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.