School Board Recommendations: Tilley, Roseler, Eyestone, and Eastham

We have a local school board election coming up on November 5th.  I’d hoped to write more about this election than I’m going to end up being able to do.  So I want to go ahead and make some quick candidate recommendations.  There are 4 open seats.

The first three are easy.  I’d very much like to see Paul Roesler and Shawn Eyestone returned to the board.  Shawn and Paul have proven themselves to be thoughtful, deliberate and transparent board members, and bringing them back will help ensure some much-needed continuity between the current board and the next.  And, I’d very much like Paul and Shawn to be joined by Michael Tilley, for reasons that I discuss here, and hope to expand on.

My fourth vote and recommendation goes to Charlie Eastham.  I appreciate Charlie’s longstanding work to combat racism and to support minority voices in this community. I think he has great values, and has spent a lot of time attending school board meetings and events over the past several years.  But I do have some reservations.  Charlie hasn’t shown a great understanding of the school budgeting process, and his analysis of how racism and classism affects our district seems much more focused on prejudice than on institutional barriers and segregation. Given that racial and economic integration has been a central focus of my own activism, I find some of Charlie’s statements about building demographics worrisome. But, I know that his heart is in the right place, and I believe he’s capable of learning what he needs to learn to make real contributions to the board.  Above all, I think that his long-standing public allyship has earned him real credibility with a significant number of minority voters, and that’s something that the board can always use more of.

Whatever reservations I have about Charlie, I have bigger ones about the other candidates.  I don’t think that either Julie Van Dyke or Stephanie Van Housen would function very well in the context of the board.  While I agree with both on some issues, their wrongheaded opposition to the 2017 bond and the degree that both seem to be running out of a sense of personal grievance counts them out. I can’t see either as an effective board member.

 Unlike all of the other candidates running, Lisa Williams has virtually no history of public engagement in the District.  She has also been less than forthcoming about where she lands in the recent debate about adding SROs to Iowa City schools, and has received substantial donations from SRO advocates.  She’s obviously professional and articulate, but unless she makes it clear that she doesn’t support adding SROs to schools in the district, I can’t recommend her for the school board.

Michael Tilley for School Board!

There’s a lot that I could say about why Michael Tilley is a great choice for the ICCSD School Board.  I want to focus on 3 personal qualities that I’ve observed over the last 6 years that Michael has been deeply engaged in our district. (1) Michael is a passionate advocate for justice and inclusion, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our community.  (2) Michael is devoted to thoughtful, evidence-based decision making, even if that leads to uncomfortable conclusions or reconsidering previous positions. (3). Michael is committed to meaningful public discussion of the issues at stake in a school district, and understands the board’s important role in making sure that policy is informed by these discussions. Please vote for Michael Tilley on November 5th!

Vote for Bruce, and other quick points

As is often the case, I’m coming back to this page after a long hiatus, with any number of relevant items circulating.  Here’s a quick roundup and preview of what I’ll be trying to write more about here soon.

  1. Vote for Bruce Teague:  In the Iowa City special election to replace Kingsley Botchaway on the City Council, I hope people will respond to Bruce Teague’s call to bring every voice to the table.  Bruce offers an inspiring vision of inclusion and pragmatism.  I think he’ll make Iowa City a better place.
  2. Even if I didn’t prefer Bruce, I wouldn’t vote for his opponent, Ann Freerks.  Ann played a central role in the events that led to the very first post on this blog.  She helped copy and distribute a flyer among her fellow residents of the Longfellow neighborhood urging them to fight the ICCSD Diversity Policy.  A couple of months later, as chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, she drafted (or had staffers draft) a policy that would have charged the city with asking the District to alter the policy in such a way that the impact on her neighborhood would have been minimal.  Two members of the P&Z who didn’t see the final policy wrote objections, as did Jim Throgmorton, then councilor and now mayor.
  3. But, the election is today, so I’m not going to end up writing anything that changes anything here.  But I do want to revisit all of this in more detail no matter who wins, because…
  4. Interestingly enough, the District is once again looking at trying to change the deeply segregated state of our elementary schools.  I’m going to write much more about that soon.  The ideas on the table include pairing Twain and Longfellow, making my issues with Ann Freerks even more relevant.
  5. Oh, also, ICCSD Director Phil Hemingway is running on the Republican ticket for County Supervisor.  There are more reasons not to vote for Phil than I can even begin to list here, so I’ll just stop for now and say: Don’t vote for Phil Hemingway!

“A Very Different Elementary School”

I have a number of longer posts brewing, but this should be short enough to dash off.  Unfortunately, it’s not very sweet.

Today at lunch, I was sitting next to some co-workers discussing househunting.  One was excited about a house they’re looking at in Coralville.  After running through a list of (mostly good) qualities of the house itself, the speaker offered this final point:

“And, best of all, this one is right around the corner from Coralville Central Elementary!  The other one was near Kirkwood.  That’s a very different elementary school.”

Kirkwood Elementary is one of the 5 high poverty elementary schools in the ICCSD.  Its the only one of these in Coralville, and the only Elementary school in Coralville with a significant racial minority population. The words “very different elementary school” were accompanied by the kind of head-slightly-downward-and-eyebrows-raised look that says “this is significant and you know why.” Every person at the table was white. The speaker was dressed professionally.  The conversation indicated they had some latitude in choosing where to live, but that money was still a consideration.

I’m not writing this to demonize the speaker in this overheard conversation.  I’m not interested in parsing whether the person making this statement “is” racist or classist.  People share  ideas and fears and worries among friends that don’t reflect their best selves, and these words were not meant for a stranger’s ears.  My interest is the words themselves, though  I don’t want to oversell their evidentiary value, since this is clearly just an anecdote.  But, if I were looking for a textbook example of the kind of decision making that leads to high poverty schools remaining so or getting worse over time, I’d certainly have found one here.

I’m noting this here on the blog not only because segregation and integration in the ICCSD are core concerns, but also because there was some discussion of the Demographic imbalances between schools in the district at the Board meeting last week.  As these discussions continue, its helpful for all involved to remember that the demographics of our school zones are not a steady-state phenomenon, and that we need an active policy approach to keep ordinary people’s ordinary decision making from making these disparities worse.

Athletics and The Bond

I know, I know, it’s election day and by the time anyone sees this, they will likely already have voted. But this is has been rattling around in my head for a while, and I think that whether the Bond passes or fails, it speaks to some of our local attitudes about sports and education.  Spoiler alert: I think that Iowa City area intellectuals (who are, after all, experts on everything under the sun) tend to reflexively undervalue youth sports.  Also, the ICCSD GO Bond doesn’t overemphasize sports and athletic facilities.

Per above, the charge I’m responding to, made by many Vote No advocates, is that the bond spends too much money on sports.  That’s often accompanied by the charge that it doesn’t provide for Vocational and Technical Education, an argument I addressed here.  Sometimes it’s accompanied by the false claim that this athletics spending comes before some low income schools like Kirkwood and Alexander (which are already air conditioned but will get updates to their HVAC systems late in the plan) receive air conditioning.  In other places it’s attached to the more general claim that the FMP and/or the bond puts projects at low income schools last.  I don’t think that this is a fair claim either, given the work at Twain and the construction of Alexander in the very first year of the plan, and the fact that the bond-dependent structures are arranged so that all elementary school space is air conditioned first.  (if there were more days before the election–and thank whatever powers you want that there aren’t–I could write a whole post about the factors affecting the timeline of those projects that make it unwise to read their order purely as a ranked accounting of their “importance”. )

But, absent these unsupportable comparisons, I do want to consider whether it’s fair to say that the bond or the FMP unduly prioritizes athletics.  It’s a fair question to ask about any bond measure, sight unseen, given the place of sports in our popular and collegiate institutional culture. But I think that looking at the timeline and number of projects on the plan, bond and non-bond dependent, shows us that it isn’t true.

First notice that we go 4 years and 12 projects into the FMP before we have a project that even touches athletic facilities, and that project (at West High) also renovates the cafeteria, kitchen, and loading dock.  There is a large athletics project (sports facilities for Liberty High) in the first year of the Bond, which is probably the origin of many of the above claims.  But, even separating the bond-dependent projects from the rest of the plan, we should note that this project is preceded in the same year by work at two elementary schools.  And, looking at all of the bond-dependent projects, only 4 in 20 involve sports facilities, and only the project at Liberty is entirely an athletic facilities project.

in terms of money, the purely-athletic project at Liberty is budgeted at $12,543,905. Beyond that, it’s hard to add up how much money total on the bond is going to sports.  Vote No advocates have been citing a “$30 Million Dollar Sports project” at City High, but that project also includes a classroom addition, cafeteria and kitchen expansion, accessibility improvements, geothermal HVAC update, roof replacement, and lighting renovations.  This is the largest of the projects that involve sports facilities.  Even not teasing out the exact costs though, I feel confident in saying that, if full athletic facilities for a comprehensive high school cost $12 Million, then I doubt that all four of the bond-dependent projects that involve sports put too deep a dint in the total $191 Million price tag.

There’s another point to be made here too though.  I think that it’s very, very easy for Iowa City area intellectuals (like me) to unfairly dismiss youth sports.  After all, we live in a college town that goes sports-crazy during football season. Many of us worry about the amount of institutional gravity that college sports exert (and the institutional energy and dollars they consume) within American universities. It’s easy for us to transfer these worries to the relationship between youth sports and academics, particularly if we didn’t have great experiences with jocks during our own high school years.

These are mostly legitimate concerns, but youth sports are different, and I think, valuable.  On an anecdotal level, I can tell you about what participating in youth sports has meant for my daughter, who has not only learned how to compete with grace and aplomb, and how to bond with and support her teammates in a shared endeavor, but also how to express herself as a unique person through the acquisition, practice, and execution of physical skills.  This has helped grow her confidence and self assurance, brought her in touch with some of her deepest emotions, and made her more comfortable with her physical self.  It’s something to see.

Beyond that, there is plenty of scholarly research supporting the notion that youth sports help many kids who are at-risk for dropping out stay in school by giving them a comfortable avenue for connecting with and identifying with their school. And, there are of course the physical benefits that accrue from sports participation.  And, beyond even that, we have to consider that what’s valued by Iowa City area intellectuals can’t necessarily be the defining, or in this case, constraining, values regarding what is available and what is not in public schools that are meant to serve everyone.  Everyone.

Now, go vote if you haven’t already!

Of Better Bond and Unicorns Pt. 2

One of the recurring themes we hear from the Vote No campaign is that, if this GO Bond fails, then we could easily have another bond up in 6 months, a “better bond.” Usually this unicorn-shaped financial proposal is supposedly smaller, but also somehow includes extra projects, still delivers air conditioning in a timely fashion, and is attractive to voters all across the district.

One of the more concrete “better bond” arguments is the notion that this bond should have been broken up into a series of smaller bonds.  Director Liebig has mounted this as an argument for voting against this bond, despite not making any such proposal to the board during the meetings and work sessions where the current bond was formulated.

Whatever one thinks about the Bond we might have had, former ICCSD BoE Director Jeff McGuiness pointed out the problem with voting down the current Bond proposal in order to get there:

Honest question for those wanting “smaller bonds?” For one, there seems to be a disconnect on what exactly that means. Some seem to want the same proposal but just split up and specific.  Others, including some board candidates, want to redo and rework the whole bond. So, which is it?

Coupled with that, what process do you propose for involving the community in the development of possible plans? How many listening posts and community engagement sessions do you envision? What alternative methods would you propose to getting feedback from those unable to attend? What level of involvement and partnership do you foresee having with our community leaders and municipalities? Will you give them a “seat at the table” so they can be involved and, if so, how many meetings do you foresee with them? Do you plan on having the admin and CFO cost the operational effect of these proposed plans ….namely, the plans effect on class sizes? If you truly feel a new plan can be developed and presented in 6 months I truly want to hear the timeline and process …..unless the “plan” is to just have the board make a decision without any community involvement …….”

These are the kind of hard questions that I’d advise you to ask of anyone who tells you we can have a better bond–that is a better bond that is recognized as such by multiple stakeholders all across the District– in 6 months.  Or a year for that matter.

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I also want to say a few words here about Jeff McGuiness, and about the current state of the ICCSD Board of Education. There were two issues that drew me in to school district politics in the ICCSD in 2012.  One of those was campaigning for air conditioning at Twain elementary, which led into into being engaged in the development of the Facilities Master Plan, and advocating for the Revenue Purpose Statement that funded the first half of that plan.  The other was advocating for the Diversity Policy.  Jeff McGuiness was on the Board of Education for both of these, and I spent a good amount of time being grateful for his presence there, and an equal amount of time being annoyed with him.

I was annoyed because, while Jeff was a strong advocate for the RPS and the FMP and while he spoke in favor of some of the Diversity Policy’s goals, he ultimately voted against the policy, which passed the board on a 4-3 vote.

But, here’s the thing:  After losing that vote, I saw Jeff put his shoulder to the wheel and put real work, intellectual and physical, into getting that policy he had voted against implemented and trying to make sure that was done in a way that truly met the goals of the policy itself and of the people who had voted for it. He spent hours in meetings and work sessions and listening posts and on social media making arguments on behalf of a policy that he’d voted against. He did this because, despite his objections, he saw the good that the policy could do if implemented correctly, and because it was a policy that had been adopted by the board, by vote.

This is unimaginable on the current board, where Directors who lose votes take their case to the local papers, or where they don’t even seem to make an effort to shape policy that they might lose votes on, so they can more effectively undermine it in public.  Its easy enough to sneer at the notion of good board citizenship as some kind of stodgy and limiting protocol.  And its true that individual board members should listen to their consciences regarding policy.  But if this is done without any regard for the will of the board as expressed in votes, then we may as well not have votes at all, as each member simply moves forward regarding adopted policies as they will.  Increasingly, over the last two years, this looks less like conscience at work, and more like ego.

Today, we have the power as voters to fund the last projects on the Facilities Master Plan, and materially improve the lives of thousands of students in our District.  We also have the chance to add Directors to the Board who are willing to work together on solutions to the District’s problems, who understand the kind of give and take necessary for a democratic board in a highly engaged, fractious District, and who will work for all of the families in the District, not just the ones that voted for them or the PACS that funded their campaigns.  Lets do that.

Of Better Bonds and Unicorns Pt. 1

If only Phil Hemingway and Chris Liebig had been on the school board when the GO Bond proposal up for a vote tomorrow (Tuesday, September 12th) had been written.  If that were the case, then the energy they’ve spent writing blog posts and editorials criticizing the Bond proposal could have been spent improving it.  Even if their ideas hadn’t swayed the other board members, they could have at least presented these ideas in public meetings, perhaps even early enough that they could have gathered public support for those ideas and used that support to sway their fellow board members.

Oh, wait…They were.  And they didn’t.

Despite his longtime support for it, and despite multiple opportunities, Director Hemingway did not advocate for Bond language specifying funding for facilities to support vocational and technical education.  And, despite his claims that the lack of language specifying support for special education facilities was a deciding factor in his refusal to back the policy that his Board voted to adopt, Director Hemingway also failed to propose this.

Similarly, Director Liebig has argued that the size of the current bond is due to the district’s “brush off culture” and that the board had missed an opportunity to offer the community a series of smaller bonds. Such an argument would be more convincing to attentive voters if he’d actually proposed a smaller bond rather than just writing a blog post about it.

Fortunately, the facilities created under the bond will make it possible for the District to pursue on-campus technical and vocational education at all three high schools, in conjunction with the resources available at the Kirkwood Regional Center.  Also, fortunately, as former special education teacher and current school board candidate JP Claussen has pointed out, the extra classroom space created by the bond-funded renovations will give special education teachers increased flexibility in serving their students.  And, the excellent special education facilities at Liberty High show that the lack of  specific bond language doesn’t have to be a barrier to the creation of facilities that serve special education students.

Regarding the bond however, we have just the one proposal to say Yes or No to.  And, as Michael Tilley points out, a “No” is unlikely to yield a new and “better” quickly enough to keep from disrupting the FMP timeline and costing the district millions of dollars.  I’ll have more on the disparate and contradictory rationales that Vote No advocates cite in their rationales, and on the realistic prospects of successfully and transparently mounting a new bond in 6 months, later today.  But for now, I want to turn to something I’ve been thinking about for a while regarding Directors Liebig and Hemingway.

I attended the board meeting where the final discussion of the bond proposal took place.  During that debate, neither Hemingway nor Liebig voiced a reason for not voting for the proposed Bond formulation except that they thought it was too big and wouldn’t pass.  This is a legitimate concern.  But, if their overall worry was truly that the bond wouldn’t pass and the projects it supported would be endangered, then their decision to make passage even less secure by not signing on to a proposal that they knew the majority of the board supported makes little sense.

This is purely speculation, but it’s almost as if these two longtime Save Hoover advocates had a different reason for not wanting their fingerprints on a Bond proposal that they never intended to vote for. Perhaps they’re willing to put the fate of one aging building in the way of better learning conditions for students and better working conditions for teachers, but they just didn’t want to make that clear to voters.