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.

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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.

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.

Hot Potato!

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.

ICCSD Letter to the Municipalities

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.
To:
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.
Sincerely,

Chris Lynch
Board President

Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools