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.
Advertisements

Vote No Fact Check: Tom Carsner’s Letter

Tom Carsner of Iowa City, one of the founders of the Vote No group opposed to the GO Bond, has a letter in the Press Citizen.  I disagree with a number of the letter’s assertions, and there are a few claims that are incorrect. I found myself writing a lengthy fact-check/counterargument on a post on social media, and decided to bring it over here.  Given time I might come back and edit this to include text from Tom’s letter here and save readers the trouble of going back and forth.  For now though, the letter is here, and my raw response is below.

1. Nothing about Alexander Elementary shows the unreliability of projections. Alexander has temporaries because the WRAM (Weighted Resource Allocation Model) put smaller classes there. Smaller classes with the same number of students = more classes & therefore more classrooms.
 
2. 1,500 extra seats sounds like a lot, until you divide it up by the 24 schools in the district, attended by 14,0000 students.  That’s actually less than the recommended 2% for a growing district.
 
3. Lincoln and Hills were not “originally planned to be closed.” There were many, many options considered in the planning process. Its quite a stretch to suggest that anything outside of what was actually approved by the committee and by the board could be described as “planned.”
 
4. If this is broken up into 3 bonds, each one is smaller. But each of those bonds has to get a 60 percent margin across the entire district, despite possibly only offering improvements to one or two parts of the District. Our history on proposals like this is not good, to say the least. The process of planning and mounting these bonds would occupy a significant amount of the board and administration’s time, taking time and energy away from the many, many issues that need to be addressed in the District. This would also add several years to an already lengthy process of addressing facilities needs that are even more longstanding.
 

5. It’s very, very unlikely that a brand-new board, with many other needful projects on its plate, would be able to mount a new bond that it had confidence in getting passed in just 6 months. This is particularly true if we take into account the need to prioritize projects across all three proposed bonds, and the need to gather public input s part of the basis for that prioritization. Michael Tilley predicts it would take two years. I’d agree.

Not only does this mean that students do without facilities longer, it also means that each project gets around 8% a year more expensive due to construction inflation.

 
6. Before even engaging the paragraph about Hoover, we should note that voting down the bond will not re-open Hoover. That would take a board decision. That decision could be made whether or not the bond passes. And, whether or not the bond passes, the board would still have to figure out how to pay for yearly operating expenses for that school and still pay for the operating expenses at both of the new elementary schools opening in neighborhoods that are not as well served by schools as Hoover. We are a “big district” but we are still dependent on the state’s per-pupil allocation to pay teacher and administrator salaries.
 
7. The administration cannot say what the Hoover land will be used for because it hasn’t entered the design phase for the City High project. It would be pretty foolish to spend money on that before we actually have funding for the project itself. Even absent that specific knowledge, its clear that the land will provide flexibility in the design and construction of expansions and additions at City High, flexibility that is important given its much smaller area compared to the other two high schools in the District.
 
8. Schools do provide community. Hoover sits within a mile of 3 other elementary schools and on the grounds of a high school. It’s closure will still leave that neighborhood well served by schools. The two new schools that the bond pays for are in neighborhoods that are comparatively underserved by schools. Certainly these neighborhoods deserve the community building benefits of a school? Certainly these are also “neighborhood schools”?
 
9. Regardless of how one feels about the Superintendent, decisions regarding the Facilities Master Plan are made by elected members of the Board of Education, by vote, in open meetings, following discussions in those meetings and in work sessions. Under the plan we have built $155 million dollars worth of projects in the last 4 years. these projects have been built as specified in the plan, on time, and at or under budget. The bond is not a reward for Superintendent Murlley, and its students and teachers who will suffer the primary consequences if it fails.
 
10. None of the issues listed as a basis for not trusting the administration is more likely to be addressed if the bond doesn’t pass. In fact, given the time and energy that pursuing a new bond and reworking the plan and timeline around new funding would take, its pretty clear that important issues like reforming special education will be harder to address if the bond fails.

ICCSD Summer 2017

As usual when I don’t write in this blog for awhile and then do, events are upon us.  I’m writing this post so I can pretend like I’ve caught everything up here and can just write about what’s going on from this point forward, But, disclaimer: there are important issues that I won’t even touch on here.

There is an upcoming school board election on September 12th.  4 open seats: 3 for 4-year terms and one for a two year term to replace Director LaTasha DeLoach, who resigned for health reasons recently. The 3 Directors whose terms ended are Brian Kirschling, Chris Liebig, and Chris Lynch. None are running for reelection.

The district is also trying to pass General Obligation Bond to fund the last half of the Facilities Master Plan. Projects include one new elementary and renovations or expansions of 11 elementary schools, 2 Junior Highs, and 3 High Schools.  I’m strongly in favor of this, I think it’s important, and I hope you’ll vote for it.  I’ll be writing a lot about this in the coming weeks. Michael Tilley has an excellent series on the bond in 4 parts: Background on the ICCSD GO Bond, What if the Bond Passes? What if the Bond Doesn’t Pass? and Pass the Bond. Please go read those.

There are candidates for all of the open seats.  J.P. Claussen, Janet Godwin, Ruthina Malone, and Shawn Eyestone are all running for 4 year seats.  Charlie Eastham is running for the 2 year seat. Laura Westemeyer, the only candidate not in support of the GO Bond, has been gathering signatures for both.  I’m not certain which she is running for.

Here’s the One Community, One Bond page.  Here’s the District overview of the bond. Here’s a timeline of Facilities Master Plan projects both before and on the bond.  Here’s an overview of the Facilities Master Plan.  there’s a small but vocal group working against the bond. I’m concerned about pervasive misinformation in their public materials, so I’ll mainly be linking to them for illustration and argument.

More soon.

Early dismissal on an 80 degree day? Here’s why.

Earlier today the ICCSD announced that school was being dismissed early due to “excessive heat and humidity.”  Parents, including me, were puzzled.  It’s only 81-82 degrees outside!  I managed to figure out why it makes sense, so I want to lay it out briefly here. Some people are still sincerely puzzled, while others in the ICCSD reacto-sphere are charging forward suggesting that Superintendent Steve Murley made the decision from “his beach house” and that it shows that our kids and teachers lack grit.  Nonsense.

Currently, about 23% of the District’s classrooms aren’t air conditioned.  While its not that hot outside today, its still very hot in those classrooms that lack AC, especially in the upper floors of multi-story buildings. Its been very hot and humid for the 3 days preceding today, and heat builds up.  Opening the windows doesn’t do much good on a hot day like yesterday because it just lets hot air in.  And, we can’t just leave the windows open all night without hiring extra staff to keep the building secure. And, the two days before yesterday were Saturday and Sunday, days when the buildings would have been closed up.

Because of this, many kids and teachers reported this morning to classrooms that were, as of 7:30, already in the mid 80s, even before 22-26 inhabitants brought their body heat into those rooms.  Later in the morning it had climbed to around 90 degrees in the rooms on the third floor of Mann Elementary. Trust me– no significant learning is going to take place in a classroom that hot, especially with nearly 91% humidity. Its like sitting in hot soup.  And more than that, its a health hazard.

I saw someone suggest that maybe only the schools that lack AC could be let out early, but that’s not a workable solution either. The district can’t reconfigure bus routes on a moment’s notice, or drop busses that students depend on.  Nor can we afford to run two sets of busses, with some of each set being empty.  And, if you do that, then the kids in the older schools receive fewer instructional hours than the kids in the modern schools, which is a problem both for educational equity and for state hourly instruction requirements.

I’ve seen lots and lots of hot takes (ha ha!) from angry parents this morning.  I know that this kind of thing causes people real inconveniences.  But this is decision was made based on feedback from teachers and administrators in buildings reporting the actual conditions of those buildings, and its a decision that’s made in order to keep kids safe and healthy.

Fortunately, we won’t have to worry about this after 2019, when the last of the Facilities Master Plan updates finishes, bringing AC to every school in the District.  Or, we won’t as long as the GO Bond passes.

Oh how cute: a blog war with an anonymous Facebook page.

Several of the people in the ICCSD political arena have decided that the best way for them to influence policy is by running anonymous Facebook pages.  The first was the long-running “North Corridor Parents,” which has always claimed to be simply an information-disseminating page, but has a pretty distinct editorial slant, and which has even taken to endorsing candidates.  I’m not sure how that works with their stated mission, or why anyone should care about the endorsement of someone(s) who won’t actually reveal who they are, but hey, its a thing I guess.

The latest entry into this sweepstakes of fail is The ICCSD Monitor: Keeping an Eye on SES Integration In the Iowa City Community School District While Holding Down A Job As A Private Wrestling Tutor For Families Who Can Afford Private Athletics Lessons.  Actually, that’s not the name of it, or at least the last part of the name isn’t accurate.  You probably guessed that though.

I made the mistake of commenting on a thread on that page, mainly because I’m frustrated with a seriously inaccurate revisionist history that’s been floating around.  There are 3 main parts to this history: (1) that there are multiple, easy opportunities for economically desegregating the school district on the elementary level, (2) the people who have been advocating for the 2015 secondary boundaries either have not made any efforts to change those boundaries or have actively worked against them being changed, so (C) therefore they don’t actually care about socioeconomic integration, they are just trying to keep poor people and minorities out of City High.

Now, I can’t speak for every person who ever advocated for that 2015 plan, but I know that (1) is categorically untrue, and that (2) is at least very largely untrue, especially the second half, and that (3) is a spurious attack that would carry little weight even if (2) were true.  Its an attempt to discredit valid arguments about the benefits of SES desegregation of schools by casting doubt on the motivations of the people making those arguments.

So, this is pretty frustrating, especially when shadows of it come out in supposedly respectable venues, such as when Director Chris Liebig characterizes that plan as a plan to remove poor people and minorities from City High, ignoring the fact that the motions and adjustments that he and Directors Roetlin, Hemingway, and (then-Director) Yates made effectively removed a large number of poor people and minorities from Liberty High.* The latter effect, notably has no visible advocates in the ICCSD political circus, though I suspect that a small portion of the advocacy that invokes the transportation burdens of families at Kirkwood and Alexander (burdens not relieved under either plan, as I discussed here) is actually intended to achieve this end.  But that’s just a suspicion.  And, importantly, the fact that this is an unspoken aim of some of those advocates shouldn’t be taken as establishing anything about the character and intentions of the people sincerely advocating out of concern for some of the poorest families in the district. I would hope that it makes them re-think the effects that their advocacy might have on those families, but that’s all.

So, being frustrated with all of this, I posted a comment on a thread calling this out.  The anonymous admin commented back.  I answered him (he’s a him) and posted a link to an entry on my other blog, which I use just to keep track of links to online articles and sources of information. Since then, he’s replied multiple times, attempting to address some of the points made in the articles on my other blog.  I’m not taking the bait.  I’m not going to engage in a dialog with an anonymous FB page.  But, I may pick that dialog up here.  Because of this, I wanted a reference post for those replies, and that’s largely what this is.

*Regarding the title of Director Liebig’s editorial there, yes it should, at least as much as it listens to others.  But, low income families across the district don’t speak in a uniform, homogenized voice, and the voices that he is responding to don’t even necessarily speak for the bulk of the low income families at the two schools in question.

Non-Solutions: The May 10 Boundary Adjustments don’t solve the problems that Claussen, Liebig, Hemingway, and Roetlin claim they do.

One of the questions at the heart of the special school board election is the question of secondary boundaries that the current 6-member board is deadlocked on. Paul Roesler and Janice Weiner favor the boundaries adopted last year after lengthy community input.  These boundaries create something close to a demographic balance by class, and a less-dramatic balance by race, between all three comprehensive high schools in the district.
Candidate JP Claussen favors the adjustments made mid-meeting on a 4-3 vote on May 10th of this year. (It was after this vote that Director Tom Yates, whose campaign Claussen had managed, suddenly left the board, forcing the district to undertake a costly special election.)  Those boundaries would have Liberty High opening as an overwhelmingly white and affluent school, in comparison to the other two schools.

The previous plan created this rough balance by sending two of our highest poverty schools (Kirkwood and Alexander) and two of our lowest poverty schools (Wickham and Lincoln) to secondary feeders that are slightly more distant than their nearest school. Claussen (and current directors Liebig, Hemingway, and Roetlin) argue that we shouldn’t do this because the distance creates an undue burden on those Kirkwood and Alexander families, based on complaints from an unknown number of parents at those schools.  While I would always urge us to listen to the voices of parents at high poverty schools, like the one my child attends, I don’t think that these objections should determine the policy here, and I want to lay out some reasons why.

One thing that I want to make explicit is that the points below about the May 10th changes should be read in dialog with the premise that socioeconomic and racial integration has distinct benefits for every student in the district. There is much research supporting this. So, the arguments below aren’t just criticisms of the May 10 changers, they are arguments that the supposed benefits of those changes are poor trade-offs for the loss of such a benefit.

1. The issue of inadequate transportation to school is serious, and distance is an unfair burden on these families, but the changes made on May 10th don’t actually do anything meaningful to reduce that burden. Both schools are outside of comfortable walking distance to their closest feeders. Families in both zones would be bus-dependent under both scenarios.  Shortening their bus ride by 5 minutes won’t change that.  And in fact, since some of the families in question live within the 3-mile automatic busing radius of their closest feeders, sending them to one slightly farther away guarantees them busing to school that they might not otherwise have.

I want to stop here and do a double take, because it might be the most important of the points I want to make: while distance does create a real burden on families without reliable transportation, the supposed solution here does not actually ease that burden in a significant way, and in fact will increase it in some cases.

2. Regarding Kirkwood, specifically, the argument has been made that there’s no public transportation in North Liberty, where Liberty High is located.  This is true, but I think its significance is vastly overstated.  Taking public transportation to West from the Kirkwood area requires riding a bus to downtown Iowa City and then taking another bus from there to West High.  I suppose that, as long as its possible that this could happen, its wrong to absolutely say that it doesn’t.  But, former Northwest Junior High principal (and current West High principal) Gregg Shoutz has stated in public meetings that its not a resource that Kirkwood families draw upon with any regularity. Moreover, it seems much preferable to me that we demand that North Liberty create a public transportation system–something that would benefit its residents in many ways–instead of demanding that we compromise the educational opportunities of many students in the district.

3. Repeatedly in public statements JP Claussen and directors Liebig, Roetlin, and Hemingway have argued that they represent the interests of Kirkwood and Alexander parents as a whole, or that they represent the families that attend those schools with the least access to transportation.  The first claim is untrue, as neither school’s population is entirely unified on the question, and the second is unverifiable.  In fact, we don’t really, in the public arena, have any hard information about what percentage of the population of each school is making these complaints.  Some kind of quantification here would be helpful in determining what is or isn’t at stake in this trade off.

4. While the distances between these elementary zones and their high school destinations don’t differ much between the two plans, the distances to the Junior Highs are a concern.  This is particularly true of Kirkwood, which sits literally right next to Northwest Junior High, West’s feeder, but is a good distance from North Central, which feeds to Liberty.  Because of this, the original boundaries allowed Kirkwood students to choose which Junior High they would attend.  I think that similar modifications for Alexander, and perhaps for another feeder that would split between city and liberty, would make this set up less unique and make the entire plan more palatable, while still maintaining overall demographic balance at the high school level.

5. Advocates for the May 10 boundaries have repeatedly argued that low income students will be barred from participating in extracurricular activities under the previous boundaries.  They fail to notice that Hills is more distant from City and West than either of these schools are from their previous destinations, but has been assigned at different times to both City and West.  There have been no reports of Hills students being barred from extracurricular participation to my knowledge.

6. Advocates for the May 10 boundaries are fond of saying that it achieves demographic balance “at the expense of poor people” or asking when we will bus affluent kids to distant schools.  In doing so, they neglect the fact that Wickham and Lincoln were bused to more distant schools under the those borders, and that the May 10th changes threaten our ability to maintain that, by creating crowding at City and West and in their associated Junior Highs.

7. JP Claussen has argued that, rather than trying to create balanced attendance zones we should achieve demographic balance on the secondary level by  making each high school a kind of magnet, with specialized curricula, and allowing a greater degree of parental choice.  This actually deserves to be unpacked more fully, and I intend to do that, but here I want to note one of the problems with such an effort: it would require busing on a much larger and much more expensive scale than anything contemplated previously, and families without dependable transportation would be faced with much more dramatic distances to school than anything contemplated in last year’s borders.  Imagine that you’re in the Twain zone, and Liberty is a stem-focused campus and you wish to attend.  How much does it cost to make sure every kid like that has busing to the school of their choice?  What are the options for a family like that if they miss the bus?

In general, this last point underscores my worries about Claussen’s candidacy.  He has much enthusiasm for ideas that are noble and interesting, but seems unwilling to delve into the implications of specific policy proposals.  This is particularly problematic given that he would be the deciding vote on the question of secondary boundaries considered here.

Busing, Neighborhood Schools, and Quotas: Anti-Integration Rhetoric Making a Comeback in the ICCSD

As always, events continue apace with little or no consideration of whether or not I have time to right about them. I’ve been meaning to do a comprehensive post about the ICCSD School Board’s struggle with secondary boundaries, but matters pertaining to that keep coming up while that post is still under construction.

In a nutshell: last year, the Board set a secondary boundary plan in place that created a relative demographic balance of wealth, English Language Learner status, and special education status between all three comprehensive secondary schools in the district. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, (more on that later) but it was based on an extensive community input process and much board deliberation, and measures were put in place to ease the burdens of some low income students.  This May, a group of four board members approved a series of motions overturning key parts of that boundary plan, essentially creating a new set of secondary boundaries mid-meeting, while asking the superintendent for on-the-spot calculations regarding the demographic outcomes.  Unsurprisingly, this plan greatly increases the wealth and race-based disparities between the secondary schools in the district.

One of those four board members, Phil Hemingway, has a Letter to the Editor in today’s Daily Iowan.  It doesn’t specifically address the secondary boundary plan by name, but, the board is deadlocked 3-3 on this plan until next week’s Special Election, and the major point of contention in that deadlock is the question of whether two high-poverty schools (Alexander and Kirkwood) should feed into high schools slightly farther than those closest to them. Given this, its hard to see it as anything but a comment on that matter.

There’s really a lot in Phil’s letter that needs disputing, from the conflation of boundary changes for integration as busing, to the overstating of the costs of busing, to the implicit claim that sending extra resources into high poverty schools is as effective and as cost-effective as integrating them.  But what really sticks out to me on first reading is Phil’s use of language.  What’s below started out as a comment on the article itself online.  I’m adapting it here to include some references and to make it more cohesive.

Phil Hemingway’s use of words like “busing,” neighborhood schools” and “quotas is pure Nixonism.  A recent article in slate delves into how “controversies over “forced busing” [have] allowed racist school policies to persist in the north.” The term “neighborhood schools” itself was originally coined and popularized rhetorically in the fight against school integration, as a kinder, gentler way of saying “segregated schools.”  Phil’s reference to “quotas” is similarly drawn from the struggle to resist affirmative action. Iowa City liberals and progressives should have enough sense of history to do more than smile and nod when Phil says stuff like this.
 
It’s also worth noting that, per my nutshell explanation earlier, what the Board is currently at a standstill on is secondary boundaries. Its impossible for any one of the 3 high schools or 3 junior highs in the district to be a “neighborhood school” for anything but the tiniest minority of students whose families are lucky enough to own property very close to the school. Phil’s support of boundaries that increase the disparities between secondary schools has nothing to do with “neighborhood schools.”
 
The weighted resource model that Phil favors in his letter is a good partial solution. But not only does it perpetuate segregation in the long run if its used as the only solution, its simply not practical or politically sustainable in the long run. Making the class sizes small enough to do any good in high poverty schools depends on having enough available classrooms, which is not always the case. And, because we have to use state-allocated money to pay teachers, we can only make those classes so small, and in doing so, the class sizes in affluent schools will go up. As an outcome, that’s fine. But its highly unlikely to be politically sustainable, as parents in those affluent schools have more time and money to organize and advocate for their schools than parents in high poverty schools.
 
As a board member and a longtime school finance watchdog, Phil Hemingway should understand the mechanics and the politics of school funding well enough to see the flaws in such an approach.  As a community, we should have a deep enough sense of history to hear what’s going on in the rhetoric that he is using and reject it.  I wish I was more confident that either of these things was likely to happen.