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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As always seems to happen, I thought I had time to develop some extended thoughts on something, and then all at once, little components of that something start sparking issues that I want to comment on. In this case, the extended thought is about the multipronged strategy that the ICCSD BoE adopted in September to try to address Diversity Policy goals, and the new maps for the schools surrounding Archibald Alexander that are associated with that approach.
One prong of this strategy is a letter sent to the Municipalities within the ICCSD, asking each and the County to “codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.” I’d like to eventually discuss the promises and pitfalls of this tactic in general, but that’ll have to wait. The letter’s been sent, and according to this report in the Press-Citizen, was discussed at the Joint Governance Board on Monday. And there, Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, the most helpful member of the RGB quoted, offers a comment that’s deeply ironic in light of the Board’s approval of a map that makes almost no changes in the economic demographics in the schools in the Southernmost tip of the ICCSD:
Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said from his city’s perspective, housing is a regional issue that requires a regional approach. But he said such a discussion will be a lengthy one, and he hopes it doesn’t distract from the importance of the district implementing the diversity policy in the meantime.
“I don’t know if our children can wait that long,” Hayek said.
So, it comes down to this. The district says “We can’t implement the Diversity Policy until the municipalities make some changes to housing policy, so, we’ll go ahead and approve this map, which makes every school south of Kirkwood Avenue a high-poverty school for the next 5 years, and we’ll send them a letter. And, in response, the executive from the most immediately helpful municipality says “Well, that’s great, but it will probably take us a while to do anything about it, so I sure hope you all move forward with implementing the Diversity Policy instead of waiting on us!
Really. Its like a big game of Hot Potato! but with the education of our poorest kids in our poorest schools at stake.
There are probably simpler ways to do this, but in future columns I am going to need an online linkable reference to this letter, which the ICCSD sent to the associated municipalities that are included in it. So I’m posting it’s text here, without comment, although I did clean up the typo.
Matt Hayek, Mayor of Iowa City
Gerry Kuhl, Mayor of North Liberty
Tim Kemp, Mayor of Hills
John Lundell, Mayor of Coralville
Louise From, Mayor of University Heights
Terrence Neuzil, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors
Dear Elected Officials:
We are writing today on behalf of the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors. At the September 9, 201 Board Meeting, the Board of Directors voted to direct the District to contact the municipalities served by the Iowa City Community School District regarding the housing patterns and city and county housing regulations that impact the District. Specifically, the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors would respectfully ask that each municipality and the county codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.
We understand that the main responsibility of the school system is to educate all children living within our community. We also understand that it is our local municipal governments’ responsibility to manage residential growth. While we are cognizant of the fact that it is not within the scope of the District’s duties to instruct municipalities on housing patterns and zoning regulations, we do know that these decisions have a direct impact on our educational system. Too often, the District is left trying to navigate a contradictory set of zoning regulations in an attempt to best plan for educating the students of one district who reside in six different municipal communities.
We are reaching out in hopes we can address the zoning and housing discrepancies in our community from a collective standpoint and can work together toward a unified solution. The District believes that there is the potential for a better approach that provides greater eneit to our entire community and specifically to our students.
Change of this magnitude will not take place overnight. As a first step, the District requests that each community codify inclusionary zoning in municipal planning. The District would suggest that the municipalities then formulate a joint task force to consider the needs of the community. The District is enthusiastic about being a part of this solution. We look forward to hearing about your work in this area and appreciate your collaboration as we work to educate the students of our community.
Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools
Well, its a good thing that nobody depends on this space for news. I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with the changes in the ICCSD since the late spring. To summarize a couple of big ones: the Board rejected the administration’s final map proposals, and asked the Superintendent to come back in a couple of months with maps that “would lead to better educational outcomes.” That’s an unsatisfyingly vague directive, but its worth noting, on the hopeful side, that the Board did not rescind the Diversity Policy, but instead directed that the superintendent would be freed from meeting its exact numerical goals. I think that’s probably a good thing in the long run, since those goals were impossible to meet in Cluster two, and even getting as close as possible there, and meeting them in Cluster One proved problematic. Michael Tilley, who I’d like to nominate for MVB (Most Valuable Blogger) in the ICCSD, has thoughts about the spirit of the Diversity Policy and why it’s important, here. Michael also has a more recent post, regarding the first round of sketches of maps which the Administration brought to the Board at the last meeting.
I’ll have more to say about those maps, which included either/or proposals for Magnet schools at both Twain and Lincoln later. Suffice to say for now, since my beat is the Southeast Side, that I’m not thrilled that the options for Twain as a magnet likely won’t be implemented in the original time frame, and that the options for Twain as a non-magnet don’t seem to include a notable change in the school’s demographics. And that neither offers much relief for Grant Wood, or Hills.
But, speaking of nominations, this also happened: Board President Sally Hoelscher resigned, effective immediately, a few weeks ago. Since I’m linking to him on everything else, I’ll note that Michael Tilley took this as an opportunity to talk about civility and rational debate as it takes place (or doesn’t but should) in our district. Meanwhile, the Board elected Chris Lynch as the new President and began taking applications for a new member, who they have 30 days (from the former member’s resignation) to appoint. If no appointment is made in the allotted time, a special election is triggered.
There’s been some debate over the question of an appointment over an election. The Press Citizen editorial board split on the question, with some members favoring appointment from a broad field, some favoring appointing Phil Hemingway, the first runner-up in the recent election, and some favoring an election. Chris Liebig has argued that an election is more democratic than an appointment, and therefore better. I see some wisdom there, but am unconvinced. We elect board members to make decisions on our behalf, and according to the bylaws, the appointment of a board member to fill a vacancy is one of those decisions. If we’re accepting a value system that shades things more or less democratic instead of just democratic or not, I still don’t think this is out of bounds, and given how much time we’ve already lost in a very close timetable, I think its more valuable to move forward with an appointment, if The Board can. That’s hardly a foregone conclusion.
In the end, 10 individuals filed applications for the post. One was filed under the name Herbert Hoover. Funny! Of the other 9 currently living and non-pseudonymous filers, 3 were candidates in the last election: Phil Hemingway, Karla Cook, and Jason Lewis, the first, second, and fourth place runner’s up, successively. 5 said that they have no plans to run in the next election, and none said that they definitely did, perhaps because The Board let it be known that they’d give first consideration to applicants not interested in running next time out. Chris remarks in the post above that this would free that board member from “democratic accountability.” That could be true. I’d also argue though that it would weed out candidates merely looking for a launching pad to run from in 2015, and would discourage grandstanding and pandering.
Of those 9 applicants, only two, Orville Townsend and Karla Cook, meet both parts of this criteria, although its far from clear exactly how heavily any individual board members will be weighing either half. Cook also came in behind another applicant, Phil Hemingway, although Phil, despite his excellent attendance record at Board meetings as a community member, lacks prior Board experience. I don’t think that the fact that Cook finished behind Hemingway has to be a point against her. The only binding results form the last election are the winners, and a new election with different candidate might or might not endorse Hemingway so highly. Elections capture the will of a given electorate at a given moment in regard to a given set of candidates, issues, and discourses. But, it does create some noise, and given the tendentious nature of this kind of debate, its possible that The Board may opt for Townsend, who served on the Board in 1986-1989 and has an impressive record of advocacy on the part of minority community members.
The special meeting to try to make an appointment happens today at the ESC. I don’t have a clue how the votes will go, and I’m not making an endorsement here, though I will say that the two candidates who meet the publicly stated criteria are promising. I hope that they can appoint someone, and that it can be done on a 6-0 vote, and that the community member they appoint goes on to help the board do a better job of letting the public know what the implications of the board’s policy choices are, and of publicly weighing the values inherent in those choices.
Update: The Board voted 6-0 to appoint Orville Townsend Sr. to the vacant seat. His application is here. I think this is a good outcome and am pleased to see the board in complete agreement on an important question. I wasn’t there and haven’t seen the tape, but I am hearing that the debate was short. If this weren’t a unanimous choice, I’d be more concerned about that. I think the fact that it was speaks to Mr. Townsend’s impressive record of service and the current members’ shared desire to appoint someone well outside of either of their own rough factions. both factors suggest that he’ll have an positive impact on the Board. Mr. Townsend will be sworn in at the Board meeting tomorrow night.
Second update: Chris, here, asks good questions about the idea of neutrality that some Board members cited in support of their choice of Director Townsend, who I think is being sworn in as I write this. I like Chris’s general point about school board politics being politics in general, and that as such they should be issue-filled. But it seems likely to me that the Directors in question meant Townsend’s neutrality regarding the Board’s current factions, and not regarding any particular issue or ideology or party. I just don’t see any other way to read the idea of him being a “neutral” choice that makes sense. Chris also notes in comments that Townsend has the strong support of the Coalition for Racial Justice. For me, these two things are hopeful signs for Director Townsend’s tenure.