlikely to be a rubber stamp.

In my view, those are the “change” candidates. The remaining candidates seem to be offering the same approach to board service that we’ve seen from the board majority over the last two years or more. Shawn Eyestone and Ruthina Malone have both been good soldiers for the district’s PTOs and committees for years, and that’s valuable work. But if the administration could choose its own candidates, they are the kind it would choose. Some of their statements—for example, Eyestone’s statement here and Malone’s statement here—make me wonder whether they have already begun to identify with the administration in a way that would make it less likely that they will engage in effective oversight. Janet Godwin, the chief operating officer of ACT, has conducted a stay-the-course campaign and (as I wrote here) seems very similar to our current board chair; if anyone seems like a “more of the same” candidate, it’s Godwin.

Any one of these candidates could end up surprising us if they’re elected. All you can do is try to make an educated guess about how they’d act as board members, and of course your guess, and your priorities, may be different from mine. I appreciate the fact that anyone is willing to run for these seats, since it’s a big, uncompensated time commitment and also means publicly taking a lot of heat (for example, in blog posts like this one!). Whoever wins, I hope the board will re-assess its recent approach and start to more actively exercise meaningful oversight of the district’s administration. In my view, the success of all the board’s initiatives depends on that threshold change.


Other posts about the school board candidates:

Some things you should know about Karen Woltman
Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD
Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

For links to candidate websites and other election information, click here.

Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD

One of our school board candidates, Janet Godwin, happens to be the chief operating officer of ACT, Inc., the big standardized testing company that has its headquarters in Iowa City. A number of people have raised concerns about the conflicts that might create.

I’m not so worried about the direct legal conflicts; I assume that if Godwin is elected, she’ll have to recuse herself from any votes involving contracts with ACT. But I do worry about a broader kind of conflict. Many of the trends that have been spreading through education for the past twenty years are inextricably linked to an elevation of the role of standardized testing. In my view, that has led to a kind of reductive thinking about education and a de-emphasis of subjects (e.g., art, music) and qualities (e.g., intellectual curiosity, intrinsic motivation, critical inquiry about received ideas) that either aren’t or can’t be measured by a standardized test. How likely is it that the Chief Operating Officer of ACT could act to help reduce the role of standardized testing in educational policy?

A more concrete example: Last year, Godwin informed roughly sixty ACT employees that their positions were being eliminated because ACT was trying to shift away from paper-and-pencil testing to digital testing (which, in general, sells at a higher price). This trend toward digital coincides with the district’s own movement toward digital, as this year it starts the major ongoing investment of providing Chromebooks to every secondary student. Whatever you might think about the district’s decision, it would be useful to at least consider whether that trend in education is driven in some part by the money that can be made by private companies as a result. Godwin is not in the best position to raise that kind of question.

I’m also concerned about further immersing the school district in a corporate-style culture. I wrote here about why I think a public governmental entity is fundamentally different from a corporation in important ways. I’m afraid that our district has lost sight of that distinction, and that Godwin would be unlikely to reverse that trend. (At one point, during the candidate forums, Godwin even accidentally referred to the district as “this company.”) Our current board chair, Chris Lynch, also comes from a corporate operations culture; I don’t see much to distinguish Godwin’s approach to school governance from Lynch’s. As someone who would like to see a shift toward more democratically-informed governance, I will be looking to other candidates.

Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

Last year, before she was a candidate for the school board, Ruthina Malone spoke at the community comment portion of one of our board meetings. Part of her comment was about equity issues in the district. But her first topic was about the board’s evaluation of the superintendent:
First, I would like to urge the board to finalize Superintendent Murley’s evaluation and share those results with the community. As we enter a new school year, this should be something addressed, since this has been an ongoing agenda item for the last few board meetings. I’m sure there are many facets to his evaluation, but I believe that the community has a right to be informed of his overall performance from the eyes of our elected board. The community is looking forward for all of you to share any concerns or praises that you may have. Additionally, the board may benefit from offering an opportunity for feedback from the school community related to his performance. If the directors are contemplating ending his contract, the board should take into account that a potential search for a new superintendent will cost the district several thousands of dollars, time, effort, that would take away from other pressing issues. I feel that he and the school community deserves to have a resolution to what appears to be a very lengthy evaluation period.
(Emphasis added. Full recording here.)

The superintendent evaluation process is ongoing throughout the year, and the board doesn’t make the evaluation itself public. But to the extent that Malone was urging the board to make a decision about whether to extend the superintendent’s contract (technically a separate process, voted on publicly), it was a perfectly defensible issue to raise.

So what are my concerns? In my experience, board candidates all talk about holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance, but once they’re on the board—working constantly with the administration and depending largely on the administration for its information—there’s not much follow-through. I was disappointed last year when, just two months after Malone’s comment, the board chose to extend the superintendent’s contract from two years to three and to give him not one but two large pay increases. To me, that doesn’t reflect meaningful oversight, especially given some of the problems we had with legal compliance in the preceding year. (See this post.) One of the rationales offered for that decision was the same point Malone raised here—that it would cost a lot of money to conduct a superintendent search.

In my view, the board’s failure to engage in meaningful oversight of the superintendent plays a big part in many of the problems in our district—including some of those that Malone raised in the rest of her comment. Of course the board can’t fire the superintendent every time it’s dissatisfied with something, but somehow the idea that a superintendent search would be expensive led to extending his contract out to three years and giving him the biggest raise in the district.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Malone’s comment; you should reach your own conclusion. Unfortunately, voters often have to rely on educated guesses about which candidates will actually follow through on holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance. That Malone would devote part of her only community comment to arguing that a superintendent search would be expensive—and this before she’s even on the board—just makes me concerned about how assertively she would exercise the board’s oversight responsibility if she’s elected.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

No more temporaries!—er, never mind

When the district debuted its PowerPoint presentation about the bond, it contained a slide titled “No more Temporaries,” declaring:


It wasn’t long, though, before that slide was deleted from the presentation. Now the presentation promises only the “reduction of temporary classrooms.” Even the district’s own materials have to concede that kids will still be in temporaries after the entire $191 million is spent.

Where is this most likely? First, in the North Corridor. The district’s enrollment projections show virtually no growth in elementary enrollment in the area around Liberty High even ten years out. But in fact, in the time since our demographers made the projections, final platted developments including over two thousand units of housing have been filed in Coralville, as well as a smaller number in North Liberty. Drive around there and you’ll see it happening.

Second, at Alexander Elementary. Alexander is currently using four temporary classrooms and has already converted three interior common spaces into classrooms. And its enrollment is projected to grow. The bond plan gives it a four-classroom addition seven years from now.

Third, Hills Elementary. Hills currently has eight temporary rooms—four being used as classrooms and four as resource rooms. It receives nothing at all from the bond plan.

Is it too much to ask that after spending $191 million on facilities—including on three sets of blue-chip high school athletic facilities—we wouldn’t still have kids in temporary classrooms?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

September surprise?

I can’t help wondering whether there will be a “September surprise” as the school election approaches on September 12. Two years ago, just five days before the board election, a glossy “City High Preview” appeared on the district’s website, apparently calculated to head off the growing momentum of candidates who questioned the Hoover closure. It came off mostly as a clumsy attempt by the bureaucracy to use public resources to influence the election. But you don’t expect the institution to just sit on its hands, do you?

I was reminded of that incident this week by candidate Janet Godwin’s remarks when asked about keeping neighborhood schools open (full context here):
The thing is that if we are able to expand City High, we’ll be bringing back career tech education to City High. We will be bringing forward automotive, engineering, architectural work, other kinds of construction, engineering, etc. Those sorts of programmings are going to be coming back to City High, and the principal at City High, working with the administration, is already outlining those plans.
Reader: There is nothing in the bond proposal, and nothing anywhere in the facilities master plan (FMP), about new career and tech facilities at City High. It’s not even in the September Surprise 2015 City High Preview! During the many board meetings and work sessions leading up to the bond proposal, not a word was spoken about such a plan, though board member Phil Hemingway kept trying to raise the topic of career and tech. The district has made it very clear that it cannot even publicly identify what the Hoover land will be used for. Moreover, any plan to change the City High project to add automotive, engineering, architectural, and construction facilities would almost certainly affect both the project’s price tag and its effect on the building’s capacity rating—which means (in theory, at least!) it couldn’t happen just on the administration’s say-so without formal board action.

It’s bad enough when bond proponents act like the facilities master plan is incorporated into the bond ballot language. (It’s not.) It’s even worse when they start discussing “plans” that aren’t even in the FMP. Still, I suppose it’s mildly encouraging that this year’s unsupported assertions focus more on career and tech than on parking and baseball.

UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long. Right on cue, prominent bond supporter Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek asserts that she has a map showing where career and tech and athletic facilities will go on the City High site.

UPDATE #2: I was naturally curious about this, so I emailed the superintendent:
Hi, Steve. I notice that Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek says she has a map showing where career and tech and athletics facilities will go on the City High/Hoover property. She seemed to say that it was a district document. Is there such a document? If so, how do I square that with the response you gave me in May saying that the district would not be able to answer that question until after the first series of bonds is issued?

Thanks for any information,

Chris Liebig
His reply:
Good Evening Chris

I am unaware of any map with any such designations.

Steve

Friends of Horace Mann

Think about the position the Horace Mann Elementary community is in. They know how important that school is to the north side neighborhood. They want upgrades and renovations to the building—partly because the building needs it, and partly because they fear that without them, the district may close the school. The district itself has instilled that fear in them.

I think it’s a safe bet that the many bond supporters among the Mann community would also have voted “yes” on a smaller bond proposal, and may even have preferred one, as long as it included Mann (which it almost certainly would have). Instead, though, the school board majority chose to tie the Mann project to $180 million worth of other projects, in a plan that extends out seven years, closes an elementary school, includes capacity expansions that aren’t based on any enrollment projections, and yet still manages to make it likely that some parts of the district (e.g., at Alexander and in the North Corridor) will be stuck with temporary classrooms even after all the money is spent. With friends like that, Mann doesn’t need enemies.

But that’s the option that came out of the sausage grinder, and many Mann families would rather have a huge bond that includes Mann than wait for a better proposal next year. One consequence is that many Mann advocates, who admirably want to preserve and renovate an older elementary school in a central core neighborhood of Iowa City, have decided that it’s in their best interest to ally with people who want to close and tear down an older elementary school in a central core neighborhood of Iowa City.

I don’t support this bond proposal, but if many Mann families do, I can at least understand the position they feel they’re in. I wish our district hadn’t put them in that position.

As I wrote about more fully here, I was one of three board members who voted last week to allow three more weeks for community input on the schematic design for the Mann proposal before approving it. We’ve since received about two dozen emails from people on the proposal (which was the whole point of waiting). These emails have been almost uniformly in favor of moving forward with the district’s design proposal.

In the emails, some people specifically argue that the district’s proposal is better than any alternatives. Many of the emails, though, simply say that they want the project to keep moving forward. Some candidly admit that they wish the design proposal were different, but that they prefer keeping the project on track to having meaningful input into the design. Others have apparently been led to believe (possibly by prominent bond supporters) that the three board members voted down the entire Mann project, rather than simply to allow three more weeks for feedback.

I want to see the Mann project happen—I think it’s one of the best projects in the plan—but I know that a lot of people in the Mann community no longer see people like me as allies. The district has needlessly pitted Mann families against many people who support the project but not the larger bond proposal.

The institution’s message to Mann families on the design proposal is the same as its message to them on the bond plan, and the same as its message district-wide: Our job is to decide; your job is to vote “yes” on whatever we decide.

Radical ideas

Bond proponents are working hard to convince people that the district would never close a school right after investing a lot of money into it. That’s a bit of an uphill battle, given that the school board chose to invest almost $1 million on air conditioning and upgrades at Hoover after it decided to close the school. More importantly, we all know general fund money is tight. If we end up with significantly more capacity than we have students, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect more closure arguments: “Why pay to run twenty-one schools when all the kids will fit into eighteen or nineteen or twenty?” Ask any district where enrollment has fallen well below capacity. It’s especially reasonable to expect those arguments when some of our own administrators have been making them for years.

On the latter point, an interesting exchange occurred as the board started discussing possible revisions to the facilities plan last October. Board member Lori Roetlin asked whether it would make sense to build a pre-school center on available land in North Liberty, which would enable the district to expand preschool enrollment while also freeing up space currently being used for preschool in nearby elementary schools.
Director Roetlin: I just want to throw that out there, that there would be some efficiencies in doing that.

Facilities director Van Hemert: Yeah. Can I share my radical idea?

Superintendent Murley: No.

[Laughter]

Murley: Take care of that right now. It’s nine o’clock, quarter to nine. Yeah, that actually—there’s a lot of efficiencies to running a pre-K building, and we’ve actually talked about, there are advantages to considering different places in the district, just because of the transition issues that people have. If you work downtown, you’re not going to want to drive to North Liberty, so we might need a pre-K center up there, a pre-K center down here, and we’ve got some existing facilities that could serve that capacity if we were to move out, and do some changes to the plan and add new facilities in other places in order to take advantage of the some of the space we have right now.

. . .

So I think that’s the conversation we need to have between now and December, because one of the things—and Craig said this when we started out—the difference between the work that we’re doing right now, and the work that we’re proposing doing in the future, is we’ve got the ability now to take a look at what we’re doing and say, Ah, we’d like to change it. And we can do that. Once we pass the bond, we can’t do that. Now we’re locked into doing the things that we said we were going to do.

(Full recording here.)

The superintendent made it very clear that he was talking about decisions the board would make before settling on bond ballot language, and the board did not end up including any projects in the plan that would repurpose elementary buildings into preschool buildings. But it’s also true that the board ended up adopting very broad ballot language, and the district has changed its tune on whether we’re “locked into” a particular plan. I know of nothing that would prevent the district, after bond passage, from repurposing an elementary school into a preschool center or a new home for the programs at TREC, and potentially altering the listed projects accordingly, if a future board was so inclined.

We’ve seen over time (and even over the past few board meetings) that our facilities director has a very big say in the district’s plans for its buildings. For that reason, it would have been nice to hear his ideas about the right way to find space for pre-school. If he thinks it should happen, voters could reasonably conclude that there’s a good chance it will happen.

In any event, it’s natural to wonder, from the conversations the district has had for years, whether the future will bring more proposals to close or re-purpose existing elementary schools (especially if we do end up with hundreds more seats than we have students). And maybe people will even be persuaded that it’s a good idea! But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s somehow precluded by passage of the bond.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wait, wait, wait—now hurry up!

Bond proponents have argued that even though the plan may be flawed, it’s important to approve it anyway because otherwise important projects will be delayed. It’s important to remember, though, that the district could easily have chosen to go to the voters last year, or even earlier, for approval of a bond. (I suggested it!) Then if it had failed, there would have been time to develop a better proposal without interrupting the timeline.

Instead, the board majority waited until the latest possible opportunity to put the question on the ballot—and now they’re using this self-created urgency to pressure people into voting Yes. I don’t blame voters if they don’t react well to being manipulated in this way.

Who decides? (part three)

I’ve been writing about the tension between administrative control and elected board control of school decisions. Another example involves the schematic design plan for the renovation of Horace Mann Elementary.

The Mann renovation is part of the district’s facilities master plan. At several meetings earlier this year, the board discussed the development of a design for the plan. Mann is on a very small site adjoining a public park in the middle of a residential neighborhood; there was a lot of community interest in just how we would go about putting a very large addition onto the building.

The board decided to hold a community meeting at Mann to get community input. Between eighty and a hundred people showed up. The district brought some initial design scenarios. Now, I understand that it’s sometimes hard to know how to gauge “community sentiment” from attending a listening post: the room is never of one monolithic viewpoint. But I think it’s fair to say that there was significant sentiment at the listening post for a different balance between outdoor play space, on-site parking, and building placement than that of the district’s own scenarios, or at least for some creative thinking in that direction. I don’t recall anyone suggesting that the addition to the building be made larger; if anything, people wondered if we could create more outdoor play space if the addition were a little smaller.

That was in May. Then, at our meeting last week, the administration presented a schematic design proposal for Mann. What did it look like? Pretty much just like the one the district brought to the community meeting, except with a larger addition. The only apparent effect of the community meeting was to spur the administration to rehearse more extended arguments in favor of its own preferred idea.

Few people were aware that the item was on the agenda. The one community commenter on the issue complained that the district had not followed through on its promises to meet with him and to update him on the progress of the design and had ignored the community input it sought. (Watch his comment here.)

Given the circumstances, three board members (including me) were unwilling to approve the schematic design unless there was additional time for community members to chime in. The board chair immediately raised the prospect that any delay could delay the project. (Yet at the previous meeting, we were at the same step on the Lincoln project, which has the same completion date, and we were told that we could always change the design later.) Ultimately the board put the item on our next meeting agenda. Our administrators all but explicitly said that they’d make sure we received community feedback favoring the proposal in the meantime.

In sum: After we sought community feedback, the administration presented us with a proposal that did not reflect that feedback, and then explained that if the board didn’t approve it, the project could be delayed. Assuming the board approves it under those circumstances, who really decided the issue?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Who decides? (part two)

In my previous post, I wrote about how a large bureaucratic institution is a force of its own and naturally wants to run itself. The job of the elected board is to ensure that the decisions belong ultimately to the larger community, not just to the institution itself.

Here’s another recent anecdote. Two meetings ago, the administration presented the board with a schematic design proposal for the renovation of Lincoln School. The renovation itself had already been incorporated into the district’s facilities plan; we were at the step of the process where the board approves preliminary floor plans and preliminary budget projections.

Our facilities director put on an extensive presentation of the proposed schematic design, noting at the end, “Currently, this is over budget.”

“How far over budget?” two board members asked simultaneously.

“I would say as much as thirty or forty percent,” the facilities director said.

This, unsurprisingly, caused some concern among the board members. (Listen to board member Lori Roetlin’s concerns here.) But the board decided to approve the schematic design on the understanding that we would still have to consider, at one of the next steps, whether we were comfortable with a project that would be that far over the initial budget. The facilities director reassured us that there were two more approval steps before the design itself would be final.

Yet the following week, as we were discussing the same step of the planned Mann renovation, the facilities director raised the concern that rejecting the schematic design could end up causing a delay in the completion date. Was that true of the Lincoln project, too, I asked? The facilities director replied that going back for a new schematic design could risk a delay.

In sum: The administration presented the board with a proposal that was 30 to 40% over budget, and then explained that if the board didn’t approve it, the project could be delayed. If the board approves the proposal in those circumstances, who really decided the issue?

Part three here.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who decides? (part one)

In any truly public school system, the institution has to answer to the democratically elected school board. That’s the theory. In practice, an institution naturally wants to run itself without interference, and sometimes chafes at the supervision of an elected board. The board, after all, represents everyone in the district, and sometimes the desires of the larger community don’t perfectly coincide with the preferences that win out within the institution. Part of the board’s job—a particularly important part—is to make sure that it controls the institution and not the other way around.

One recent illustration of this tension involved the construction of new classrooms from interior common space at Penn Elementary. The administration asked us to approve a contract with an outside company for part of the work. The proposal (described here) came before the board on July 25—just four weeks before school was to start. The administration told us that the project would raise Penn’s listed capacity by fifty students—from 633 to 683.

I voted against the proposal because I was against permanently raising Penn’s capacity number when it still has the same cafeteria space that it had when the district considered it to be a 387-student school. (I explain my reasons more fully here.) The proposal failed on a vote of 3-3.

Three weeks later, the administration brought back the same contract proposal. At this meeting, however, it came to light that the district’s contractors (as well as district staff) had continued working in Penn even after the board voted down the contract. This naturally raised serious concerns: Did the administration move ahead with a contract even after the board had rejected it?

When I asked about why the contractor had continued working after the board voted down the contract, the facilities director and the superintendent gave what struck me as two somewhat different explanations. (You can listen to the exchange here; the superintendent later clarified his response here.)

In any event, school was about to start, and Penn needed some (at least temporary) space. I moved to approve the proposal on the condition that the project would not raise Penn’s listed capacity number and that any increase in Penn’s capacity would require board approval. The motion passed 5-1.

The next day, a member of the public emailed the superintendent, asking what the district now considered Penn’s capacity to be. Late last week, he forwarded her the response of the district’s facilities department: 658.

Part two here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Some things you should know about Karen Woltman

At some point I’ll try to write more about the candidate field in the school board election. But before early voting gets any further, I want people to know some things about Karen Woltman that they may not be aware of.

I am very pleased that Karen is running for the board. Karen first came to my attention through her blog, Education in Iowa, which she’s been writing since 2010. It has been an excellent resource for information and intelligent commentary on education policy issues, and in particular on education-related Iowa legislation. Her extensive writing on educational issues will give you a great sense of who she is; her campaign website identifies several posts in particular that are relevant to school board membership. She has consistently maintained a thoughtful, conscientious, and well-documented commentary on state and local education issues. Moreover, she demonstrates that it’s possible to advocate and to be persistent while also maintaining a measured, reasonable discourse—always focusing on issues and reasoned arguments, not personalities.

Karen also played a remarkable role in one particular educational issue. Karen was a member of the State Assessment Task Force in 2014-15. When the task force recommended that the state require all school districts to use the very expensive and time-consuming Smarter Balanced Assessments, Karen was the sole dissenter. She was concerned about whether the cost of the tests would reduce funding for educational programming, asking whether the tests would cause cuts to music, art, and world languages of the kind we’ve already seen here in our district. She also asked hard questions about whether Iowa school districts had the tech readiness to implement the tests—noting that several states had experienced serious problems with implementation.

Karen’s willingness to dissent from the committee’s otherwise unanimous recommendation is a great indicator of her independence and ability to resist institutional pressure and groupthink. Moreover, her dissent was persuasive enough that it helped derail the state’s movement toward adopting the Smarter Balanced tests. The legislature did not accept the committee’s recommendation, and it looks increasingly likely that the state will end up adopting a less expensive testing regimen instead. The word “single-handedly” is probably never appropriate in politics, but in my view Karen’s dissent was quite possibly the single most influential factor in changing the course of those events.

Karen’s not against standardized testing; in fact, she’s very concerned about addressing the district’s achievement gaps in reading, math, and science proficiency. But she knows that everything has a cost and that the usefulness of any testing has to be weighed against what’s being sacrificed to pay for it—and that ultimately teaching has to have primacy over testing. (Her involvement on this issue makes an interesting counterpoint to the candidacy of Janet Godwin, who is the chief operating officer of ACT.)

In her school board campaign, Karen is arguing for prioritizing issues of curriculum, instruction, and school climate. “Facilities are important, but whether our children are learning, and whether they feel safe and supported at school, is more important than the size of their gymnasiums,” she writes. “Our children need a school board that can work on improving facilities and, at the same time, work on improving the programs that take place in those facilities.” You can read more about her priorities and positions here and here.

Karen is not as widely known as some candidates, and lately some have taken advantage of that fact to try to portray her negatively and in my view unfairly. This has taken the oh-so-progressive form of defining her an as extension of her husband. (Karen is a lifelong active Democrat married to a Republican.) People have also criticized her choice to home-school her younger children through the district’s home-school assistance program. (Her oldest child is a student at North Central Junior High.) In fact, Karen’s decision to home-school her younger children is driven by her longstanding interest in educational practice and not by any extremism, parochialism, or desire to withdraw from society. She has been more active in public education than most of us, to its benefit. Again, if you want an accurate understanding of who she is, all you have to do is look at her seven years of public writing about education issues.

Karen also has a law degree and if elected would be the only board member with that background. I believe it is a very useful qualification and one that has served me well on the board.

Please elect this sensible, smart, capable person. If you’re interested, you can help Karen become better known by hosting a yard sign; contact her campaign at KLWoltman@gmail.com.

Friday, August 25, 2017

School board candidate questionnaire responses

In my view, one of the best local developments in recent years has been the proliferation of candidate questionnaires leading up to elections. (I say that even though, as a candidate, responding to them all was a pretty grueling task.) The most comprehensive questionnaire has been that of the North Corridor Parents group. That group has now posted the questionnaire responses of all seven school board candidates in the upcoming September 12 election. You can read them here.

One of the candidates, Karen Woltman, will be posting links to other questionnaire responses on her blog here, where she has collected many other links to information about the election.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Is the district honest about community input?


“Keep it simple” because “the details get complicated.” In its bond presentation, the district presents that idea as summing up the feedback that we received at our community listening posts on the facilities plan and the bond. In fact, listen to the recordings: the district cherry-picked one person’s comment and presented it as the summary of feedback at three listening posts.

According to bond proponents (example here), those same listening posts showed “unified support” for putting seven years’ worth of projects into the bond proposal, resulting in the very high $191 million price tag. But take a look at the minutes of those listening posts (here, here, and here). Listen to the recordings. Is that assertion even remotely true? In fact, at two of the three listening posts, the tables weren’t even surveyed about how much of the plan should go into the bond. And to the extent there was discussion of the issue, the feedback was mixed, as even the minutes show. Or listen, for example, to what this man had to say. Somehow that wasn’t the comment cherry-picked for the PowerPoint slide. Unified support?

“Stick to the plan”? “We have a great plan”? “Just do it”? Read the minutes.

The district appears unable to resist the temptation to promote its desired conclusions by distorting the public input it receives. In 2013, for example, the district held community workshops on the development of the facilities master plan. At the final workshop—attended by hundreds of people—seventy-four percent of attendees supported plans that did not close Hoover Elementary School. (See also charts here and here.) Yet when the facilities committee presented its proposal to the school board, it stated that closing Hoover was a “common theme” of the feedback it received.

Proponents of the bond have repeatedly argued that the plan is the result of input from countless members of the public. But it’s easy to assert that the community input supports your point of view; after all, who’s going to go to the trouble of verifying the assertion? Given the examples above, though, I recommend you start asking for evidence.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Inflation and “keep it simple”

One of the themes we’ve heard from the district in its presentation of materials on the bond is “keep it simple,” because “the details get complicated.” (That particular slide attributes this sentiment to the listening posts we held earlier this year, but I attended all of those listening posts, and the only person who I remember saying “keep it simple” was the school board chair.) The “keep it simple” spirit is reflected in the district’s discussion of the issue of inflation. The district’s bond FAQ says:
To delay the remaining projects in the Facilities Master Plan will be expensive.
- Construction inflation is running at 3-5%. A one-year delay would increase the total plan costs as much as $5.6M - $9.4M dollars!
- Borrowing interest rates continue to rise. A one-half percent increase in the interest rate will increase borrowing costs in excess of $11M dollars.
To get the inflation “cost,” the district has apparently just multiplied the bottom line total ($191.5 million) by possible inflation rates. Is this an accurate way to discuss the cost of inflation?

No, because inflation affects both revenues and expenditures. That’s why we don’t all sit around kicking ourselves for not having bought all our possessions in 1971—I mean, look at how much cheaper everything was!  But of course, our paychecks were much smaller, too.

The district emphasizes the risk of inflation on the expenditure side, but conveniently ignores it on the revenue side. In that same FAQ, the district asserts that the effect of the bond on the tax rate “could decrease over time as the property tax base in the District continues to grow.” At our work sessions, it was emphasized that we should feel reassured about the tax rate because our tax base will grow at a rate of 4 or 5% annually. But not all of the growth in that number is attributable to growth in the amount of taxable property; some portion of it is simply inflation at work over time.

It’s a bit disingenuous to tell residents, “Don’t worry, the tax rate won’t be as high as it looks,” without adding, “Of course, that’s partly because your home’s assessment will go up.” It’s even more disingenuous to do that while simultaneously warning them about the effect of inflation on project costs.

And will interest rates rise? I don’t pretend to know, but I know that since 2008 many dire predictions about inflation and increasing interest rates have not been borne out (though they have often served people’s political purposes). For a counterpoint on interest rates, see here, here, and here.

Will local construction inflation outpace inflation in home values to an extent that will cost us money? Will inflation be offset by possible cost savings of scaling back projects that may not be necessary? The details get complicated! Does the district’s presentation of these issues show sufficient respect for the complexity of the issue and for the voters’ intelligence? Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A few quick thoughts on the Horace Mann design

(Click to enlarge)

At tonight’s meeting, the board will consider an initial schematic design proposal for the renovation of Horace Mann Elementary. I was a little surprised to see the proposal, which you can view more fully here. In the proposal, the addition to Mann is 17,440 square feet—much larger than the roughly 10,000 square-foot addition we had talked about earlier this year when we solicited public input. As a result, its placement on the site and its effect on outdoor playground space and traffic flow seems very different from what I would have expected, given my perception of the public feedback we received. Our administrators may have good explanations for these differences tonight, but I’m inclined to think we need to hear more from the public on this design before approving it. Readers—what are your initial thoughts?

Monday, August 21, 2017

School board agenda for August 22

Relatively light agenda this week. Two notable items: A special education update and a design proposal for the renovation of Horace Mann Elementary. The full agenda is here; feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Monday, August 14, 2017

School board agenda for August 15

Last week’s meeting was delayed because too many board members were out of town. Here are some of the items on this week’s agenda:

We’ll hear a report about the annual staff climate survey. More information here. (Editorial comment: Does this look like an objective report to you, or like an advertisement?)

We’ll hear a report about lead testing in the district’s school. More information here.

We’ll hear the quarterly financial report.

We’ll once again consider a proposal to create two new classrooms in the existing Penn Elementary School building. I voted against this proposal at our last board meeting, for the reasons I described in a comment on this post. It’s not yet clear to me whether the administration is still proposing to change the listed capacity of Penn if this proposal is adopted.

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

The future of Hills Elementary (continued)

What should people make of the board’s omission of Hills Elementary from the bond proposal? A look back at the process can shed some light on that.

At our October work session, our facilities director told the board:
If we’re going to finish Hills, let’s finish Hills, okay? I mean, it’s an unfinished building. The board made that conscious decision in 2013, in December of 2013, to just do the mandatory code updates, and that’s what we’ve done, but they’re in need of more classrooms, we just set two temporaries, or actually two, two duplexes, there’s four temporary classrooms there, their gym is totally inadequate, there are a lot of things that need to be done at Hills, so I put it on there for discussion. If we’re going to do it, it’s going to take three million to finish it and do it right.
So the materials presented for discussion that night showed a $3.2 million Hills project scheduled for completion in 2022. It included a new gym and four new classrooms.

At the same time, the facilities director presented a similar choice to the board about TREC (the former Roosevelt Elementary):
If we’re going to keep that building, which may be another decision for another day, this needs to be moved up [to 2020-21 in the timeline], so that at that point, we’re air-conditioned a hundred percent.
By January, though, the picture had changed, for both Hills and TREC. By the time the board settled on a bond proposal, it had decided to put neither facility into the seven-year bond-funded period. In the case of TREC, the explicit administration recommendation was to start looking for new homes for the programs there in anticipation of closing the building.

In both cases, the administration told us: If we’re going to do these, let’s do them. In response, the board took both facilities out of the bond-funded seven-year period and put them on the unfunded “future needs” list. Are Hills residents unreasonable to be concerned about the future of their school?

School board agenda for July 25

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

We’ll discuss and possibly approve the district’s legislative priorities for the next legislative session. Proposal here.

We’ll hear a report about the district’s efforts to teach students about safe and responsible use of social media. Information here.

We’ll hear a report about reading assessment results. The district has been implementing a weighted resource allocation model to shift resources (including classroom teachers) toward schools with larger numbers of students from low-income households, students receiving special education services, and students who are English-language learners. This report will focus in particular on reading assessment results at those schools. Information here.

We’ll hear a report about school climate disparities when it comes to student gender identity and sexual orientation. Information here.

We’ll hear a transportation update, including an update on activities buses at the secondary level and a comparison of busing costs in the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 school years. Information here.

We’ll hear an update on the progress at Hoover East and on its use by Longfellow students this coming year (while Longfellow is being renovated). Information here.

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

UPDATE: The administration came to us at the July 25 meeting asking to hire a contractor to create more rooms out of common space at Penn Elementary to make up for the loss of temporaries (which were relocated elsewhere). We were told that this change would permanently raise Penn’s capacity rating of the building to 683. This was the only option we were presented. It represented a change to the building’s capacity rating under the Facilities Master Plan that would have a lasting effect on how many students the district will expect that building to hold, and it came to us in the form of a consent calendar item just four weeks before school was to start.

Earlier this year, the administration had already revised the Penn building capacity up from 587 to 633, based not an any additional space but just on a reassessment of the building. But the building is still using the same cafeteria it was using when the building capacity was 387. Eight classrooms (200 seats) have been added since, and this project would have added 50 more. I don’t have confidence that that building can comfortably hold 683 students, even with more classrooms added. Moreover, I don’t believe the board should approve a permanent change to a building’s capacity under the Facilities Master Plan without receiving any input from the families at the affected school. I felt that the proposal at the very least should have been brought to the board much sooner, so the affected families could have a chance to comment on it.

I fully understand that the elementary schools in the North Corridor need more capacity—one of the reasons I’m against the bond is because it limits the district’s ability to respond to the expected growth in that area. But new capacity shouldn’t be achieved simply by carving more classrooms out of a building that is already too large for its common spaces. I saw the project as creating a long-term problem to address a short-term problem, so I voted against the contract proposal. The proposal failed by a vote of 3-3.

Three weeks later, the administration brought back the same contract proposal. I moved to adopt the proposal on the condition that the district would not change Penn’s listed capacity number without further board approval. The motion passed 5-1.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

The future of Hills Elementary

One of the primary themes of the district’s bond proposal is “facilities equity”—the idea that your school facility shouldn’t be so different from those elsewhere in the district that it impacts your child’s educational experience. At the elementary level, this has included the idea that every school ought to have a separate gym and cafeteria, which not all currently do. Because of this emphasis on equity, by the time the bond-funded projects are completed, every elementary school in the district will have a separate gym and cafeteria.

Except one: Hills Elementary. Hills, which has one room that serves both purposes, and which will have eight temporary rooms this year, was conspicuously left out of the bond proposal. Instead, the board majority put Hills on a separate list of “future needs” that are not included in the bond proposal. That list includes an item for adding a gymnasium and art and music rooms to Hills at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

Our administration has told us that there are only so many projects that the district can run at any given time; that’s why the facilities projects are spread out over years rather than all done simultaneously. So if a project is not included in the bond, which covers all the projects in the facilities plan through 2023-24, there is no reason to think that it can be added to the plan until after 2023-24, even if the funding materializes. And, of course, anything that is not included in the bond proposal could not happen without its own funding source (such as a possible second bond proposal in the future).

Actually, there are two elementary schools in the district that will not have a separate gymnasium and cafeteria by the time the bond-funded projects are completed: Hills Elementary and Hoover Elementary (which, of course, the district is planning to close and tear down). The “future needs” list, where the Hills project now appears, is also where the board put the renovations to TREC (the former Roosevelt Elementary), after the superintendent told us that he’d prefer to close the TREC building and thus hopes to be able to cancel those renovations altogether.

Hoover and Roosevelt are not the company that Hills wants to be in. The Hills community has good reason to worry about the district’s commitment to that school—especially since the district has floated multiple proposals to close Hills in recent years.

Continued here.

Mixed messages, part 11

(Part 10 is here.)

I think the district’s inconsistent statements about the effect of bond passage are at least partly responsible for the fact that members of the public seem to hold different understandings of the issue. For example, when I tweeted the article about the Minnesota school district that closed schools after telling voters it would renovate them, I quickly heard from one bond supporter who told me that “In Iowa the bond language is a legal document that cannot be altered after the fact by any admin or board,” and from another who told me that “It was clearly [our] board’s intent to have flexibility.”

Moreover, even if voters discount the district’s more enthusiastic statements (“A GO bond locks in the plan!”), they still do not have clear statements of the district’s position on several important questions, such as:

  • After the bond passes, can the district completely drop a project from the list of projects in the ballot language?

  • The governing statute says that if the voters pass the proposal, the district “shall issue” the bonds. Does that mean that if the bond passes, the district is legally required to issue bonds in the stated total amount ($191 million), even if it might have some freedom to reallocate the money among the listed projects?

  • Does it mean that the district would have to issue the full amount of bonds, even if the legislature extends the SAVE sales tax before we need the money? (The current SAVE statute allows districts to pay off bonds with the sales tax revenue, but there could be significant transactions costs if we’re required to issue all the bonds first.)

Even if the district’s answer were “we don’t know, because the law is unclear,” that in itself would be informative. Readers: Maybe one of you will have more success in getting publicly shareable responses to those questions than I have. (I don’t feel free, as an individual board member, to share information that has come to the board in the form of advice from the district’s counsel.)

Finally: What is the cumulative effect of the district’s statements on this issue over the last nine months? Is the district being sufficiently candid? Is it being sufficiently careful about the public expectations that it’s generating? Do its statements, collectively, make you more confident that the district will treat the public respectfully as it moves forward after bond passage? Do they make you more willing to entrust the district with $191 million?