Friday, August 28, 2009

School Boundaries Consultant Folly

August 28, 2009, 7:20 a.m.

For other, related blog entries, see:

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board
Not Consultants or Superintendent
Plus: What Consultant Could Do

(brought to you by*)

The Press-Citizen reported Wednesday (August 26) that it looks like the School Board's hiring of a boundaries consultant is a done deal. Rob Daniel, "School district closer to hiring consultant; Board members say they generally support idea," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 26, 2009, p. A1.

The prospect of a consultant being involved in, as Daniel describes it, the "move toward a third comprehensive high school and [the project to] re-align school boundaries district wide," raises a number of possibilities, questions and concerns.

September 8th??!! You've got to be kidding! The story concludes, "[Superintendent Lane] Plugge said he will bring back a 'plan of work' with RSP [the consultant] along with probable costs for the consultants' services to the board at its next meeting on Sept. 8."

In case you haven't yet made a note of it, September 8th is the day when a minimum of two and possibly three new board members will be elected to this seven-person board -- nearly one-half of the membership. (Don't forget to vote.)

Buildings, boundaries -- and the hiring of consultants -- are all highly charged, controversial issues. With the results of the School Board election only hours after the meeting, why on earth would an outgoing board want to decide (or even be briefed on) these issues without the newly elected board members present and participating? It's not as if postponing this meeting would be holding off on a major decision for months, to the detriment of the District. We're talking minutes or hours here.

Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board -- before hiring consultant. There are a number of tough, basic policy issues that simply must be resolved by the School Board and cannot be delegated out to a "consultant" -- or the Superintendent for that matter.

(1) Do we want to continue the piecemeal approach to elementary school (and high school) boundaries, evaluating and redrawing them one school at a time, or do we want to undertake a District wide reevaluation and boundary line redrawing exercise?

What are the Board's goals, and parameters, with regard to:

(2) The disparity in the "free and reduced lunch" populations between elementary schools? Do we, does the Board, want boundaries that result in all schools being within 5 percentage points of each other on this measure? 10 percent? Equal? Or does the Board desire (or is it fearful of challenging) the perpetuation of those disparities -- capitulating to those who like things just the way they are (or who would prefer they be even more unequal)?

(3) The disparity in the percentage of optimum occupancy for each elementary? As with "free and reduced," how much disparity is acceptable in the percentages on this measure? Or is the Board even willing to continue to build new schools rather than more efficiently utilize those that now have empty classrooms?

(4) The disparities in "class size" in terms of, for example, the number of third graders in each third grade classroom across the District? (There are approaches to boundaries that can make all schools' class sizes roughly equal.)

(5) Are we, is the Board, willing to consider any changes in the general configuration of our elementary and junior high schools, changes that would have an impact upon, among other things, boundaries (e.g., K-3, 4-6, 6-8 buildings; magnet schools)?

(6) "Best practices" and most data indicate that, however good our high schools are today (and all three are), they could be even better if we were to follow the advice that no high school should exceed a 600 to 800 enrollment. (Above that, there is a marked increase in drop-outs and absenteeism, bullying and violence, alcohol and drug abuse, graffiti and vandalism, and teen pregnancy. There's also some evidence of a decline in academic performance, though that data is less definitive.) Can we afford to have the best? Can we afford not to? Are we willing to pay for it? The answers to this one obviously affects the discussion and decisions surrounding the "third conventional high school," budgets -- and the transition to the future boundaries for whatever high schools we may have.

(7) Do we want the Board and Administration to have the flexibility of zones within which, over time, new students could be assigned to more than just one school, as necessary to meet the "goals and parameters" noted above?

(8) More generally, do we want to create a process and formula that indicate how boundaries will be modified in the future -- thereby avoiding the need to re-invent the wheel every few years -- or just get the current challenge and controversy behind us as quickly as possible?

Could a "consultant" from Olathe, Kansas, address and give us their opinion about how we should respond to these choices? Of course; but so could anyone stopped at random on any city street in America.

The point is, the above issues are matters of judgment for the people of Iowa City, not Olathe; they are political questions; questions that need to be answered by the stakeholders of the Iowa City Community School District -- through the members of the School Board that they have elected, and will elect on September 8th (as informed by the input of those stakeholders who have spoken at Board meetings and otherwise communicated with Board members).

What a consultant could do. Once these issues have been addressed and resolved by the Board, then and only then there may well remain specialized, technical tasks for which the Superintendent does not have staff expertise available. For example, there's the matter of taking the Board's resolution of its preferred parameters, calculating the amount and location of student population growth over time, and applying the Board's parameters to those numbers. I would think we'd have someone on staff who could perform that function; but if not, that clerical task could be outsourced without having transferred major policy decisions along with it.

The 'What-If' Machine. We have fewer than 12,000 students in the District. That is clearly a relatively small number of entries for a computer. In fact, anyone with Microsoft Office 2007 has the programs to handle that number of entries in either a database ("Access") or spreadsheet ("Excel"). Although mapping software exists, I don't have access to it on my laptop (so far as I know -- one's always discovering new features) -- aside from "Mapquest," Google Earth, and Bing.

So I'm assuming it would not be that big a challenge, in 2009, to come up with the mapping program I describe below.

[Thirty years ago, as one of the presidential assistants to President Jimmy Carter charged with organizing and operating the 1979 White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, my son Gregory and I witnessed a display of a similar computer program with capabilities far beyond what I'm about to describe. That's why I'm simply assuming that, given the rate of increases in computer capabilities, and decreases in their costs per transaction, what I'm proposing is either already in existence or could be cheaply created.]

What I'd like to see is a combination database and mapping program that would enable anyone in the community -- not just ICCSD administrators and staff -- to engage in "What If" boundary-drawing exercises that would display the resulting boundary lines when driven by alternative inputs regarding such things as elementary schools' percentage occupancy, allocation of free-and-reduced-lunch students, students' distance from schools, and other variables.

Presumably the District (1) already has the necessary raw data to do this (students' names, date of birth, street address, current school) and (2) the ability to protect students' privacy (e.g., use of numbers rather than names, year of birth instead of month-day-year, numbered blocks instead of street addresses).

What if the only metric was that every child is assigned to the closest school? Where would those boundaries be?

What if all schools had free-and-reduced-lunch numbers within 10 percentage points of each other, but students were otherwise assigned to the closest school? What would the boundaries look like?

What if all elementary schools were at the same percentage of their optimum occupancy? How would those boundary lines change?

Such questions and more could be put to such a program and the results quickly revealed. It would ultimately save enormous amounts of time and money for everyone interested in these issues -- including the taxpayers who will end up paying for the consultant. And it would make for much more meaningful, and hopefully civil, participation by the District's stakeholders in the process -- including much more helpful, and fact-based, input from the community to the Board.

If that's what the Board wants the consultant (or some University or other local software experts) to do I'm all for it. We really need a computer mapping program like that -- available to all.

Otherwise, I think the Board needs to wait for the outcome of the school board election September 8th, and then get on with what it is we elect them to do: to bravely, intelligently, and with the aid of their own thorough research, make those tough decisions.

Here are some additional excerpts from Daniel's story (linked at the top of this blog entry), with my comments interspersed in italics:

The school board heard from representatives of RSP Associates of Olathe, Kan., at its meeting Tuesday night about what the consultants can do to help district officials solve the enrollment and boundary issues. The consultants were brought in by Superintendent Lane Plugge to help determine how to build the new high school in the North Liberty area while the district wrestles with crowding at West High and budget woes.
"Help district officials solve the enrollment and boundary issues" sounds, to me, more like total capitulation to, or delegation of decision making to, a "consultant" than "consultation."

And what on earth does "help determine how to build the new high school" mean? Don't we know how to build a high school? What we often don't do is to thoroughly research and think through all the things we'd like to do inside that high school, and what we want the outcomes to be, and why, and how those decisions might impact the physical structure. A consultant might emphasize the importance of that step. But a consultant can't make those decisions for the Board either. After that, it's a matter of getting some more community input, selecting and working with the architect, and then selecting and working with a contractor or contractors and providing appropriate oversight. That's "how to build a new high school."
Mark Porter, education planner with RSP, said the group has a 97 percent accuracy rate in making enrollment projections over two years. He said the consultants have helped with numerous school districts in settling boundary and enrollment projection issues including helping the Ankeny School District with its plans to build a second high school last year. He said the consultants could help the district get the correct information to make a good decision on whether to build the third comprehensive high school.

"You want this information to be right the first time," Porter said. "You have to have correct data."

RSP, according to principal planner Robert Schwarz, can help the district figure out its enrollment projections using enrollment and development trends, figure migration patterns in and out of the district, and help district officials develop a plan that can be presented for approval by the school board. He said he hopes to spend the fall collecting and analyzing enrollment, census, construction and development data before presenting the group's finding and recommendation in October. The district then can form a committee of parents, teachers and school board members to formulate a plan through meetings and public forums before presenting a plan to the school board for approval in the spring.

Schwarz said RSP could help do this without being biased toward one end or another.

"We are an unbiased third party," he said. "We're going to be looking at real world data that exists in your community." . . .
The reference to "enrollment projections" and the suggestion that the consultant "can help the district figure out its enrollment projections using enrollment and development trends, figure migration patterns in and out of the district" sounds like what I called, above, "specialized, technical tasks" that follow from, rather than precede, determine or supplant, fundamental Board policy decisions. So, although we ought to be able to do that ourselves -- at least with resources inside Iowa City if not within the ICCSD staff, without having to go to Olathe, Kansas -- I'm relatively untroubled with a consultant performing that task.

On the other hand, as the sentence continues, it becomes more problematical: "and help district officials develop a plan that can be presented for approval by the school board." What this sounds like, at least superficially, is that (1) the Board has delegated the boundary policy and third conventional high school decisions to the Superintendent, (2) the Superintendent has handed them off to a consultant, following which (3) the Superintendent will perform the transmission belt function of passing along this "Board policy" created by a consultant to the Board, which will then (4) put its imprimatur on the value judgment of these Olathe residents.
I've never wished more fervently to be wrong. But I just call 'em as I see 'em, and from where I now sit this looks to me like a foul ball.

* 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:

John Barleykorn said...

I am with you on this one. I know a few things about administration, and one thing that bothers me is that administrators now fall back too much on consultants and use them as cover to make difficult decisions. They are paid a lot of money, and the boards in control need to hold them accountable for this.