Monday, March 09, 2009

Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools

March 9, 2009, 8:30 a.m., 4:45 p.m. (links and other additions/modifications)

Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking
(brought to you by*)

[See also, Nicholas Johnson, "Demolition Disaster," March 10, 2009,
"Citizen's Guide to to the options surrounding Roosevelt-Horn-Weber-Kirkwood and the proposed school at 'The Crossings' / Camp Cardinal Road School," from We Love Our Neighborhood Schools.]

The School Board and Superintendent want to demolish Roosevelt Elementary. I disagree.

(Disclosure: Although I did not attend Roosevelt myself, and am neither a Roosevelt parent nor a "Myrtle Orchard Neighborhood" resident, I do live in the adjacent "Melrose Neighborhood," which also looks to Roosevelt as its "neighborhood school.")

From 1998 to 2001 I served as a member of the Iowa City Community School District School Board.

Since that time, while I have of course maintained an interest in K-12 education generally, in this country and beyond, and in our District in particular, I have mostly maintained a respectful silence with regard to the actions of my successors.

Having served on the Board I have some sympathy for those holding the job of which I once said, "well, it may not pay anything, but at least you get a lot of grief." It's not my desire to add to that grief.

But the District's recent decision (something between an "inclination" and what some insiders report as being "a done deal") to tear down Roosevelt Elementary School caused me to attend a public meeting last Saturday, March 7, and to publish this blog entry today. (Some of the Board's overall planning can be found in its Iowa City Community School District, "Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan," 96 pp., undated (a pdf file).)

One of the features of Saturday's gathering was small group meetings at which we were to list what we considered to be the "pros" and "cons" of the Roosevelt demolition. The group I was in noted the following (that is, this is not necessarily my personal list):

Pros: the proposal brought the community together to talk about K-12 education in general and socio-economic issues in particular (the disparity between schools regarding the percentages of "free-and-reduced lunch" (i.e., low income) students).


Student safety and walking distance. Many Roosevelt students would need to walk farther and along more dangerous routes (e.g., busy street crossings) to reach a different school. They will be farther from downtown cultural events.

Parental participation. Parental participation in schools enhances their children's education -- some say it is the single most important factor. Parental participation is increased when parents, as well as students, can easily walk to school. This is especially true for many of the low income parents whose children attend Roosevelt, parents who may not even have cars. Increased distance will tend to further remove these parents from connection with their children's activities and education.

Insufficient system-wide planning, public participation, and diversity balance. Diversity balance requires redrawing all school boundaries throughout the District, not just those for two or three schools. (One obvious way to minimize the disruption this would cause, thereby making it more politically feasible, would be to announce the new boundary-drawing principles (and resulting boundaries as of now) -- but withhold their implementation for six or seven years, thereby removing any impact whatsoever on children now in school. For more on this approach, see my earlier writing on boundaries, linked at the bottom of this blog entry. Obviously, had this suggestion been followed when I was on the Board those boundaries, with more boundary flexibility for the Board and Administration, would now be in place.)

To plan a new school (Crossings), knowing that it will be 40% low income (the District average is 28%) seems contrary to the Board's professed goal of improving balance. The Board needs to plan for construction of new schools beyond five years. It needs to provide for more public participation on the front end of this planning.

Uneconomic. With new schools costing millions, to renovate Roosevelt for $900,000 is a cheap price to pay for a "new" school. The "substitute Roosevelt" at the "Crossings" location may be subject to the same kind of cost overruns suffered by the Van Allen school -- making renovation of Roosevelt an even better bargain. Especially given present economic conditions it seems wasteful in the extreme to choose this time to demolish a neighborhood school only to have to spend millions on another school to replace it. Moreover, the additional cost of the demolition itself is not inconsequential and will either be an added cost to the District, if it intends to use the property for some other purpose, or a reduction in the selling price of the property if it is sold to developers who must bear that cost.

Flexibility in renovation costs. The study of Roosevelt renovation costs identifies levels of priority in tasks. Shive Hattery, "Roosevelt Elementary School Assessment," February 13, 2008 (a pdf file). If only the highest priority renovations are made the costs could be even less than the $900,000 referred to above. Lower priority renovations could be done later, in better economic times, while still permitting the building to be used. On the other hand, if every possible change and improvement is made, and additions to the building are constructed, obviously the costs could range upward of $5 or 6 million. Thus, while there is tremendous flexibility in the potential costs of whatever might be done with Roosevelt, they will be by any measure far less than the cost of a new school.

Failure to consider wide range of options; e.g., possibility of Roosevelt-Horn linkage such as K-3 in one school and 4-6 in the other (as both schools are relatively close). The small group making this list felt that the Board had not done an adequate or creative job of considering all the options that would include the preservation of Roosevelt. At the present time low income students are bussed past Horn on their way to Roosevelt! The result is that Roosevelt has one of the highest percentages of low income students (54%) and Horn has one of the lowest (12%).(See, Iowa City Community School District, "Frequently Asked Questions #1; Proposed Strategic Facility Improvement Plan and Roosevelt/Weber/Horn/Kirkwood Recommendation," March 4, 2009, "8. What will be the socioeconomic and racial balance among the schools?") If the Board honestly wants to improve District diversity an obvious answer would be to bus those students to Horn, thereby improving the ratios at both schools.

Removal of family resource center. Roosevelt provides a Family Resource Center for a student population in need of one. It would be lost (or at least there is no clear plan for providing one) for these students following Roosevelt's demolition.

Transition problems. There would be a two-year delay getting benefits to current Roosevelt students.

Finally -- and I deliberately list it "finally" here, because while it involves values that indirectly impact on people of all ages currently a part of the "Roosevelt family," this concern of the Myrtle-Orchard Neighborhood residents in our small group is not "educational" in the narrow sense --

The adverse impact on the "Melrose-Orchard" and "Melrose" neighborhoods. There is reason to believe that if Roosevelt is abandoned by the ICCSD its nine-acre plot would be acquired by developers who would fill it with condos, apartment buildings, or stand-alone homes. This would be a double whammy for two Iowa City neighborhoods that are already fragile. (Melrose Neighborhood is subject to constant invasion by the University from the north.)

A "neighborhood" is in many ways defined by the existence of its "neighborhood school" (rather than the other way around). For a neighborhood to lose its neighborhood school is an enormous whammy to its identity. This is only made worse when developers are permitted to take over an open, green, distinctive location and structure and turn it into more of the same-old, same-old that has already caused a loss of the neighborhood's "character." (There is, for example, a nature trail through a wooded ravine on the Roosevelt property, a kind of park, used by neighborhood residents as well as Roosevelt children.)

The above are points made by members of the small group I attended -- points I agree with for the most part, but were for the most part not my contributions.

There were many more points made by reporters for other groups that will, hopefully, soon be transcribed and available on the District's Web site.

To them I would add a couple more.

School size. It is somewhat bizarre that one of the arguments put forward by the Board for demolishing Roosevelt is its "small class size," given that smaller class (and school) size is universally heralded as a desirable goal even for high schools (a range of 600-800 students), let alone elementary schools (300 students). A part of the plan is to expand Horn Elementary -- necessitated in part because of the proposed demolition of Roosevelt. But that is simply the worst of all possible worlds -- losing the desirable school and class size of Roosevelt, while making worse the school size of Horn. (On the other hand, especially given the two empty classrooms at Horn, this is just another reason for dropping off some of the low income students at Horn rather than bussing them by Horn on their way to Roosevelt, see "Failure to consider wide range of options," above.)

Other schools, other neighborhoods. Roosevelt, built in the early 1930s, is certainly not Iowa City's oldest school. If it is to be demolished should we assume those other older schools, which also need remodeling, will be torn down as well? In that case, all the concerns about Roosevelt -- and the impact on its neighborhood/s -- will only be multiplied many times over. And, if they are not to be torn down, what is the rationale for choosing only Roosevelt? Is it possible that schools in more affluent neighborhoods, such as Lincoln, populated by influential parents, have been better maintained over the years than a school like Roosevelt, with its less affluent and influential parents?

Broken SILO promises. Promises were made by the School Board at the time of the District citizens' vote to increase their taxes to provide the District SILO funds for new schools. In addition to new school construction, the vote passed in large measure (one can safely assume) because of promises that the money would be used to refurbish and remodel the older neighborhood schools.

On February 2, 2007, an op ed column "by Iowa City School Board" appeared in the Press-Citizen explaining "How to Spend SILO Funds." It expressly stated:
The district estimates more than $147 million in priority infrastructure projects over the next 10 years. SILO funds would enable us to make improvements to our buildings that serve our students. There are inequities between buildings constructed in 2005 and those built in preceding decades (some dating to 1917). Those inequities include cost efficiency, handicapped accessibility, gyms and science labs, climate controls, air conditioning, air quality, lighting and overall learning environment. Repair, maintenance and accessibility needs have been deferred for many years because we have lacked the necessary funds. If the SILO sales tax is approved, the district will over time be able to improve the learning environments of our students. (emphasis supplied)
Iowa City School Board, "How to Spend SILO Funds," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 2, 2007, on Web site, "How SILO Funding was Promoted in 2007," We Love Our Neighborhood Schools, March 4, 2009.

There was no mention of the demolition of Roosevelt -- or any other school for that matter -- indeed, quite the contrary. It is troubling that the Board would now fail to honor the representations, relied upon by voters, made by the Board in its effort to obtain the passage of the SILO referendum a mere two years ago.

Development. I hate to even mention this, and I'm certainly not asserting any wrongdoing, but it can't go without comment.

This plan hits a double for local developers.

The Cardinal Road/Crossing development (which, in my opinion, should have been retained by the City/County as greenbelt land in the first place) will receive an enormous economic boost by the sales force being able to tell potential home buyers that their children will be able to attend, within walking distance, one of Iowa City's newest, and most modern schools. That's worth a lot in an escalation in home prices, and presumably is one explanation for the developer's "generous" offer to make the land for the school available "free."

Moreover, the demolition of Roosevelt opens up for the same, or other, developers the opportunity to buy, develop and sell off one of the most prime pieces of land on the West side of town.

I'm not suggesting Roosevelt's demolition, and the new Camp Cardinal ("Crossings") school, are being proposed to enrich a developer -- let alone anything worse. But when public entities (in this case, a school board) are involved in creating millions of dollars of private profit (for, in this case, developers), while destroying a neighborhood school, dealing a heavy blow to two neighborhoods, and throwing the burden on the backs of the children and parents least able to represent themselves, it does deserve a very, very close look.

Economic downturn impact on Camp Cardinal development. Finally, it should be noted that the Camp Cardinal housing development was planned before the recent economic downturn. Home sales are never a slam dunk in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. Some consideration needs to be given to the possibility/probability that the "Crossings" school might end up finding itself to be a "neighborhood school" without a neighborhood.

Earlier, Related Writing

Over 80 regular Press-Citizen columns (during term as school board member) dealing with K-12 issues; e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "We Can Direct Coming Changes," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 26, 2000, p. 9A

Nicholas Johnson, "Boundaries: An Opening Think Piece," November 14, 1999 Ver. 3.0

Nicholas Johnson, "Quick Fixes Are Too Disruptive," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 23, 1999, p. 15A (boundary setting)

Nicholas Johnson, "Reality: We Just Can't Have it All," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 27, 2001, p. 7A (how to create equity/equality in class sizes across the District)

Nicholas Johnson, "Educational Opportunities and Class Size Equity: A Proposal for the Iowa City Community School District Board," March 25, 2001

Nicholas Johnson, "Smaller Schools Are Better," Iowa City Press-Citizen," August 28, 2001, p. 9A, in "K-12 Alternatives to Calling Police," July 2, 2007

Nicholas Johnson, "The SILO Sales Tax for K-12 Schools" in "UI Held Hostage Day 379 - Feb. 4," February 4, 2007

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Anonymous said...

I read your article. I enjoyed reading. Please add more comments. You might consider questioning the accuracy of the costing process. The construction estimates presented to the public for the last 10 years were highly indepth and low in compared to final costs. Cost estimating for the Roosevelt upgrades and the Horn addition were not presented in detail. To think they sufficiently and accurately estimated is questionable. The document shown to the board at the March 10 meeting appeared to be an 8.5 x 11 sketch. Construction details for the public might allow for viable discussion between interested parties.

I encourage all readers to take an interest in local school business. I'm sure your employer takes an interest in your work.

Anonymous said...

Your comments about cost estimations and real costs are so true! How could we have seen the overspending of the bond issue and not anticipated difficulties down the road. Now the District says it is looking for ways to decrease the spending and lays off the District Safety Coordinator and closes the Print Shop while creating yet another supervisory position for the Physical Plant in the same category the other, now laid off, employees were in. Giving the safety duties to a person not trained in safety doesn't make me feel that the District really cares about the physical safety of its children or its staff and who's doing the printing and laminating now. So far I haven't heard my child's teacher say anything good about that bit of outsourcing. And what about outsourcing? It sounds to me that is the direction the PP is going, but why do they need more and more supervisors to oversee outsourcing? Also, wasn't the Physical Plant overseeing the bond issue buildings? That's one more teacher who will be laid off, but I haven't heard any outrage on that one!