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.


Anonymous said...

Here is what a superintendent with integrity looks like. How much does Mr. Murley make again?


Anonymous said...

Is there anywhere to see voting results so far, or are they counted after all votes are in?

Anonymous said...

I for one am glad the bond passed. Now we can finally scrap all of our old tiny schools like Hills, Lincoln and the silent sleeper that nobody talks about Shimek. I mean those student populations will easily fit into the new schools and additions they are planning. I have doubts about the Lincoln remodel ever happening, it is too expensive to justify for a 200 student population and we could probably bus those kids to North Liberty for 30 years for the cost of additions to get it up to standards. We are running this school district like a corporation now, nothing matters but the bottom line. I am really excited about all of the athletic facilities that will go in at Liberty, my kids will really enjoy those. Too bad about old Hoover, but really those seats won't be needed and City needs to keep up with what is going on at Liberty as far as sports are concerned. You may think I am being sarcastic here, but I am not.

Anonymous said...

Chris - I don't understand exactly what is happening with the Hoover demo case as described in the recent PC article. It sounds like administration is trying to get an ADDITIONAL $1.25 million bond to cover legal expenses and changes to the FMP that will have to occur if Hoover remains open. If this is accurate then that takes arrogance to a new level. Maybe they should not have broken the law to begin with. They knew their lawyer's assessment of the law was questionable and they had a Harvard lawyer and professor on the board telling them it was the wrong assessment, why didn't they seek another unbiased legal opinion on the matter. I know the answer, because they thought they could get away with it. What exactly do they need to spend the $1.25 million on, they haven't spent any of the $200M bond yet and we know they don't HAVE to do any of those projects? Can you add some insight on what is going on?


Chris said...

Anonymous (8:10 a.m.) – I’m in a very busy time at work and so I can’t do a full post, but here’s my understanding in brief. I’m writing this quickly and off the cuff, so I welcome any corrections people have.

The Hoover plaintiffs won a temporary injunction ordering the board to forward their petition to the auditor for placement on the next regular election ballot. (I’m assuming here that that means the next regular school election, which is in November 2019.) A temporary injunction is a type of order the court makes before finally deciding an issue on the merits. The court has to first conclude that the plaintiffs are likely to win on the merits, but it does not conclusively resolve the merits of the arguments.

When a court issues a temporary injunction, it can order the plaintiffs to post a bond. “Bond” here isn’t referring to the kind of general obligation bond that the voters just approved; it’s referring to a type of collateral that the plaintiffs have to put up pending the final decision. It’s there to protect the district from any damages it might suffer from the temporary injunction if the plaintiff don’t end up winning on the merits when the court finally resolves the case. So if the court ultimately decides that the plaintiffs were wrong and the petition is invalid, the district would be entitled to any damages it could show it has incurred as a result of complying with the temporary injunction. But if the court ultimately decides the plaintiffs were right and the petition is valid, then the plaintiffs get their bond money back.

So the district has taken the position that the plaintiffs should have to post a $1.25 million bond, and the plaintiffs are arguing that there should be little or no bond required. Without getting into the merits of the parties’ bond arguments, I do think people should understand that the bond argument is something of a tempest in a teapot. If the court orders the plaintiffs to post any bond at all, the plaintiffs could just choose to waive the temporary injunction and instead wait for a final decision on the merits. A final decision on the merits will probably take a few months. The court has already decided that the plaintiffs are likely to win on the merits. If they do, the board will have to send the petition to the auditor and the bond requirement won’t apply.

Anonymous said...

What's preventing the district from just knocking down Hoover as soon as this school year is over, before a vote is held? Or at least sometime before the next election in November 2019. The issue, and the suit, would be moot. No?

Anonymous said...

I just read on the Press Citizen FB comments that the ICCSD could by trying to us a SLAPP legal strategy. Chris, Do you think this is the case?

Chris said...

Anonymous (1:26 PM) -- I can't speak with any authority on that question. The court's order does not explicitly prevent the district from demolishing the school before the question appears on the ballot. But if the district moved forward with a plan like that, I imagine there would then be some legal argument about whether it could legally do so.

Anonymous (1:39 PM) -- I haven't seen that comment, but my first reaction is that the SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public policy) concept isn't the right one to describe this situation. The district isn't suing the Hoover plaintiffs (though I think the article may have given some people that impression). The bond argument is just part of the existing lawsuit that the plaintiffs brought and is a normal part of the temporary injunction process.

In general, I think it's possible to make too much of particular arguments either side has raised. Lawyers often make every argument they reasonably can, just to cover all the bases. It's the court's job to sort it all out.