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.


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.

School Board Candidates and the Bond

While I’m far from done posting about the GO Bond, I want to use this space to talk a little bit about candidates in the upcoming school board election. I’m planning to do at least short entries on each of the 7 candidates that are vying for positions on the board.  Today though, I want to talk briefly about the general field of candidates and the GO Bond, and to make some recommendations.

In general, I strongly recommend that you vote for candidates who are using their platforms to urge passage of the bond. It’s certainly not the only issue in this election, or the only issue facing the District, but it is preeminent in terms of timeliness, and it’s adoption puts the new board on better footing to address other issues.  Because the bond requires a 60% approval in order to pass, the question of how candidates are using the spotlight they gain from running is important. Candidates who urge voters to pass the Bond demonstrate a clear understanding of these points.

Happily for me, (and I hope for all of you as well) the candidates who publicly and vocally support the Bond are also the candidates who are most qualified to address the District’s other issues going forward. Unhappily for me (but happily for the District, because one of these two will definitely be seated on the board) two of these candidates are running against each other.

These two candidates are Charlie Eastham and Shawn Eyestone.  I have worked beside Shawn in the District Parents Organization for years, and I have supported him since he declared his candidacy.  I have a sign for him in my yard and I respect his judgment, temperament, and knowledge of district issues a great deal.  I have seen Charlie Eastham at school board meetings, work sessions, and listening posts often over the years, and have come to greatly respect his nuanced understanding of equity.  I was overjoyed when I heard he was entering the race, but the fact that he and Shawn are competing for the same 2-year seat is unfortunate.

In the race for the 3 four year seats, JP Claussen, Janet Godwin, and Ruthina Malone have all urged passage of the bond and have made strong, clear arguments on its behalf.  Each has also demonstrated qualities that would do them well in the process of overseeing implementation of projects on the Facilities Master Plan. Godwin and Malone have both articulated detailed and holistic visions regarding the challenges facing the District and how the board can align itself best to address those challenges. Malone has paid particular attention to the relationships between the Board, administration, and families, and Godwin shows a great understanding of what it takes to make a public board work effectively. Both have professional backgrounds that prepare them well for this work.  Claussen brings great passion to the table, and the knowledge and experience gained by being a special education teacher in our District.  Since his last run for Board, he seems to have abetted his passion with a commitment to listening to and responding thoughtfully to opposing viewpoints.

Karen Woltman, who is also running for a 4-year seat, has not taken a public position on the passage of the bond, saying only that she will “abide by the will of the voters.”  I have friends who have great respect for her thoughts on issues of curriculum and instruction, but I’m dismayed by Woltman’s ambiguous stance here. Any director elected will have to abide by the will of the voters wrt the GO Bond. If someone doesn’t have or won’t offer an unambiguous position on such an important issue, then I’m not inclined to vote to put them in charge of the disposition of said issue. I do agree with her stated desire to move the board’s focus away from buildings and towards learning, but that goal would be better served by passing the bond than not doing so.

Laura Westemeyer is, at least, clear in her opposition to the Bond.  Her initial statements, suggesting that this bond needed to be put forth under a new set of directors, made it seem that she did not quite understand her own role if elected regarding the bond’s implementation.  She’s since clarified that what she wants is to be part of a board that writes a new bond, with said new bond adding an elementary school in the North, revisiting Hills Elementary, and also somehow being smaller than the current ask. Her statements regarding schools being left out of the bond don’t show much familiarity with the work already done on the Facilities Master Plan (and therefore not needing to be paid for with bonding authority).  I have other reservations about Westemeyer, including  an apparent contradiction between her vocal advocacy for the rights of disabled students in this race, and her citation for unlawfully denying a disabled tenant permission to keep a service animal.

Given what I’ve argued above, I urge you to see support for the GO Bond as a bright line between candidates in this election.

Vote Yes on September 12

Just before the deadline, I submitted a guest editorial to the Press-Citizen.  Below is an expanded version of that editorial.

On August 23rd of this year I sent my daughter off to an air-conditioned school with a full size gym, beautiful dedicated art and music rooms, and plenty of classroom space. But it wasn’t always this way.

Just a few years ago, Mark Twain Elementary lacked air conditioning, so on hot days, where it could reach 90 degrees inside the building before 10:00, teachers rotated groups of sweaty students through the cool of the library, or tried to teach over the roar of whirring fans. If school was let out early due to heat, children whose parents couldn’t get off work to pick them up had to find shelter with friends or relatives, or simply walk home to empty houses because our BASP program had to be cancelled as well.

The school used the same multi-purpose room for a gym that it did for lunch. This limited what activities our gym teacher could safely offer students, and meant that we could never have all of the parents in our school community attend an assembly. Our art teacher carried gallon jugs of water out to the trailer shared with music classes, because the trailer didn’t have a sink. The school was so crowded that classes were larger than they were supposed to be because there weren’t enough classrooms.

The Facilities Master Plan, adopted by the District in 2013 after a long process of community input and evaluation, transformed Twain made a difference and the lives of its students and teachers. Not only was the building renovated, but the opening of Alexander Elementary relieved significant overcrowding at Twain and at Grant Wood. Over the past 4 years, the FMP has delivered crucial updates to schools on all sides of the district and brought a new elementary school and a new high school into existence.

But there is more to do. Decades of deferred renovation have left many of our older schools in the same shape that Twain was in, the new high school lacks athletic facilities and is only 2/3 the capacity of the other two, and our rapidly growing district needs at least one more elementary school, quickly. There are concrete plans and a time table for these projects in the FMP, but in order to fund them we need to turn out as a community on September 12th and vote YES for the ICCSD General Obligation Bond.

The work done at Twain offers a good example of what we can expect from the projects at other schools.  The principal and teachers were consulted in the design phase, and thanks to their recommendations there is a bathroom in-between the two new kindergarten classrooms, and the art and music rooms are located far enough away from the other classrooms that the music won’t disturb other classes.  The art and music rooms have high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, letting in plenty of natural light and creating an inspiring, comfortable environment for creativity.  They also have storage for art supplies and instruments. The gym features full size basketball goals on all sides, and a climbing wall, and is large enough that we can invite the entire Twain community to an assembly.  The geothermal heating and air conditioning system is tremendously efficient and will save the district money versus conventional electrical systems over the long haul.  And, our BASP can offer families that attend Twain convenient, affordable childcare in the summer as opposed to having the building sit empty 3 months out of the year.

Of course having AC at Twain doesn’t mean an end to early outs, but if the bond is passed, all elementary schools in the ICCSD will have AC by 2019, and all secondary schools by 2020.  And, by rescheduling bus routes, the District will be able to keep elementary schools open the full day in 2019, while letting secondary schools out early.

Critics will tell you that the bond is large. That’s true. It’s big because the needs are big. But despite its size, it will only require a small increase in property taxes, approximately $4.25 per month per $100,000 of your home’s assessed value. And, even after it passes, our school taxes will still be lower than those of any large district in the state.

Critics will tell you that the language on the bond is vague, and that we shouldn’t trust the administration with this much money. But the language on the bond ties the funding to the projects outlined on the Facilities Master Plan. Every project on this plan over the past four years has been completed on time and at or under budget and according to the plan.  Changes to the plan have been made not by the administration, but by our elected school board, by vote in open meetings following discussion.

Critics will tell you that we could have a better bond in 6 months. But the lengthy process by which we arrived at this one makes it unlikely that could be done in a responsible and transparent way, even if we could all agree on what a “better” bond would look like. People urging the community to Vote No have decried the bond’s size while simultaneously urging the addition of things like a second renovation at Hills and a second North Liberty elementary school (both of which we will need at some point), and claiming that they value air conditioning and other elementary upgrades. The idea that the new board and administration could sort through these mixed messages and create a new funding plan that would appeal to 60% of voters all across the district while also rewriting the FMP around that funding mechanism is deeply impractical. The most likely consequence of the bond failing is a delay of at least a year or two, and every year we delay adds to the cost, meaning we would end up paying more to achieve less.

A smaller bond would be less expensive by definition, but it would also accomplish less.  And, it would be harder to craft a smaller bond that appealed to each side of the District. The Facilities Master Plan was originally created to end a bitter political divide over spending priorities on District facilities . Residents on the east side side of the District, where a new school had not been built since 1978, campaigned for renovations and repairs to aging schools.  Residents to the west and north stumped for a third comprehensive high school to relieve secondary overcrowding.  Both sides pointed to the need for new elementary schools to house growing populations. The dispute was haunted by decades of east-west rivalries, including an early bond vote where the then-much-more-populous Iowa City voted down a bond that would have built athletic facilities at West High.

The aim of the Facilities Master Plan was to address all of these needs, and to undercut the competition for spending across the District by giving each of the geographic rival factions a stake. Because the cost of all of the work that needed to be done was too high to pay for with money borrowed against future sales tax under the 2013 Revenue Purpose Statement (RPS), a bond was planned from the beginning, and projects were arranged on the timeline so that every corner of the district has a stake in the Bond passing. Replicating this appeal with a smaller bond constructed in just a few months is unlikely.

Critics argue that there are other pressing issues across the District that need attention, from closing achievement gaps to reforming special education. They are correct. But this only means that it is even more crucial that we pass this bond now, so that work on these projects continues apace while the board turns its full attention to these matters.

Passing the bond will make sure that all of our elementary schools are air conditioned by 2019, and all of our secondary schools by 2020. Passing the bond will put our teachers in better working conditions. Passing the bond will make sure that all of our comprehensive high schools have equivalent capacity and equitable facilities. Passing the bond means that we can get to work on so many other things that need to be addressed. Passing the bond is an investment in our future that will serve our community for decades to come. Please Vote Yes on September 12th.