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?

Mixed messages, part 10

(Part 9 is here.)

It may well be true that the broad, general ballot language gives the district great legal leeway to alter the planned projects after the bond passes. That may even be for the best (though it would be less necessary if the bond plan didn’t extend out so many years). But if that’s the district’s position, shouldn’t it be trying hard not to raise any expectations to the contrary?

But the district is not only including inconsistent messages about the issue in its bond information, it is widely disseminating detailed descriptions of the projects that are planned for each school (example here)—none of which say anything about being subject to change or about how little they are reflected in the ballot language. Here, for example, is how the descriptions are introduced:
On September 12, 2017, voters in the Iowa City Community School District will consider an estimated $192 million bond package. The bond will fund the second half of the approved 10-year Facilities Master Plan (FMP), which impacts every school in the District and every area of the community. Below you will find detailed information on the impact of the FMP on each building within our District. Each school’s project sheet also includes FMP project information on their associated feeder schools.
The descriptions explicitly link the projects to bond funding:

If people are enticed into voting for the bond by these detailed project descriptions, how easy will it be politically to change course later on, if the projects turn out to be unnecessary? Will it be enough to point out the disclaimers that appeared in some parts of the FAQ? By sacrificing candor now to generate support, isn’t the district needlessly laying the groundwork for future conflict?

A more frank presentation of the district’s stance, though, would invite a discussion about whether voters should trust the district to implement the plan in a way that makes sense and is based on real needs.

Continued in part 11.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mixed messages, part 9

As I mentioned in the last post, the district’s current bond FAQ continues to send mixed messages about the effect of bond passage. In one place, it states:
Q: What if the bond passes and the board changes its mind on what projects need to be completed?

A: There is no clear answer to this question. As a general rule, ballot propositions should be drafted as precisely as possible; at the same time, the Iowa Courts recognize that their phrasing encompasses some measure of board discretion and leeway and that inaccuracies in drafting do not always involve material matters. The particular language of the ballot and facts and circumstances at the time will be important considerations for the board.

The bond referendum provides voter approval to the District to sell bonds for many projects in accordance with the Facilities Master Plan. Operationally, the District will sell the actual bonds as approved by the referendum to fund the projects in increments with various legal requirements. These incremental sales will list specific projects for which the funds from that sale must be used for only those projects specifically within a 24-month period.

The bond language makes it clear that the purpose of the bond is to fund the remaining projects on the Board-approved Facilities Master Plan. The 10-year Facilities Master Plan is based on projected population growth provided by professional demographers. The Board will continue to receive updated biennial population growth projections. If necessary, based on those projections, the Board can adjust the size and scope of particular projects.
Saying that the board can “adjust the size and scope” of projects is different from saying that it can cut a project entirely, which is what we were told in our work sessions. And elsewhere, the FAQ still contains these statements:
Q: What happens if the bond passes?

A: We continue to transform the learning environment delivering a 21st Century classroom for our students and our staff. Air conditioning, renovations, and capacity increases to accommodate student growth continue as planned by the FMP.

. . .

Q: Will more schools close if the bond is approved?

A: No. If the bond passes, the District can fully fund the Facilities Master Plan that allocates millions of dollars to renovate schools that are otherwise vulnerable to closure. With the exception of Hoover Elementary School, the Facilities Master Plan commits to keeping all schools open.
(Emphasis added.)

Although the specific wording in the district’s materials has changed over time, the pattern has repeated itself: Cautious legalistic disclaimers in one place, enthusiastic doubt-free assertions in another. What to make of it all?

Continued in part 10.

Mixed messages, part 8: School closures

In my last post, I wrote about the mixed messages the public received from the district about whether passage of the bond would “lock in” the plan. The district also sent—and continues to send—that kind of mixed message on the particular issue of school closures. In April, the district’s materials stated:
Q: Will more schools close if the bond is approved?

A: No. It is the total opposite. A GO bond locks in the plan! Investing millions of dollars in your school is a good reason to keep it open.
Yet, at the April meeting where the board approved the ballot language, the following exchange occurred:
Director Liebig: We also had a community commenter who said that passage of the bond would be “a guarantee of no more school closures.” Is it a guarantee of no more school closures?

Superintendent Murley: This is—from that standpoint, that’s a board action, so, no, it’s not a guarantee of anything in the future from a school closure standpoint.
The superintendent’s statement is plainly correct, regardless of the legal effect of the ballot language, since some schools (e.g., Hills Elementary) are not in the ballot language at all. Yet even today, the district’s bond FAQ contains the following:
Q: Will more schools close if the bond is approved?

A: No. If the bond passes, the District can fully fund the Facilities Master Plan that allocates millions of dollars to renovate schools that are otherwise vulnerable to closure. With the exception of Hoover Elementary School, the Facilities Master Plan commits to keeping all schools open. Hoover ES is the exception based on its location in proximity to City High School. The Facilities Master Planning Steering Committee determined that the additions needed at City HS required the acquisition of additional property.
The district thus states as a fact that no more schools will close if the bond passes—contradicting the superintendent’s own statement—and that the facilities plan “commits” to keeping all schools open. This is one more example of the district’s inability to give a consistent answer to questions about the effect of bond passage.

Continued in part 9.

Mixed messages, part 7

In my last post, I discussed how the district’s informational materials gave inconsistent answers to questions about the effect of bond passage. Those answers were not only internally inconsistent, they were also inconsistent with information our administration was providing elsewhere.

So, around the time that the district website was saying that “A GO bond locks in the plan!”, the superintendent was providing these answers (shown in bold below) to questions from a member of the public:
I had a couple of questions regarding the bond language being considered.

Suppose I wanted to be reassured that Shimek’s renovations will be completed as described in the FMP (neither more nor less). What language in the draft proposal would assure me that it will be completed as described in the FMP planning documents?

- The General Bond language is written in such a way that the projects described are linked to the Facilities Master Plan.

- Completion of the projects will require the Board seated at that time to issue the appropriate bond in the series (there are four projected)

Could the project be scrapped entirely if the bond passes and the funds planned for it according to the FMP be reallocated to other projects?

- The Shimek project could be modified if the Board seated at the time the bond is issued determines that the scope of project warrants changes to the Facilities Master Plan

Could the Shimek renovation be changed so that a 300-student addition could be added to the building that would be paid for with bond funds(I’m aware that's not practically feasible on that plot of land!)?

- If the Board seated at that time determines that the Facilities Master Plan should be modified to call for a 300 seat addition at Shimek they could modify the project
That sure doesn’t sound like a locked-in plan. Continued in part 8.

Mixed messages, part 6

As I mentioned in my last post, after the board settled on a bond proposal, the district began to generate “informational” materials about it. Those materials, though, were inconsistent on the issue of just how much bond passage would put legal constraints on the district.

One iteration of the material, for example, stated:
Q: What if the bond passes and the board changes its mind on what projects need to be completed?

A: There is no clear answer to this question. As a general rule, ballot propositions should be drafted as precisely as possible; at the same time, the Iowa Courts recognize that their phrasing encompasses some measure of board discretion and leeway and that inaccuracies in drafting do not always involve material matters. The particular language of the ballot and facts and circumstances at the time will be important considerations for the board.
Just a little further in the same document, though, this appeared:
Q: What happens if the bond passes?

A: We continue to transform the learning environment delivering a 21st Century classroom for our students and our staff. Air conditioning, renovations, and capacity increases to accommodate student growth continue as planned by the FMP.
(Emphasis added.) This response states as a fact that if the bond passes, the district will continue the projects as planned in the facilities master plan (FMP). A bit further:
Q: Will more schools close if the bond is approved?

A: No. It is the total opposite. A GO bond locks in the plan! Investing millions of dollars in your school is a good reason to keep it open.
Locks in the plan! In later versions of the materials, those answers changed, but the mixed messages persisted. Continued in part 7.

Mixed messages, part 5: Blank check?

As I wrote in the previous post, the district began developing “informational” materials about the bond proposal, including a bond presentation that it would show to the public. The presentation gave no indication that the board might be able to change the plan after bond passage. Under the heading of “Frequently Asked Questions,” it stated:

This unhelpful statement was consistent with the district’s theme of “keep it simple” because “the details get complicated.” It wasn’t long, though, before the statement was deleted from the presentation. In its place, a new answer appeared:
Q: Is the GO Bond a blank check?

A: The bond referendum provides voter approval to the District to sell bonds for many projects in accordance with the FMP. Operationally, the District will sell the actual bonds as approved by the referendum to fund the projects in increments with various legal requirements. These incremental sales will list specific projects for which the funds from that sale must be used for only those projects specifically within a 24-month period.
That sure sounds different from “No.” Does it answer the question at all?  In any event, this item, too, later disappeared from the FAQ.  The district’s website no longer discusses whether the bond is a “blank check.”

Continued in part 6.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mixed messages, part 4

As I wrote previously, it appeared from our work sessions that the district’s position was: if the voters approved a bond proposal, the district could choose not to pursue projects that were listed in the ballot language, as long as it didn’t use bond money for projects that were outside the ballot language.

But, as we drafted the ballot language itself, questions arose about how much flexibility the language itself might permit. For example, the ballot language the board ultimately adopted simply referred to “Lincoln renovations,” without any specific dollar amount or description, so people wondered whether that left the district free to scale those renovations up or down after bond passage. And could the project be dropped entirely?

At the same time, some people (including me) were raising questions about whether some of the projects might turn out to be unnecessary, especially capacity expansions that were five or six or seven years out on the timeline.

These two sets of questions created a dilemma for bond proponents. If the law permitted the district to revise or drop projects after bond passage, some voters might not feel confident that they’d get what they wanted from the plan. But if the law required the district to follow through on every project, some voters would worry about committing to projects that might be unnecessary.

This ambivalence crept into the district’s own “informational” materials about the bond proposal. Would voters be told what the board was told—that projects could be cut from the plan after bond passage?  Continued in part 5.

Mixed messages, part 3

As I wrote in part 2, I came away from our October work session with the impression that the district could choose to drop projects from the bond proposal even after the voters approved it. That message was reinforced in January, as the board discussed the future of TREC (the former Roosevelt Elementary School). The administration raised the possibility that we would include renovations to TREC in the bond proposal, but while putting them far enough out on the timeline that we might be able to choose to dispose of the property altogether, rather than do the projects. From the discussion:
Director Roesler: If we put this project in the bond language and then don’t do it, is that not a problem?

Superintendent Murley: Yeah, not doing it is not a problem. So, like I say, we put it in there because we would hate to get the point and not be able to do the renovations on it, but ideally we would get to that point and not need to.
(Full recording here.)

So again, it sounded like we could drop projects altogether, regardless of whether it was foreseeable at the outset that we might not want to do the project. The superintendent reiterated that idea later in the same meeting.

(Ultimately the board decided not to include the TREC renovations in the bond proposal; they now appear in the list of “future needs” with no current funding source.)

Continued in part 4.

Mixed messages, part 2

In my previous post, I described some information the board received in its work session last October about the legal effect of bond passage. The written information sounded somewhat different from the spoken information, so later in that same meeting, I asked a follow-up question:
Director Liebig: Just to go back to that one question. I still just want to make sure I’m explaining it right to people. What I’m hearing is, once the vote is done, people have voted for this thing, you can’t take any of that money and spend it on anything that wasn’t listed in the proposal at the beginning.

Chief financial officer Hansel: Correct.

Liebig: You could drop projects, just never bond for them.

Hansel: You don’t sell the bonds for them. Correct. You can drop projects if you don’t sell the bond.
A bit later, another exchange:
Liebig: I was also concerned about things that are just way out on the timeline, and we’re planning for them now, and [inaudible] commit to that, if five years from now we find out hey, you don’t need it.

Superintendent Murley: Well, you heard Craig say before, the University shuts down—okay, that’s probably unforeseeable, but if it does and suddenly all of a sudden the changes occur, yeah, we don’t have to move forward with that. So, from that standpoint, those projects are laid out; you can do those, you don’t have to do those.
(Full recording here.) Those answers sounded different from the written statement we received the same night that “ALL of the projects included on the ballot MUST be completed.” Now it sounded like the district was free to drop projects, as long as it did so before issuing the actual bonds (which can be years after the bond vote), though it might depend on a showing of unforeseeable circumstances. I left the meeting with the impression that that was the district’s position on the legal question.

Continued in part 3.

Mixed messages about the legal effect of bond passage, part 1

Before I discuss the bond proposal in more detail, I want to discuss a threshold question: If the voters pass the bond proposal, to what extent is the district legally constrained in its use of the bond money?

That’s a question raised by the Minnesota news story I cited in this post. As I wrote there, it may be better to ask: can voters have enough of a comfort level with the possibilities that they don’t have to worry about legal remedies? But how the district responds to the legal question now can affect people’s confidence about how it will act in the future. In this series of posts, I’ll review how the district has addressed the legal question over the last year.

In October, the administration provided the board with the following statement:
What if an event or events happen that require the District change plans over the five-year period? Can the District choose not to complete a project that was listed as part of the voter referendum? Remember, ALL of the projects included on the ballot MUST be completed. It is not appropriate for the District to not complete certain projects. If the District does not complete all the projects, the failure to do so may subject the District and the Bonds to voter challenge. The projects as described in the ballot and to the voters MUST be done. The District can’t decide Project XYZ is no longer feasible after four years and simply not do it. Also, if there is excess capacity and the District wants to use it to build an auditorium, but that wasn’t a project included on the ballot, then G.O. Bonds may not be issued nor can G.O. Bond proceeds be used for that project.
(The all caps appear in the original; emphasis in bold added here.)

That’s a pretty strong statement about the legal effect of bond passage. As we discussed the issue in that work session, though, a somewhat different message came through. The board’s chief financial officer said:
Can you change plans once it’s approved? No, you can’t. You have to do what you tell the voters you’re going to do. Pure and simple, you’ve got to carry it through. Now, if you issue the bonds, that is. If you don’t issue the bonds, then you can do the projects using sales tax dollars and not run amok of the law in what you said you were going to do in the referendum. So, even though they gave you approval to do these projects, if you don’t issue the bonds for them and you choose to do them through sales tax, that’s okay. But once you issue the bonds, you better carry through with what you told the voters you were going to do. That’s how you have to look at this.
(Emphasis added; full recording here.)

Voter passage of the bond proposal is different from the actual issuance of the bonds, which occurs later (in some instances, years later) and in several stages. To issue the actual bonds, the district has to be very specific about the planned use of the money, and its legal obligations at that point are much clearer and more constraining. But the chief financial officer’s statement left some uncertainty about how constrained the district would be after voter approval but before it issues the bonds.

This basic question would arise several times as the board discussed the bond proposal. Continued in part 2.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bond campaign fundraising reports

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

So far, the “Yes” campaign has raised $82,977.31—that’s about twenty times what a typical school board campaign costs in our district. Seventeen donors gave $1000 or more; those donors accounted for almost three-quarters of the total. They are:

Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce


MidwestOne Bank

$ 7,506.31

University of Iowa Community Credit Union

$ 7,500

Hills Bank

$ 7,500

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

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

Mark Moen and Bobby Jett (jointly)

$ 2,000


On the “No” side, there were no $1000 donors. One person gave $200, and no one else gave more than $100. The total raised was $1721.

The “Yes” side has spent $36,992.49. The “No” side has spent $814.48.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

How much should bond voters worry about buyer’s remorse?

I’ve been intending to post more about the district’s bond proposal. Unfortunately, the topic is so big that it quickly swamps the blog post format, and nobody wants to read a really long blog post. (I’m not sure anyone wants to read a short blog post.) So I’m going to try to post some thoughts one piece at a time in the hope that they will add up to something together.

Yesterday, this article was making the rounds on social media:

A school district in Minnesota put forward a $98 million bond proposal, accompanied by a publicized plan to renovate its older schools. Soon after voters approved the proposal, the district began planning to close three of the schools it had planned to renovate. Voters sued, but the court rejected the challenge, concluding (according to the newspaper) that the changes in the plan “did not rise to a level of a ‘drastic change’ to the overall bond purpose.”

This story touches an already sensitive nerve in our district, since many voters feel something similar happened here in 2013. The district asked voters for permission to use sales tax revenues for facilities improvements, without making any mention of school closures. Soon after the voters approved the proposal, the district began floating multiple school closure possibilities. Even though participants in the district’s community workshops lopsidedly preferred scenarios that did not close any schools, the school board approved a facilities plan that included an elementary school closure. It did so despite the fact that enrollment was growing and the district was planning to build new capacity in less student-dense areas.

Should voters worry that what happened in Minnesota could happen here if our bond passes? The relevant legal questions are governed by state law, and Iowa law is not necessarily the same as Minnesota’s. I’ll probably blog some more about the legal questions involved (there are many gray areas). The legal issues are kind of beside the point, though, because if you’re telling people “You can always rely on your legal remedies,” you’ve probably already lost them. What people want is sufficient confidence that they won’t have to resort to legal remedies, which is a different question—one that is as much about trust in the current and future district leadership (and thus in future district voters) as it is about law.

On that point, it doesn’t help that the district has floated school closure scenarios several times in recent years, including again in 2015. If the bond plan does end up building many hundreds more elementary seats than we have students to fill (as the district’s own capacity figures and enrollment projections indicate*), it’s easy to imagine school officials asking, “Why are we paying to run twenty-one schools when the kids will all fit into eighteen or nineteen?” It’s easy to imagine it because it’s consistent with arguments we’ve been hearing from inside our school system for years.

So I’m going to (somewhat discursively, over the course of multiple posts) work through some thoughts about capacity, enrollment, and other issues, with an eye on whether the bond plan makes sense and on the degree to which voters can have confidence in how the plan will be implemented.

*I think it matters (a lot) that the district’s numbers show that the plan will build 1,896 more seats than its enrollment projections show a need for. On the other hand, for reasons I’ll discuss, I don’t have much confidence in either the enrollment projections or the capacity figures. So my objection is as much about the lack of supporting data as it is about the specific discrepancy between the two sets of numbers. In other words, I don’t think we have any clear idea how many “excess seats” we are building, though I do think there’s reason to believe it’s a significant number.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Affordable housing and the bond

There was a joint governmental entities meeting last night that included county, school board, and city officials from Johnson County. The first topic on the agenda was affordable housing. I wanted to attend the meeting but could not. Here’s what I would have liked to say.

When I’ve written about why I don’t support the district’s bond proposal, I’ve focused mostly on my concerns about the specifics of the plan, and in particular the capacity expansions. I haven’t focused much on the proposal’s effect on the tax burden. That’s largely because I don’t view political issues from an anti-tax perspective; in general, I’d like to see more (and more progressive) taxation to support a higher level of social services, including education. It’s also true that I’m personally fortunate enough that I can afford the increase in taxes that will result from the bond proposal.

Not everyone is as fortunate, though. And it’s important to remember that the bond proposal will be funded by property taxes, which are not a progressive form of taxation. (And if SAVE is extended, those projects may eventually be funded using sales tax revenues, which are even less progressive.)

Our district does have an affordable housing problem. Proponents of the bond want you to know that our tax rate is low compared to that of other big Iowa school districts, but they don’t linger on the fact that our assessed values are some of the highest. Many people have a hard time finding local housing options they can afford. And the politically feasible solutions are all incremental; there is no quick fix.

If the bond proposal confined itself to demonstrable needs—for example, renovations to our older buildings, accessibility upgrades, and new capacity where it’s urgently needed—it would be easier to conclude that the benefits outweigh the incremental effect of making housing less affordable. (The effect would also be smaller.) But the worthy parts of the plan have been bundled with a set of capacity expansions that, according to the district’s own data, result in building 1,896 more seats than our enrollment projections show a need for even ten years from now—to the point where the price tag of the bond reached $191 million plus transaction costs and interest, which we’re told is the biggest bond proposal by far in Iowa’s history.

In response to that argument, bond proponents have argued that our enrollment projections are probably underpredicting growth. I agree that they almost certainly underpredict growth in some areas (mainly Coralville), though most of the excess seats are not in those areas. I also agree that enrollment projections seven or ten years out are not reliable. But saying “Don’t worry, our data is probably wrong!” is not a great argument for enacting a $191 million plan that includes capacity expansions that are seven years out on the timeline. It’s an argument for limiting the bond to first two or three years of projects and then re-assessing needs.

Addressing the problem of affordable housing doesn’t mean never supporting any tax increases or bond proposals. But it should at the very least mean taking seriously the need to justify each element of any major spending plan, especially one that will be paid for through property taxes. I don’t see how we’ve met that standard with this proposal.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Systems versus culture

Our district takes a lot of pride in pursuing a “systems approach” to management. Part of “systems thinking” is trying to understand and address the larger systemic forces that drive day-to-day reality in the schools. For example, if we’re concerned about incidents of racial prejudice or bias in the schools, the district shouldn’t just wait for incidents to happen and then react to them one by one; it should consider instituting professional development on the topic, incorporating it into school improvement plans and administrative performance reviews, setting explicit goals and then scheduling follow-up sessions to review progress, etc. The district’s strategic plan incorporates systematic approaches of that kind in a number of ways.

Systems thinking of that kind makes a lot of sense. But while it may be necessary, I doubt that it’s sufficient, because culture matters too. Even the most planful systems will struggle to be effective if the organization has a culture of minimizing or denying problems, reacting defensively to criticism, treating disagreement like sedition or insubordination, or viewing every problem through the lens of image and public relations.

To me, this is a major issue raised by the determinations, this year and last, that our district was not complying with special education laws. Why did our systems—the goal setting, the data collection, the accountability reviews, the “three-hundred-sixty-degree” superintendent evaluations, the staff training, etc.—fail to catch these problems, even though parents of special education students had been raising concerns for years? How is it that the problems went unaddressed until outside authorities intervened? How long would they have continued otherwise?

The issue of the district’s use of seclusion is a case in point. The task force on the issue made many good recommendations about adopting policies and practices designed to minimize the use of seclusion. Yet many people are still unsatisfied. This can manifest as an argument over whether seclusion should be completely abolished, even in last-resort situations when physical safety is at stake and physical restraint may be the only alternative. But I wonder if the root problem is about confidence in the district’s follow-through on any new set of policies and procedures.

Organizational change takes time, but “be patient—we’re instituting a new system!” will reassure people only if they have enough confidence that the organizational culture won’t stymie real change.

To build that kind of public confidence, what I wish for our district is a culture that welcomes criticism from both within and outside the institution (even when it’s not expressed perfectly); one that is receptive to public input without trying to manage or steer it toward a preferred outcome; one that values critical self-examination and a willingness to candidly admit error when it happens. (Those qualities are by no means completely absent from our district, but the district could more consistently exhibit them.) A simple, unadorned apology—including, for example, directly to kids who have been wrongly secluded—would go a long way toward rebuilding public confidence after the district has fallen short. Everyone knows that a large, human organization will never be infallible, but the response makes a difference.

How to create meaningful change in a large, bureaucratic institution—especially in its culture—is an eternal riddle. Nearing the end of my time on the school board, I don’t feel a whole lot closer to understanding the answer than I was at the beginning. (The late, great Writers’ Workshop professor Jim McPherson taught us that writing a novel might be at least as effective in changing the world as running for office could be—another take on the question of systems versus culture.) What are your thoughts on how to make it happen?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Board refuses to revisit illegal policy

At tonight’s meeting, I moved to add an item to our next meeting agenda to consider repealing Board Governance Policy 3d(2)(c)—the district policy that prohibits board members from expressing “individual negative judgments” about the superintendent. For reasons I discuss more fully here, this policy is plainly an unconstitutional restriction on speech. Three board members (Chris Lynch, Brian Kirschling, and LaTasha DeLoach) of the six present were against even discussing the issue, so the motion to put it on the agenda failed.

The policy is an embarrassment to the district. It is also yet another legal compliance issue. It also serves to chill speech on legitimate subjects of public debate—the kind of speech that is a necessary ingredient of good decision-making. What is the objection to discussing its repeal?

School board agenda for July 11

Very light agenda tonight. Two major items: First, the board will address the Hoover petition. The district’s attorney has posted another opinion about the issue, raising more objections to the petition. My initial post on the topic is here; the additional opinion from the district’s lawyer does not address the cases, Attorney General opinions, or legislative history records that I raised in that post.

Second, we’ll start the process of preparing for the vacancy in the seat of my fellow board member, LaTasha DeLoach, who is resigning from the board at the end of this week. State law says that the school board “shall” fill a vacancy by appointment, so I expect the board to at least make an effort to agree on an appointment. However, an appointment would last only until the next regular school board election, which is on this coming September 12. At that time, there will be an election to fill the seat for the remaining two years of DeLoach’s term.

(So there will now be four seats up for election in September. Candidates will have to choose whether to run for a four-year term or a two-year term. Of those running for four-year terms, the top three vote-getters will be elected. Voters will vote separately to elect one candidate to the two-year term.)

The full agenda is here. Please chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.