Monday, November 02, 2009

Boundaries: Only Board Can Do Board's Job

November 2, 2009, 5:45 a.m.

For Wednesday, November 4, blog entry, see "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."

Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy
(brought to you by*)

This morning's blog entry is a reproduction of an op ed column of mine on school boundary line drawing that appears in this morning's Iowa City Press-Citizen, below.
But first, here are links to entries on some of the other hot topics from the past week or so that are now getting the most direct hits, among which may be the entries you are looking for:

School boundaries, school boards, and the ICCSD. "School Board Election: Now Work Begins; It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper; Old Board 'Starting Off Backing Up' With Consultant and Tough Decisions," September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with links to 11 prior, and related, blog entries).

The UIHC's controversial "contributions from patients" proposal. "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories).

Board of Regents and State universities' budget cutting. "Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009, 8:30 a.m. (with links to prior, related blog entries).

Spence break-in grand jury proceedings. "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009.

Positive benefits to brain from Internet searching. "This Blog's Good For Your Brain; Searching the Internet to Find It Even More So," October 26, 2009, 6:00 a.m.

School Board Has Work to Do
Nicholas Johnson
Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009

Asked how he felt after losing the presidency in 1952, Adlai Stevenson quipped, "It hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry."

Following the tragic farce of our school board's attempt last week to "prioritize its criteria" for school boundaries, apparently this paper's editorial board didn't hurt enough to prevent giving us a laugh Saturday ("Our View: District needs civil dialogue, not clickers" [Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 31, 2009]).

I, however, have never been too old to cry, and thought the matter too serious to laugh.

Nor am I too proud not to beg: "Board, please, please reconsider your approach."

Board flexibility

"Local control of schools" means that the board can do virtually anything with our schools not prohibited by federal or state law. It can decide to let some schools sit virtually empty while others are overcrowded.

It can push the disparity between schools' percentages of students in various socio-economic classes up to the limit of the law -- or try to make them more equal than the law requires. They can draw perfect circles around each school as its boundary, or vary them to achieve a variety of goals.

Leadership with metrics

The board simply must, however, go beyond the vague "prioritizing its top criteria," reported in Thursday's Press-Citizen [Josh O'Leary, "Board finalizes priorities; Not all members pleased with process," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 29, 2009], and provide metrics. This is the board's, and only the board's, legal, managerial, economic and political responsibility.

Example: Telling a committee of 30 that it should keep in mind the board's "priority of demographic considerations" is equivalent to Congress telling the FCC to regulate broadcasting "in the public interest."

Continuing with the "demographics" example, within the bounds of the law the board can choose from a range of metrics.

It should start by calculating the percentage of "free-and-reduced-lunch" students in the District-wide student population.

It could then say, to state the extremes, that it wants:

• To specify precise percentages to maximize the FRL disparity, within the limits of the law: Some elementaries with a disproportionately high percentage of FRL students, and others disproportionately low (like now).

• To use busing and boundaries to make the FRL percentages equal in all schools.

• To do it so that all schools' FRL percentage disparities are within some fixed percentage points of each other, specifically set by the board (say, 5 percent).

Abdicating leadership

But for the board to delegate its responsibility for boundaries to a committee of unelected citizens in the form of a multiple-variable set of criteria with no algorithm, made up of vague categories with no metrics, is an abdication of its responsibility, a kicking the can down the road, a recipe for chaos and frustration, and an unconscionable imposition on the time, energy, good will and financial resources of 30 dedicated local citizens and the public at large.

Ultimately, these metrics will emerge -- either because they finally have been declared by the board, or because they are evident "de facto" from the numbers that result from what it's done. That being the case, the earlier the board specifies specific numbers for, say, FRL or percentage occupancy of schools, the better.

Obviously, this is not to say that, having done so, the board should be forbidden to ever change its collective mind. Quite the contrary. New data, physical impracticability, political or economic pressures may well call for some rational modifications occasionally.

But at any given point in time, everyone simply must have specific numbers to work with -- numbers not from the administration, a consultant or committees, but from the board.

Having done its job it is then possible, if the board desires, to delegate the task of creating specific, alternative line-drawing possibilities to the superintendent, a consultant or a committee -- but not before.
Former Iowa City School Board member Nicholas Johnson's blog can be found at
* 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
# # #

No comments: