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.