Voting Against The Bond Is Not “Progressive” Part 1: Paul Street is wrong.

I’m sorry to see local writer and activist Paul Street join the small group of Iowa City progressives fronting for Republican causes in an effort to vote down the ICCSD GO Bond.  Like most in this same set, he appears to not have seriously engaged with school district issues in any serious or rigorous way up until now, and, once engaged, he seems to have done little digging into those issues.  Instead he’s settled his position into a general frame that posits that anything that could benefit a local developer in part must be a bad idea regardless of who else benefits from the bond passing, or bears the cost of it not passing.

I wish that we could simply hold an old-fashioned barn-raising to put up new schools or renovate old ones, but we can’t.  As long as we slouch along under capitalism, large scale public works projects will generate profits for developers. As such, this doesn’t make a very good sole ground for simply opposing them all, as they can also supply wage work for building and professional trades, improve working conditions for workers within them, and provide serious and longstanding benefit to the community at large and individuals within the community.  And this is particularly the case when those benefits are delivered free to all members of the community and are guaranteed to the most vulnerable among us.  This, all of this, is the case with the projects funded under the bond.

Because I’m pressed for time, I’m going to fill out the rest of this post out with comments I’ve made on social media refuting specific aspects of Mr. Street’s editorial.  I will say that Mr. Street seems to have his heart in the right place politically in many instances.  I hope that he will consider these points and look more deeply into this matter.

Regarding the overall framing, there are some serious problems as well. This 6-month timeline is something I mostly hear from people who have not been engaged in this process until very recently.

Suggesting that a new bond could go back up in 6 months assumes that the reasons for this one failing would be self-evident. But that’s not the case. Some bond opponents object on the basis of cost and want a smaller bond. Other bond opponents have complained about specific projects being left out and want to add those. Others just want the superintendent gone. Others object that their corner of the district isn’t receiving enough money or attention. Just as there is now significant disagreement about what our “highest priorities” are, there will be disagreements during the process of putting together a new bond. If the board and administration go about this rigorously and transparently, as such a process requires, it will take significant amounts of time and energy and community input.

And, as the brand-new board undertakes this process, investigates which of the contradictory demands they want the new bond to be most responsive to, then what happens to the other very important work that Mr. Street points out needs attention from the board and administration? If the bond is voted down it will be harder, not easier, to address those issues as the board and administration scramble to adjust the FMP timelines and rework the plan that the bond funds.

See other posts about the actual likely consequences of the bond being voted down from me, and from friend of the page Michael Tilley.

Regarding developers profiting: I’m more or less a socialist. The day that we can build schools and undertake other large scale public building programs without generating profit for any private entities would be a great day. But that’s not where we are now. But, there are better and worse ways to undertake projects like this under capitalism. This one has the support of developers and real estate interests, but is also has the support of the Teachers Union, the Building Trades union and, in fact, every other local labor group. Its pretty distasteful to see these advocates for working people dismissed as “elites.”

Of course what this piece elides is that there are plenty of elites quietly organized in opposition to this, as local Republicans are more than happy to let a few progressive Democrats front for them while they distribute signs and leaflets for the Vote No effort.

To take Mr. street’s points in order:

First: 1,500 extra seats sounds like a lot, until you consider that we’re talking about a district that now has 14,000 students in it right now, and which gains about 300 students per year. That’s 1,500 seats split up across 24 schools.

Second: It’s more than a little contradictory to, on the one hand, complain that the projects aren’t tied to specific dollar amounts and then, within a sentence, suggest that projects might not be completed due to cost overruns. The kind of uncertainty fearmongered here is exactly why it makes sense to allow the elected School Boards who will oversee this process some flexibility. The bond ties the funding to the plan. Every change in the FMP has been discussed in open meetings and voted on by an elected board. Everyproject in the FMP has been accomplished on time and at or under budget. Specifying dollar amounts would leave the plan much more vulnerable to cost overruns and would mean that, if a project were finished under budget, the money saved couldn’t be spent on a different project under the bond.

Third: Interesting to note that all of those “highest priority projects” are in one area of the District. Voters in Coralville and North Liberty might not agree that these are the highest priorities, especially since that list leaves a whole high school without any athletic facilities, leaves West High with incomplete HVAC, and more. Note also that Mr. Street doesn’t say why this is better, it just is. We live in a large district, with many different priorities and needs spread across a huge area. One of the hallmarks of the FMP is its ability to balance these competing priorities. If not for that, we would still be fighting over whether we should have a new high school or renovate our older schools.

Fourth: There is no closing of “existing core Iowa City neighborhood schools” happening. One such school in Iowa City, one that sits within a mile of 3 other elementary schools and sits on the grounds of a high school, is being closed. The other urban schools are being renovated and invested in. One of the new schools being built is serving a neighborhood that has been bussed in to another school for years. The other is in downtown North Liberty. This is not a case of subsidizing sprawl. I’d like to see more capacity and renovation in Hills, which Mr. Street refers to as “rural Southwest Iowa City”) as well, but its hard to reconcile that with Mr. Street’s urge above for the bond to become smaller. Would this be one of those “highest priority projects?”

Fifth: The FMP does not grant Steve Murley or any other administrator “vast powers.” However anyone feels about the administration, that’s just a bunch of scary talk. As Mr. Street noted himself above, changes in the FMP are made by vote of elected board members. We are 4 years and $155 million dollars into this process, and every project has been carried out as specified int he plan which even Mr. Street recognizes as being changed only by majority vote of the elected board. Certainly there are legitimate complaints to be made about a number of issues in the district. Mr Street identifies several that are crucial for the board and administration to take immediate and thoughtful action on.  Voting down the bond will do nothing to help that, and in fact will put severe impediments in the way of any effort to do so.

Yes, it is a big deal if the GO Bond doesn’t pass.

There are folks in our community who are very busy assuring us that it’s no big deal if the upcoming GO Bond that funds the last half of the Facilities Master Plan doesn’t pass. Tom Carsner’s letter in the Press Citizen is one example. I’ve run into numerous others on social media.  Many (not all) who say this seem to have only recently engaged with school district issues, and most cite the technically true fact that a new and supposedly better) Bond could be put up as soon as 6 months after this one.  Michael Tilley has been following the development and execution of the Facilities Master Plan closely for a long time.  He’s written a post gaming out the probable outcomes of a failed Bond (spoiler, they aren’t good!), including why it would likely take much longer, and what the consequences of a delay of whatever length would be.

Michael’s post is thorough and instructive.  I just want to add a few thoughts to build on it.

  • The point I’d most like people, including Vote No advocates, to consider is the drain that reshuffling the FMP and mounting a new bond would put on the time, energy, and attention of the Board and central administration. This is a not-insignificant amount of work, particularly if it involves research to try to find out what elements need to be changed for a new bond to pass.  There will be 4 brand-new board members who will already be hitting the ground running with a host of issues to contend with, from the need for reform in Special Education, to the achievement gap between white and non-white and between affluent and poor students, to accessibility and standardization of playgrounds across the district, and more.  Many Vote No people cite their unhappiness about these issues as a reason to vote against the Bond, but voting down the bond will only ensure that the board can’t give its full attention to addressing those same issues.

    For context here, we should remember that School Board is an unpaid, volunteer position.  This means that Directors who aren’t independently wealthy (which would be all of them–which is good) have work lives (and family lives, etc.) to contend with outside of the board. I’m not saying this to generate sympathy for people who seek out this position, but to bring home the fact that there are limitations on the board’s time and energy as well as really urgent issues that need attention.

  • Many of the Vote No advocates cite a lack of transparency in board and administration decisions.  At the same time, these same people are also saying that a new plan (allowing for a re-figured list and order of projects) and a new Bond should be developed and put up for a vote in 6 months.  Think again about the impediments to such a process I noted above, and that Michael notes in greater detail, and try to imagine how it could be done with any kind of public input.  And then try to imagine how little other work could get done during that time.
  • Most Vote No advocates suggest that a “better” bond would be smaller, because that would make it more likely to pass.  That seems intuitively correct, but it isn’t necessarily so at all.  A smaller bond still has to clear 60% of the vote to pass, meaning that it’s likely to need votes from all across the District.  But by virtue of being smaller, such a bond would have a hard time including projects from all across the District.  As friend of the page Sara Barron has pointed out, we don’t have a great record of taking care of kids who aren’t our own in this district.  There are fierce geographic rivalries in play.  Even with the current bond, which balances projects in all areas pretty well, I know at least one person from the East side who is refusing to vote for it because it spends any money in the North, and several anonymous commenters on Director Liebig’s blog have argued that the bond spends too much money on the East side. This rivalry has played out poorly in school bond issues before in the district (and well, in about every other kind of issue as well) and it’s easy to imagine it doing the same here for a bond whose projects were limited to one side of the District or another.
  • The last point I’d make here is just that, while many Bond advocates argue for voting against the bond in order to “teach the District a lesson” or as a rebuke to Superintendent Murley, the real consequences will be felt by the kids and the teachers in our schools.