Friday, December 6, 2013

Update on How to Convince me to Support Closing Hoover

I commend the school board and the administration for addressing some of my requests from my prior post 'How to convince me that its best to close Hoover?' In particular, I appreciate that the topic was finally discussed by the school board at the last operations committee meeting, and I appreciate that Superintendent Murley has been discussing (a) the specific tradeoffs for City High were Hoover not to be closed, and (b) discussing how those align with particular values that our community holds.

The specific tradeoffs in a plan exactly like the current phasing plan but that didn't close Hoover would (a) result in moving the tennis courts and softball field that are currently on City High grounds to an off-site facility. There is no evidence that the administration has explored close, but off-site locations like the 5-acre Chadak field, which happens to be 1 block from City High property; (b) there is an unquantified (or, at least, not yet quantified) loss of some degree of operational efficiency that, if it were sufficiently large, may have an effect on class sizes. Those are clear tradeoffs, and they are something that our community can weigh and evaluate. I commend the board and administration for making the tradeoffs clear.

I also commend Superintendent Murley, Principal Bacon, and City High Teacher Robin Fields for directly tying equity concerns to the welfare of those who are least advantaged at the meeting last night at City High. See an article here about some of their comments. I am glad that we are finally putting some substance into all of our talk about equity.

Overall, I'd say that puts the board and the administration a third or half of the way there to convincing me that the closure of Hoover is best course of action. If you recall, I asked them (a) address the specific tradeoffs, (b) talk about the most important features of substantive equality -- i.e., how the plans will affect those who are least well off. They've done both of those things.

Now, I ask that they continue this worthwhile process and solicit opinions from those who are most burdened in our community about this tradeoff. I think this should be a general practice of the board and the administration, and it would assure me that those who are most affected by inequities and most burdened in our community agree with the judgments that some are making regarding which specific tradeoff is best for those who are least well off. (See the second part of my (2) in my prior post).

Finally, to make the argument airtight (see my last point in my prior post) I would like to know that functional alternatives like placing the tennis courts and softball field on Chadak field (a relatively inexpensive 5-acre plot that is a single block from City High or a mere 200 steps more from the closest part of Hoover's land to the closest part of Chadak field) are not feasible.

I commend the administration and the board on their recent efforts, and I encourage them to continue working to convince us using a proper deliberative process. Engage with low-income and minority members of our community. Find out what they think. Explain to us why the alternative that have often been suggested haven't really been addressed.


  1. Michael--while I appreciate that there have been more specifics offered, I think I would quibble with the notion that the trade offs have been made clear. I think the discussion is sorely in need of having some price tags attached to the costs and benefits of various options--which is something that I have not seen from proponents of closing Hoover.

    For example, Chris Liebig has calculated the cost of closing Hoover at about $12 million. Let's say Chadak Field (one block away) could be acquired for $300,000, and that there is some price at which the district could make an agreement with Iowa City to use fields at Mercer Park (about 1.5 miles away). We can then ask whether it makes sense to spend more than $11 million just to save some unspecified number of high school students a one block walk to the Chadak Tennis & Softball Annex? Does it make sense to spend over $11 million to save some unspecified number of high school students traveling 1.5 miles to Mercer Park--the same distance that will continue to be traveled by high school swimmers?

    I'm guessing that some percentage of the community will say yes, but I'd like to hear them say it. Yes, we'd rather save those high school kids a one block walk or 1.5 miles of travel instead of having that money to allocate to other facilities projects or, for example, acquiring an iPad for each and every student in the district with money left over, or whatever else might be done with the money (including saving it) if it weren't spent for this purpose.

    As for the operational efficiencies, the actual numbers matter. I can't see justifying borrowing to purchase a $100,000 vehicle just to save $200 per year in gas for ten years. So I think school board members relying on this argument have an obligation to demonstrate just how much will be saved by spending the $12 million. I guess then it is up to the rest of us to decide whether we think those numbers make sense.

  2. No operational cost argument can justify singling out Hoover for closure, since Hoover is not a particularly small school, and can hold well over 300 students without the need to build any additional capacity. So the choice of Hoover for closure comes down, at best, to the difference between having some of City's outdoor athletic facilities on-site rather than off-site. (And at worst, to the desire for more parking at City.)

    Still, I would be very interested to see the actual numbers on the operational cost of keeping Hoover open. They would have to be offset to a great extent by the fact that there will be an increase in operational costs at other schools as a result of the Hoover closure -- for example, at Mann and Longfellow if those schools are greatly expanded to make up for the loss of Hoover's capacity.

    The bulk of operating expenses is teacher salaries. Even if Hoover closes, its kids will not disappear, and they will still need teachers. The savings in utility costs will also be partly offset by the utility costs of operating much larger buildings at Mann and Longfellow. Busing costs may well end up higher without Hoover than with it. I can see how closing a school would result in some operational savings, but I do wonder just what it adds up to.

    I understand that facilities expenses come from a different "pot" from operational expenses, and that the money available for operational expenses has a hard limit that is outside the district's control. Unfortunately, that fact can lead school administrators to see the money for facilities as essentially unlimited -- we can always ask the voters for a bigger bond! -- to the point where they may be willing to justify huge construction costs to save even very small amounts of operational expense, as Karen points out. So let's see what the relevant comparison is.

    Of course, there are also intangible and hard-to-quantify costs to closing an existing elementary school. The negative effect on the neighborhood, for example, is impossible to measure. I think everyone agrees that minimizing operating costs can't be the only goal; otherwise, we would be shifting toward even larger (700-student? 800-student?) elementaries, and closing many more schools. I agree with both Michael and Karen that we should hear more discussion of both the costs and benefits of selecting Hoover for closure, and I hope that discussion will encompass financial costs as well as values beyond just dollars and cents.

  3. Karen, thanks for the comment. I think I agree with much of what you said. The district is just not beginning to articulate the specific tradeoff that we can/should expect, and I wanted to commend that, even if it needs to be expanded. I also agree that quantifying the operational efficiency loss would be important. It would have to be of a sufficiently high number to affect class sizes for it to be a significant matter, one would think. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I also agree that Chadak field and/or purchase houses around City High over the next six years so that you wouldn't have to close Hoover should be explored.

  4. Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. The way I am framing the matter as a difference between a scenario exactly like the current iteration of the phasing plan but that didn't close Hoover compared to the current iteration of the phasing plan. The only benefits of the latter compared to the former is (a) having on-site tennis courts and softball fields versus close, but off-site courts/fields (b) an unquantified amount of operational efficiency, which may, if it is sufficiently large have some effect on classroom sizes. I think if there were any effect, it would be extremely small here. On the flip side, you keep Hoover open -- a school that is particularly good at being academic excellent and having a diverse student body. It is precisely the sort of school the district should be trying to model. Furthermore, it gives us a great deal of flexibility with elementary capacity concerns that seem significantly more acute after we got the new enrollment numbers. Lastly, it doesn't displace Hoover's autism classes.

    Those are the differences as I see them between those two plans; but there could be additional plans that may be available if Hoover isn't closed. I'd have to know more about the specific calculations about operational efficiency to evaluate those in much detail.

  5. I can certainly see the argument for changing the plan simply to keep Hoover open, since there's a good chance we'll need Hoover's capacity even if we do build all the other capacity in the plan. Either way, though, for purposes of calculating operational costs, we have to compare apples to apples. Operating a system with x seats of capacity will certainly cost less than operating one with x+304 seats of capacity. But the relevant question is how much it costs to reach any given total capacity by keeping Hoover open as compared to by closing Hoover and rebuilding that capacity in some other form. To make that comparison, we have to account not only for the savings reaped by operating one less school, but also for the costs required to operate the additional buildings that are necessary to house 304 kids elsewhere.

    But yes, as far as we've heard, the only arguments for closing Hoover are the ability to keep those tennis courts and/or softball field on-site rather than a short distance away -- maybe just two blocks! -- and an unspecified amount of operating costs. On the flip side, though, I don't think you should forget to include the very large cost of tearing Hoover down and rebuilding its capacity elsewhere, which will certainly be orders of magnitude larger than any operational cost saving.