Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Demolition Disaster

March 10, 2009, 7:30 a.m.

Come Let Us Reason Together
(brought to you by FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com*)

Yesterday I reported on our local school board's open public forum, March 7, regarding its proposed demolition of Roosevelt Elementary School, and my small group's negative reactions to the idea on that occasion. Nicholas Johnson, "Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009, 8:30 a.m., edited with additional links and comments at 4:45 p.m.

I have written enough, on a variety of subjects, over the years that it is no longer uncommon for me to Google a subject in the course of research and discover I've already written about it in a prior document I'd long since forgotten.

This morning I am indebted to Ed Stone for bringing to my attention a document I helped draft nine years ago that I wished I'd recalled, and included in my blog entry, yesterday. Ed Stone, "Revisit 2000 Long-Range Plan," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 10, 2009, p. A9.

One of my efforts as a member of our local school board (1998-2001) was to try to bring some rational analysis to the governance and policy making process of the board itself. (We ended up choosing, studying, and implementing the John Carver model. For more see, Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice.")

As one of a number of consequences of that reconfiguration of Board-Superintendent relations, the Board addressed and ultimately approved the document to which Ed Stone refers -- a document it turns out he (but not I) found on my own Web site! (The Press-Citizen includes excerpts from the document in the hard copy edition, and a link to the entire document in the online edition.)

It's titled, simply, "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters, An ICCSD Board Document, Approved April 11, 2000." [And see, "Appendix: Evolution of the ICCSD Board's February 2002 Proposal for District Boundaries and Educational Opportunities -- A Bibliography," Draft February 15, 2002.]

I have observed over my years in Washington and elsewhere that (a) when civil, intelligent, informed, and independent individuals get together (i.e., persons not representing clients, causes or ideologies), and freely explore, discuss and propose solutions to a public policy challenge, they often (not always, but often) end up coming to consensus, and that (b) when other, similarly constituted groups engage in a similar exercise they will, more often than not, come up with the same (or very similar) consensus as the first group..

So it is when one compares the contents of the "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters" document of 2000 with the objections raised to the Roosevelt demolition plan in 2009 by the small groups reporting to last Saturday's assembled citizens (including the concerns I reported in my blog entry yesterday).

Here is the entirety of the Board's impressively brief "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters" policy and governance document:

Long Range Planning Process and Parameters
An ICCSD Board Document
Approved April 11, 2000

Long range planning. We want to take advantage of this somewhat unique opportunity to begin an ongoing effort to envision many aspects of the ICCSD five to ten years out, not merely come up with “boundaries” and lines on a map. Many of these options or proposals will have implications for buildings, boundaries and programs; others will not.

Research. We want our decisions, and those of the Superintendent, to be research-based. By this we mean not only the best demographic projections and other District data available, but also the alternatives, experience and best practices reflected in the literature and Internet-published material.

Optimum school size. The Board expressly requests from the Superintendent a research-based report regarding the optimum range of elementary and secondary schools’ enrollment from the standpoint both of cost (schools that are too small) and educational and social values (schools that are too large).

Community communication and concerns. We want to make every effort to minimize unnecessary community concerns during the course of our deliberations and those of the Superintendent. We need the freedom to be able to consider the widest possible range of options while reassuring stakeholders that it is not our intent to implement any option without thorough discussion with the community. As always, the Board and Superintendent welcome public input and will develop a communications plan to ensure that end.

Timing. The Board is looking five to ten years into the future. It recognizes the difficulty of doing so with any precision. But it believes it is in the District’s interest to have such a plan, even if it needs to be revisited and revised every year. It will seek to minimize disruption on District families by notifying the community as far in advance as possible of impending changes. Such advance notice makes planning and transitions easier for everyone.

Board decision-making responsibility. The members of the Board have the ultimate, personal and political responsibility for developing the policy and parameters that will be used to guide the long range and boundary planning process. The Board seeks input from the community and administration, and envisions an ongoing, back-and-forth dialogue and regular revision. It expressly requests the Superintendent to inform the Board, as promptly as possible, if and when he believes a Board-established parameter is seriously flawed, impossible of attainment, or simply unwise. But the policies will be worked out by the Board. It will not merely approve a Superintendent’s recommendation. The decision regarding the determination of boundaries will be that of the Board.

Superintendent’s responsibility. The Superintendent is responsible for completing the long range and boundary planning process. While doing so he will provide the Board with such data and research as it may need for its deliberations. He will keep the Board informed of the progress of the long range and boundary planning process. He is expected to guide the process in accordance with all relevant Board policies and parameters. Prior to implementation he is expected to bring the final plan, including the implementation schedule, to the Board for its approval.

First option: Present Schools. An option that must be considered is the use of existing schools. Any and all other options may also be considered.

The first boundaries option as to which the Board requests input from the Superintendent involves full utilization of the District’s present buildings with no new buildings or major additions. The 2004 projections indicate that some of the east side elementary schools will then be at 40-60% of capacity. Many of the west side elementary schools will be nearer 100% of capacity. One (Wickham) will be at 153% of capacity. (Kirkwood will be at 111%, Coralville at 109%.) What would be the cost – in increased busing expenditures and increased student time on buses – of shifting students from west to east? The Board cannot declare in advance how much such cost is “too much.” But it believes its responsibility to property tax payers is such that, if the additional cost is not too much, such a solution is preferable to a multi-million-dollar construction program for new school buildings while existing buildings remain underutilized.

The Board encourages the Superintendent to examine the feasibility of options such as (but not limited to) magnet schools, middle schools, age-grouped schools (i.e., all-kindergarten or K-3 schools), year-round schools, increased job shadowing or independent research (to reduce high school crowding), to use existing facilities in the most cost effective manner.

Second option: New buildings, building remodeling and expansion. Another option is to remodel and expand the District's present schools. (Of course, some remodeling may be a part of long range planning even if not necessary to reduce overcrowding.) The Board requests from the Superintendent in this connection (in addition to the “optimum school size,” above) information regarding the capacity, present and projected enrollment of each school, along with information regarding the amount of available land for expansion. It will then consider a parameter that will produce the maximum benefit (in terms of reduced crowding, and optimum school size) at the least cost (in terms of quantity of construction, adverse impact on families, and lengthened bus rides).

New buildings. Only if the present buildings are inadequate – with or without remodeling and expansion – will the Board consider the option of building a new schools. “Inadequate” includes the conclusion that the use of present buildings will “cost too much” as defined above.

Closing schools. The Board’s preference is that all present schools continue in use – subject to being persuaded that such a preference makes no educational or economic sense.

Low income students’ distribution. The Board’s present intuition is that there are educational and social benefits from elementary school students’ exposure to a diversity of classmates. (As with any other intuitive beliefs of Board members the Board invites the presentation of research findings that either support or challenge its assumption.) At the present time, with a District average of 17% low income students, the proportion in each elementary school varies from 2% to nearly 50%. The Board expressly requests the Superintendent prepare for its consideration a number of alternative models reflecting the implications (economic costs, number of students bussed, time spent on buses) of a more equal distribution of students. Prior to knowing those costs the Board expresses no view as to its preferred range of the percent of low income students at each elementary school.

Occupancy as percent of capacity. The Board wants to maintain an equivalency of educational opportunity between buildings.

Impact on junior and senior high schools. The Board presumes that any boundaries or long range planning decisions will result in a roughly equal allocation of students among the two junior highs and two high schools. If this is not the result of its decisions it will want to revisit them.

Neighborhood schools. To the extent consistent with the Board's preferences and options, above, it would like to maintain the concept of neighborhood schools, keep attendance areas contiguous, keep families together, and limit students to one forced transfer during their elementary years.

[Of these 16 bold-headed paragraphs, the Press-Citizen hard copy edition excerpts paragraph numbers 1, 3, 8, 10, 12, and 16.]

Note how the governance model is working in this instance. These are clearly the Board's "planning process and parameters" -- not a Superintendent-drafted document rubber stamped by the Board. It is the Board that has done the very hard, analytical and creative work of thinking through and then establishing the policy, the goals, what John Carver calls "ends policies." At the same time the Board makes it expressly clear that it respects the Superintendent's professional expertise, and that it is willing to modify its approach when data and research suggest that modifications are required. Having made its very specific policy preferences and parameters expressly clear, it then leaves the implementation of them to the Administration (with a requirement of management information reporting against mileposts of progress and other updates from the Administration to the Board), free of Board members' micro-managing of the Superintendent's day-to-day decisions.

Ed Stone is writing about, and drawing upon this document regarding, allocation of students between our two conventional high schools (City and West; Tate serves the entire District).

But its relationship to the Roosevelt demolition proposal, and the reasons citizens have offered for opposing that proposal, is obvious.

Note that it is also a District-wide long range plan, not an effort to deal with a couple schools at a time.

As for process, see another op ed in this morning's Press-Citizen, Jim Throgmorton, "It's How the Light Gets In," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 10, 2009, p. A9. Here are some excerpts:
A couple of weeks ago, the Iowa City School Board had a public discussion of its Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan as part of a regular board meeting. It didn't go very well. Parents were angry and the board members appeared defensive. Tension filled the room. . . .

Gad, I thought, this is a no-brainer. The president of the board . . . could have greeted the audience with a genuine welcoming smile. Having solicited "feedback" from parents about the district's plan, . . . board members and staff could have taken no more than 10 or 15 minutes to welcome people, lay out the agenda for the night and indicate what they hoped to learn from the public during the hearing.

[They] could have displayed genuine pleasure that so many people had committed their own time and energy to read the plan, to come to the district's office on a cold February night, and to share their assessment of the plan with board members.

Instead of telling this very well-educated audience that they "misunderstand," board members could have acknowledged that one of the primary purposes of the hearing was to let people say how the facts should be weighed.

Once the hearing had ended, [they] could have thanked people for speaking and indicated how their views would be incorporated into the district's final plan.

In his lovely song, "Anthem," Leonard Cohen sings:

"Ring the bells, the bells
That still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

There was a crack in the district's plan. Parents saw it and drew attention to it. Feedback like that should be welcomed and embraced. It's how the light gets in.
A functioning governance model, and long range planning that is truly of the Board (not mere rubber-stamping of Administration proposals), are essential. But, as Throgmorton emphasizes, the Board's process in community relations is also important. Indeed, the more inadequate its planning and proposals the more essential it becomes.

Hopefully, Board members are learning from their "demolition disaster," reason will ultimately rule, Roosevelt will be saved, diversity will be better balanced, and a reasoned, sense of boundaries' evolution within a District-wide long range plan will emerge.

* 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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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See a grassroots analysis of the options for Roosevelt, and commment on them via an online survey.

Go to