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.