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.

“Intolerable Conditions”: Justice, Peace, History, and Context

I’ll be back to regularly scheduled programing next week, but I can’t ignore what’s happening in and radiating out of Ferguson, Missouri after the state grand jury decided that Mike Brown’s life wasn’t even worth a trial. Across the country, protesters are staging demonstrations in solidarity, blocking freeways, and otherwise trying desperately to signal that we simply cannot, if we have any conscience whatsoever, proceed with business as usual, because that business has been revealed to be corrupt and inequitable.  Its hard to get any kind of actual picture of this from any news aggregator as it rolls out, but I’d recommend Alderman Antonio French’s Twitter feed, and Twitter (#ferguson) in general as the best place to pick up news on the ground.

I don’t have the time or the means or the insight to offer any other overarching point, but I do have a few thoughts:

If you want a local connection to Iowa City and its surrounding areas, think about this: two decades ago, Iowa City didn’t have a large enough African American community to even have a “black part of town.” It clearly does now.  In his new book A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City, Robert Gutsche Jr. examines both the demographics that changed, and the role that the press played in assigning public meaning to that ongoing change. Understanding that we’re in the midst of this change is crucial I think for understanding the urgency of desegregating the ICCSD schools by both race and class.  Left unaddressed, our schools and our neighborhoods will only become more segregated, and these problems that the district has decided can’t be fixed without changes that are too disruptive will only become more and more acute. They’re going to be harder to fix later, not easier.

But, as this editorial reminds us, segregation isn’t the only issue at play, and in fact isn’t exactly  the main issue in Ferguson. Ferguson is 60% black and is in many ways less racially homogenous than some surrounding areas.  Instead, its disproportionate representation. Mother Jones runs down the appalling disparities between the governors and the governed in Ferguson.  Locally, Kingsley Botchway’s election to the Iowa City City Council last year is a hopeful step, as his appointment as ICCSD equity director may also turn out to be, but we have a long way to go in integrating our teachers and administrators as well as our police force, and the history of police violence that still echoes through Iowa City should help us see how urgent this is.

The history that leads us to Ferguson and so many other places is complex, and ongoing.  This summer, Ta Nehisi Coates, who might be our most important and accessible public intellectual took a deep dive into that history.  Go read it if you haven’t.  Much more recently, in the pages of Counterpunch, Robin D. G. Kelley, who might deserve the same title, frames the events in Ferguson and a multitude of other tragedies as part of an ongoing low-level war between the state and black and brown communities.  Its harsh, but its real. go read it.

Last, there is and has been a great amount of finger-wagging at the destruction of property last night in Ferguson.  I’m not here to minimize that, as I think its both morally wrong and tactically wrong.  But I understand it, and I think that understanding is aided with some context.  Some of the context for the violence is provided in the links above, but the moralizing deserves its own context.  Why do we decry  irrational destruction in response to a legitimate community tragedy, but turn a blind eye to it when its a response to winning or losing a football game?  Could it be because one affirms and the other threatens our racially lopsided social order? And, why do people continue to try to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their finger wagging when he said this:

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”