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.

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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.