Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What’s the principle?

[This is the text of a comment I gave (editing on the fly) at the community comment period of tonight’s school board meeting.]

I’m here with a couple of thoughts about the proposals to redraw elementary boundaries and possibly pair some schools toward the goal of reducing socioeconomic disparities between school populations.

As you all know, I was on the school board two years ago when the board decided to redistrict the high schools and junior highs in the name of that same goal. I found it a very difficult issue with good arguments on both sides. I ended up voting against the plan because I thought the potential benefits—and there were some—were outweighed by the costs, and especially because I didn’t think the plan had the support of the families it was most intended to benefit. (See this post.)

When it comes to the elementary proposals you’re now considering, I think those issues are also difficult and again there are arguments to consider on both sides. And I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do know this: It would be very difficult to square the board’s decision on high school boundaries with a decision not to pursue balance at the elementary level.

At the elementary school level, the FRL (free-and-reduced-lunch rate) disparities between schools are much greater than they were at the high school level—ranging from a projected 2% at one school to a projected 75% at other schools. The empirical research on academic benefits is also stronger at the elementary school level, because the empirical studies that support it are mostly on elementary kids, and because at the elementary level there’s less tracking that can end up creating classroom-by-classroom disparities even within the same building. Finally, at least as to some of the pairings being suggested, there are actually cost savings instead of higher expenditures. We were told that the balancing plan at the secondary level would cost a quarter of a million dollars a year; at the elementary level it can actually save money every year.

You can defend a policy of trying to balance FRL rates. I think you can also defend a choice not to pursue that kind of balancing. But it’s very hard to defend doing it at the high school level, where the arguments are weaker, but not doing it at the elementary school level—where the disparities are much larger, the empirical evidence is stronger, and it can actually save money instead of costing money.

We had a school board vacancy election in 2016 that turned almost entirely on whether the board should pursue FRL balancing at the secondary level. The district—and especially the east side of Iowa City—voted for the candidate who wanted to balance FRL rates at the secondary level. In other words, many voters supported FRL balance when it meant moving kids from low-income families out of their secondary schools. Now those same neighborhoods have to decide whether to support FRL balance when it means bringing kids from low-income families into their elementary schools, which will otherwise have some of the lowest FRL rates in the district. So people are naturally watching and wondering: Is this really about pursuing the principle of socioeconomic balance, or is this just about sending these poor, disproportionately black kids elsewhere? Is that the principle driving this?

What you decide on the issue of elementary boundaries is going to answer that question for a lot of people, including kids who receive free-and-reduced-price lunch and their families.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Major proposed change to the facilities plan

I interrupt this vacation from blogging just to make people aware of a proposal that’s on the board’s work session agenda for tomorrow night. The proposal would change the district’s facilities plan to greatly accelerate the schedule for the bond-funded construction projects. Instead of completing the projects by 2024, the district would complete them all by 2021, and some projects (such as the Tate and Alexander additions) would move from the end of the list to the beginning. You can see the details of the proposal here and in the other documents attached here.

I don’t immediately have an opinion about whether the acceleration is a good idea. Most of the air-conditioning projects were scheduled in the first three years anyway, so it’s not immediately clear to me that the proposal would get us to full air-conditioning any sooner. On the other hand, an accelerated schedule means building capacity additions even sooner than the district otherwise would, when it’s possible that the passage of time would show that enrollment doesn’t justify some of them. (There were at least some bond proponents who suggested that voters shouldn’t worry so much about the questionable capacity additions because the district had the time and the flexibility to change the plan if it needed to.) There may well be financial advantages and disadvantages to acceleration, though I hope the discussion of them is more careful than some of the discussion during the bond campaign. (See this post.) The acceleration would also mean that the full tax impact of the borrowing will occur sooner, and not on the somewhat more phased-in schedule the district identified during the bond campaign.

Whatever its merits, the proposal certainly does raise one question: Was the administration aware, during the bond campaign, that this change would be proposed just a month after the voters approved the bond? Were any board members or candidates aware? If so, why did they wait until after the election to raise it? Much of the debate around the bond proposal focused (reasonably) on the details of the underlying plan and on the degree to which a favorable vote would commit the district to that plan. Some candidates and bond proponents acted like any change to the facilities master plan would be an unthinkable mistake. Knowing that acceleration was possible (and maybe even in the works?) would have been helpful for voters as they were evaluating whether the $191 million bond proposal was worthy of their support. I’m not saying it would have changed the result—I could see it working either way, or having no effect—but why not be candid about it?

In any event, just one month after it seemed like everyone was talking about the bond proposal, virtually no one seems to be aware of a proposal to make significant changes to the underlying plan. So take a look. If you feel strongly about it one way or the other, let the board know—and post a comment here, too, if you’d like.

UPDATE: There’s an item on the agenda of the main meeting (which happens before the work session) asking the board to approve a “preliminary official statement” related to the bond issuance. By all appearances, this preliminary official statement assumes in advance that the board will vote to accelerate the projects. (I say that because the amount listed on the statement, $58.9 million, roughly matches the total of the figures given in the yellow columns here for the initial series of bonds under the accelerated proposal.) That seems like putting the cart before the horse, if the board intends to do any real deliberation over the acceleration proposal.

One thing seems never to change: When the administration proposes something, it always seems to be presented as so immediately urgent that it can’t wait even another two weeks. It seems unlikely that the board will have fully debated the pros and cons of acceleration when it votes on that resolution, or even after the one work session. Nor will it have gotten virtually any public input on the idea. What is the justification for rushing into such a big decision?

Monday, September 25, 2017

School board agenda for September 26

I had hoped to write a few more posts before my official departure from the board tomorrow night, but I’ve just been too short on time. I fully expect to go into semi-retirement from school politics once I’m off the board, but I imagine I’ll still blog from time to time. Stay tuned.

To the extent there are “sides” in local school politics, my side got decisively beaten in the election two weeks ago. The bond proposal passed and three of the four candidates I supported lost. (See news coverage here and here.) The bottom line is: That’s democracy. There’s no better way to measure what the community wants, and elections do have consequences. I still think the role of campaign money in this election is worth discussing, but that discussion can be for another time. I wish all the new board members well, and I hope the district makes the best of the trust the voters have placed in it with the bond vote.

The main event at tomorrow’s board meeting is the departure of the outgoing board members (Chris Lynch, Brian Kirschling, and me) and the swearing in of the new board members (J.P. Claussen, Ruthina Malone, Janet Godwin, and Shawn Eyestone).

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

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.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Updated campaign finance reports

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

So far, the “Yes” campaign has raised $99,429.16—that’s over thirty times what the average board candidate raised. Nineteen donors have given a total of $1000 or more; those donors accounted for almost two-thirds of the total. They are:

Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce
$ 17,500
Hills Bank
$   8,006.85
University of Iowa Community Credit Union
$   8,000
MidwestOne Bank
$   7,506.31
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
Maxwell Construction
$   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
Veridian Credit Union
$   1,000
Mark Moen and Bobby Jett (jointly)
$   2,000

On the “No” side, there were no $1,000 donors. The largest contribution was $250. So far they’ve raised a total of $2502. That means the “Yes” group has raised almost forty times as much as the “No” group.

School board candidates also filed campaign finance reports today. Here’s how much each candidate has raised (click on the candidate’s name to see the report):

$ 7,425.31
$ 6,395
$ 3,352.89
$ 2,700
$    985
$    770
$    760
*Includes $902.89 carried over from his previous campaign.

The biggest single contributor to school board candidates appears to be Adam Ingersoll, who gave $500 to Janet Godwin and $1,000 to Ruthina Malone (as well as $1,000 to the “Yes” campaign). Ingersoll is a college admissions test prep consultant.

Finally, the Save Hoover Committee raised $602.40 (including $382.40 carried over from the previous campaign cycle).

Contributions made after September 2 will not be reported until January.

School district needs to stop breaking the law

The Johnson County district court ruled today that our school board majority acted illegally by refusing to forward the Hoover ballot petition to the County Auditor for placement on the September 12 ballot. The decision is here.
Plainly, if the injunction is not granted, the electors and voters, including Plaintiffs, will lose their ability to call to vote and vote upon a matter which the relevant statutes provide to them a right and power to vote. Moreover, their inability to call to vote and vote on the matter would occur despite their proper exercise of the right and power accorded by the relevant statutory provisions.

. . .

Finally, the court finds that the public interest in granting injunctive relief weighs in its favor, particularly in light of the fact that the relevant statutory provisions provide the clear right and power to voters and electors to vote on these matters of public interest.

(Emphasis added.) The court ordered the board to forward the petition to the Auditor. What will happen next is not entirely clear. The court decided that it did not have jurisdiction to order the issue placed on the September 12 ballot and that it would be impractical to do so at this point in any event. The September 12 election will go forward with the currently planned ballot.

I’ll update this post later with more details. But please keep in mind: If the board had forwarded the petition to the Auditor as it was legally required to do, this matter would have cost this district and the county nothing other than a bit of ink (since there was an election occurring anyway). How much has the district now spent—from the general fund, which pays for teachers in the classrooms—to defend the board’s illegal action?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Change versus more of the same

I’m a believer in meaningful democratic control of the public school system. I think it’s at the heart of generating good decisions about school policies and practices. At some level I think everyone knows that a big bureaucratic institution, left to run itself without democratic oversight, will not always act in the public interest—even if, like ours, it’s staffed by many good people. The primary role of the elected board is to ensure that the institution belongs to and answers to the public.

There is a real danger, though, of what they call in other contexts “regulatory capture.” Board members—who are unpaid part-time volunteers, after all—come to depend on the administrators who they’re charged with overseeing, and come to rely on them for most of the information they receive. Before long, it can start to seem like the board is working for the administration, rather than the other way around. It can be uncomfortable for a board to exercise real oversight over the people it works with all the time, just like supervising any employee can sometimes require hard conversations. But if board members back away from that responsibility, the public interest suffers.

What I want for this district is a board that’s willing to exercise that responsibility, even when it’s uncomfortable. I believe our current board has failed in that task. The clearest demonstration of that was the board’s decision last October to extend the superintendent’s contract out to three years and to give him the largest raise in the district and to commit to another large raise the following year—at a time when the district had experienced serious problems with legal non-compliance and also with its culture and climate. (See this post.) There should not be such a disconnect between the board’s oversight of the administration and the reality of the district’s performance.

So my main criteria for choosing candidates is whether I think they will change this pattern—whether they will withstand the subtle and overt pressures to take a hands-off approach to oversight. In my judgment, the candidates who are most likely to take administrative oversight seriously are Karen Woltman, Laura Westemeyer, JP Claussen, and, for the two-year seat, Charlie Eastham.

I’m not saying that the candidates have to be pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries. Karen Woltman, for example, is as judicious, considerate, and reasonable as anyone you’ll meet. But she knows how to think critically about a proposal and how to withstand the pressure to join a bandwagon, as she showed when she was sole dissenter on the state assessment task force’s recommendation to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced Assessments. (See this post.) Her ability to explain her point of view persuasively and stay focused on issues, rather than personalities, is her strength.

I know from Charlie Eastman’s longstanding involvement with equity issues in the district that he’s capable of pushing back against district decisions when he thinks they’re wrong. In my experience, he’s a straight shooter and is serious about engaging with people who raise questions about district practices and policies. Similarly, I’ve seen JP Claussen ask hard, challenging questions, both to his political opponents and his supporters, in situations where the easy thing would have been to remain silent. I believe that both of them are well suited to engaging in meaningful administrative oversight.

Of all the candidates, Laura Westemeyer has been the most openly critical of the district, and she’s the only candidate who has said she will vote against the bond. She’s been particularly critical of the district’s handling of special education—and why shouldn’t she be? If our district had been more open to what special education parents (and others) were telling it for years, there might never have been a Westemeyer candidacy. In any event, she’s more than demonstrated that she’s unlikely to be a rubber stamp.

In my view, those are the “change” candidates. The remaining candidates seem to be offering the same approach to board service that we’ve seen from the board majority over the last two years or more. Shawn Eyestone and Ruthina Malone have both been good soldiers for the district’s PTOs and committees for years, and that’s valuable work. But if the administration could choose its own candidates, they are the kind it would choose. Some of their statements—for example, Eyestone’s statement here and Malone’s statement here—make me wonder whether they have already begun to identify with the administration in a way that would make it less likely that they will engage in effective oversight. Janet Godwin, the chief operating officer of ACT, has conducted a stay-the-course campaign and (as I wrote here) seems very similar to our current board chair; if anyone seems like a “more of the same” candidate, it’s Godwin.

Any one of these candidates could end up surprising us if they’re elected. All you can do is try to make an educated guess about how they’d act as board members, and of course your guess, and your priorities, may be different from mine. I appreciate the fact that anyone is willing to run for these seats, since it’s a big, uncompensated time commitment and also means publicly taking a lot of heat (for example, in blog posts like this one!). Whoever wins, I hope the board will re-assess its recent approach and start to more actively exercise meaningful oversight of the district’s administration. In my view, the success of all the board’s initiatives depends on that threshold change.

Other posts about the school board candidates:

Some things you should know about Karen Woltman
Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD
Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

For links to candidate websites and other election information, click here.

Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD

One of our school board candidates, Janet Godwin, happens to be the chief operating officer of ACT, Inc., the big standardized testing company that has its headquarters in Iowa City. A number of people have raised concerns about the conflicts that might create.

I’m not so worried about the direct legal conflicts; I assume that if Godwin is elected, she’ll have to recuse herself from any votes involving contracts with ACT. But I do worry about a broader kind of conflict. Many of the trends that have been spreading through education for the past twenty years are inextricably linked to an elevation of the role of standardized testing. In my view, that has led to a kind of reductive thinking about education and a de-emphasis of subjects (e.g., art, music) and qualities (e.g., intellectual curiosity, intrinsic motivation, critical inquiry about received ideas) that either aren’t or can’t be measured by a standardized test. How likely is it that the Chief Operating Officer of ACT could act to help reduce the role of standardized testing in educational policy?

A more concrete example: Last year, Godwin informed roughly sixty ACT employees that their positions were being eliminated because ACT was trying to shift away from paper-and-pencil testing to digital testing (which, in general, sells at a higher price). This trend toward digital coincides with the district’s own movement toward digital, as this year it starts the major ongoing investment of providing Chromebooks to every secondary student. Whatever you might think about the district’s decision, it would be useful to at least consider whether that trend in education is driven in some part by the money that can be made by private companies as a result. Godwin is not in the best position to raise that kind of question.

I’m also concerned about further immersing the school district in a corporate-style culture. I wrote here about why I think a public governmental entity is fundamentally different from a corporation in important ways. I’m afraid that our district has lost sight of that distinction, and that Godwin would be unlikely to reverse that trend. (At one point, during the candidate forums, Godwin even accidentally referred to the district as “this company.”) Our current board chair, Chris Lynch, also comes from a corporate operations culture; I don’t see much to distinguish Godwin’s approach to school governance from Lynch’s. As someone who would like to see a shift toward more democratically-informed governance, I will be looking to other candidates.

Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

Last year, before she was a candidate for the school board, Ruthina Malone spoke at the community comment portion of one of our board meetings. Part of her comment was about equity issues in the district. But her first topic was about the board’s evaluation of the superintendent:
First, I would like to urge the board to finalize Superintendent Murley’s evaluation and share those results with the community. As we enter a new school year, this should be something addressed, since this has been an ongoing agenda item for the last few board meetings. I’m sure there are many facets to his evaluation, but I believe that the community has a right to be informed of his overall performance from the eyes of our elected board. The community is looking forward for all of you to share any concerns or praises that you may have. Additionally, the board may benefit from offering an opportunity for feedback from the school community related to his performance. If the directors are contemplating ending his contract, the board should take into account that a potential search for a new superintendent will cost the district several thousands of dollars, time, effort, that would take away from other pressing issues. I feel that he and the school community deserves to have a resolution to what appears to be a very lengthy evaluation period.
(Emphasis added. Full recording here.)

The superintendent evaluation process is ongoing throughout the year, and the board doesn’t make the evaluation itself public. But to the extent that Malone was urging the board to make a decision about whether to extend the superintendent’s contract (technically a separate process, voted on publicly), it was a perfectly defensible issue to raise.

So what are my concerns? In my experience, board candidates all talk about holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance, but once they’re on the board—working constantly with the administration and depending largely on the administration for its information—there’s not much follow-through. I was disappointed last year when, just two months after Malone’s comment, the board chose to extend the superintendent’s contract from two years to three and to give him not one but two large pay increases. To me, that doesn’t reflect meaningful oversight, especially given some of the problems we had with legal compliance in the preceding year. (See this post.) One of the rationales offered for that decision was the same point Malone raised here—that it would cost a lot of money to conduct a superintendent search.

In my view, the board’s failure to engage in meaningful oversight of the superintendent plays a big part in many of the problems in our district—including some of those that Malone raised in the rest of her comment. Of course the board can’t fire the superintendent every time it’s dissatisfied with something, but somehow the idea that a superintendent search would be expensive led to extending his contract out to three years and giving him the biggest raise in the district.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Malone’s comment; you should reach your own conclusion. Unfortunately, voters often have to rely on educated guesses about which candidates will actually follow through on holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance. That Malone would devote part of her only community comment to arguing that a superintendent search would be expensive—and this before she’s even on the board—just makes me concerned about how assertively she would exercise the board’s oversight responsibility if she’s elected.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

No more temporaries!—er, never mind

When the district debuted its PowerPoint presentation about the bond, it contained a slide titled “No more Temporaries,” declaring:

It wasn’t long, though, before that slide was deleted from the presentation. Now the presentation promises only the “reduction of temporary classrooms.” Even the district’s own materials have to concede that kids will still be in temporaries after the entire $191 million is spent.

Where is this most likely? First, in the North Corridor. The district’s enrollment projections show virtually no growth in elementary enrollment in the area around Liberty High even ten years out. But in fact, in the time since our demographers made the projections, final platted developments including over two thousand units of housing have been filed in Coralville, as well as a smaller number in North Liberty. Drive around there and you’ll see it happening.

Second, at Alexander Elementary. Alexander is currently using four temporary classrooms and has already converted three interior common spaces into classrooms. And its enrollment is projected to grow. The bond plan gives it a four-classroom addition seven years from now.

Third, Hills Elementary. Hills currently has eight temporary rooms—four being used as classrooms and four as resource rooms. It receives nothing at all from the bond plan.

Is it too much to ask that after spending $191 million on facilities—including on three sets of blue-chip high school athletic facilities—we wouldn’t still have kids in temporary classrooms?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

September surprise?

I can’t help wondering whether there will be a “September surprise” as the school election approaches on September 12. Two years ago, just five days before the board election, a glossy “City High Preview” appeared on the district’s website, apparently calculated to head off the growing momentum of candidates who questioned the Hoover closure. It came off mostly as a clumsy attempt by the bureaucracy to use public resources to influence the election. But you don’t expect the institution to just sit on its hands, do you?

I was reminded of that incident this week by candidate Janet Godwin’s remarks when asked about keeping neighborhood schools open (full context here):
The thing is that if we are able to expand City High, we’ll be bringing back career tech education to City High. We will be bringing forward automotive, engineering, architectural work, other kinds of construction, engineering, etc. Those sorts of programmings are going to be coming back to City High, and the principal at City High, working with the administration, is already outlining those plans.
Reader: There is nothing in the bond proposal, and nothing anywhere in the facilities master plan (FMP), about new career and tech facilities at City High. It’s not even in the September Surprise 2015 City High Preview! During the many board meetings and work sessions leading up to the bond proposal, not a word was spoken about such a plan, though board member Phil Hemingway kept trying to raise the topic of career and tech. The district has made it very clear that it cannot even publicly identify what the Hoover land will be used for. Moreover, any plan to change the City High project to add automotive, engineering, architectural, and construction facilities would almost certainly affect both the project’s price tag and its effect on the building’s capacity rating—which means (in theory, at least!) it couldn’t happen just on the administration’s say-so without formal board action.

It’s bad enough when bond proponents act like the facilities master plan is incorporated into the bond ballot language. (It’s not.) It’s even worse when they start discussing “plans” that aren’t even in the FMP. Still, I suppose it’s mildly encouraging that this year’s unsupported assertions focus more on career and tech than on parking and baseball.

UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long. Right on cue, prominent bond supporter Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek asserts that she has a map showing where career and tech and athletic facilities will go on the City High site.

UPDATE #2: I was naturally curious about this, so I emailed the superintendent:
Hi, Steve. I notice that Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek says she has a map showing where career and tech and athletics facilities will go on the City High/Hoover property. She seemed to say that it was a district document. Is there such a document? If so, how do I square that with the response you gave me in May saying that the district would not be able to answer that question until after the first series of bonds is issued?

Thanks for any information,

Chris Liebig
His reply:
Good Evening Chris

I am unaware of any map with any such designations.


Friends of Horace Mann

Think about the position the Horace Mann Elementary community is in. They know how important that school is to the north side neighborhood. They want upgrades and renovations to the building—partly because the building needs it, and partly because they fear that without them, the district may close the school. The district itself has instilled that fear in them.

I think it’s a safe bet that the many bond supporters among the Mann community would also have voted “yes” on a smaller bond proposal, and may even have preferred one, as long as it included Mann (which it almost certainly would have). Instead, though, the school board majority chose to tie the Mann project to $180 million worth of other projects, in a plan that extends out seven years, closes an elementary school, includes capacity expansions that aren’t based on any enrollment projections, and yet still manages to make it likely that some parts of the district (e.g., at Alexander and in the North Corridor) will be stuck with temporary classrooms even after all the money is spent. With friends like that, Mann doesn’t need enemies.

But that’s the option that came out of the sausage grinder, and many Mann families would rather have a huge bond that includes Mann than wait for a better proposal next year. One consequence is that many Mann advocates, who admirably want to preserve and renovate an older elementary school in a central core neighborhood of Iowa City, have decided that it’s in their best interest to ally with people who want to close and tear down an older elementary school in a central core neighborhood of Iowa City.

I don’t support this bond proposal, but if many Mann families do, I can at least understand the position they feel they’re in. I wish our district hadn’t put them in that position.

As I wrote about more fully here, I was one of three board members who voted last week to allow three more weeks for community input on the schematic design for the Mann proposal before approving it. We’ve since received about two dozen emails from people on the proposal (which was the whole point of waiting). These emails have been almost uniformly in favor of moving forward with the district’s design proposal.

In the emails, some people specifically argue that the district’s proposal is better than any alternatives. Many of the emails, though, simply say that they want the project to keep moving forward. Some candidly admit that they wish the design proposal were different, but that they prefer keeping the project on track to having meaningful input into the design. Others have apparently been led to believe (possibly by prominent bond supporters) that the three board members voted down the entire Mann project, rather than simply to allow three more weeks for feedback.

I want to see the Mann project happen—I think it’s one of the best projects in the plan—but I know that a lot of people in the Mann community no longer see people like me as allies. The district has needlessly pitted Mann families against many people who support the project but not the larger bond proposal.

The institution’s message to Mann families on the design proposal is the same as its message to them on the bond plan, and the same as its message district-wide: Our job is to decide; your job is to vote “yes” on whatever we decide.

Radical ideas

Bond proponents are working hard to convince people that the district would never close a school right after investing a lot of money into it. That’s a bit of an uphill battle, given that the school board chose to invest almost $1 million on air conditioning and upgrades at Hoover after it decided to close the school. More importantly, we all know general fund money is tight. If we end up with significantly more capacity than we have students, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect more closure arguments: “Why pay to run twenty-one schools when all the kids will fit into eighteen or nineteen or twenty?” Ask any district where enrollment has fallen well below capacity. It’s especially reasonable to expect those arguments when some of our own administrators have been making them for years.

On the latter point, an interesting exchange occurred as the board started discussing possible revisions to the facilities plan last October. Board member Lori Roetlin asked whether it would make sense to build a pre-school center on available land in North Liberty, which would enable the district to expand preschool enrollment while also freeing up space currently being used for preschool in nearby elementary schools.
Director Roetlin: I just want to throw that out there, that there would be some efficiencies in doing that.

Facilities director Van Hemert: Yeah. Can I share my radical idea?

Superintendent Murley: No.


Murley: Take care of that right now. It’s nine o’clock, quarter to nine. Yeah, that actually—there’s a lot of efficiencies to running a pre-K building, and we’ve actually talked about, there are advantages to considering different places in the district, just because of the transition issues that people have. If you work downtown, you’re not going to want to drive to North Liberty, so we might need a pre-K center up there, a pre-K center down here, and we’ve got some existing facilities that could serve that capacity if we were to move out, and do some changes to the plan and add new facilities in other places in order to take advantage of the some of the space we have right now.

. . .

So I think that’s the conversation we need to have between now and December, because one of the things—and Craig said this when we started out—the difference between the work that we’re doing right now, and the work that we’re proposing doing in the future, is we’ve got the ability now to take a look at what we’re doing and say, Ah, we’d like to change it. And we can do that. Once we pass the bond, we can’t do that. Now we’re locked into doing the things that we said we were going to do.

(Full recording here.)

The superintendent made it very clear that he was talking about decisions the board would make before settling on bond ballot language, and the board did not end up including any projects in the plan that would repurpose elementary buildings into preschool buildings. But it’s also true that the board ended up adopting very broad ballot language, and the district has changed its tune on whether we’re “locked into” a particular plan. I know of nothing that would prevent the district, after bond passage, from repurposing an elementary school into a preschool center or a new home for the programs at TREC, and potentially altering the listed projects accordingly, if a future board was so inclined.

We’ve seen over time (and even over the past few board meetings) that our facilities director has a very big say in the district’s plans for its buildings. For that reason, it would have been nice to hear his ideas about the right way to find space for pre-school. If he thinks it should happen, voters could reasonably conclude that there’s a good chance it will happen.

In any event, it’s natural to wonder, from the conversations the district has had for years, whether the future will bring more proposals to close or re-purpose existing elementary schools (especially if we do end up with hundreds more seats than we have students). And maybe people will even be persuaded that it’s a good idea! But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s somehow precluded by passage of the bond.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wait, wait, wait—now hurry up!

Bond proponents have argued that even though the plan may be flawed, it’s important to approve it anyway because otherwise important projects will be delayed. It’s important to remember, though, that the district could easily have chosen to go to the voters last year, or even earlier, for approval of a bond. (I suggested it!) Then if it had failed, there would have been time to develop a better proposal without interrupting the timeline.

Instead, the board majority waited until the latest possible opportunity to put the question on the ballot—and now they’re using this self-created urgency to pressure people into voting Yes. I don’t blame voters if they don’t react well to being manipulated in this way.