Given the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) is concerned about budget shortfalls and saying that "Nothing is off the table" with regard to budget cuts, I've been discussing how the ICCSD calculates, analyzes, and evaluates operational costs. This post is the fifth in my series; links and short descriptions of prior posts are at the bottom.
Numerous school board members have previously expressed how costly it is to run Hills Elementary. It is the smallest elementary school in the ICCSD at an enrollment of 101 students for the 2013-2014 school year, and it had an enrollment of 108 students in the year I have been examining (2012-2013). Furthermore, as many may have surmised, no matter how the numbers are parsed, Hills currently has the worst operational efficiency in the district. It is also something of an outlier compared to every other school in the district.
Still, the way the district ordinarily presents the operational costs is misleading. Likely because of generational poverty within the boundaries of Hills, it has, proportionally, some of the highest special education and at-risk funding in the ICCSD. So, if you hear district administrators' say that it costs $10,000+ per student, they aren't controlling for these funds as I've suggested they should.
Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Hills is operationally efficient by any measure. When I control for these costs and evaluate the amount of funds provided for ordinary school operations from the general education budget (see my prior post for a discussion of what I mean by this), Hills, at best, has a per student operational cost of $5,964. It is slightly more than $1,000 per student compared to the next most expensive elementary school in the ICCSD.
Based on this information, the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills seems well supported. And that is the conventional wisdom.
There are a few things that still concern me, however. First, the $5,964 figure is still slightly below the $6,018 allocated for each student in the 2012-2013 school year. In other words, it is Hills' need for special education and at-risk funds that results in it "losing" money.
Second, it could very well be the case that closing Hills Elementary would result in the district losing significantly more money than it loses by operating Hills Elementary. How so? In the 2013-2014 school year, the ICCSD is losing 91, 52, and 10 students to the Mid-Prairie, Highland, and Lone Tree school district's respectively. That's a total of 153 students, and losing those students costs the district over $900K a year. I'm worried that we could see a significant number of the Hills community follow this trend taking their kids to other school districts. The only way closing Hills really saves money is if a sufficient number of those families decide to send their kids to another school in the ICCSD rather than sending them to another school district. Otherwise, closing Hills could very well result in a net loss to the district.
Third, the ICCSD has not sufficiently attempted alternatives to closing Hills. My previous post comparing two of our other small schools, which are well over a 100 students larger than Hills, suggest that if Hills had another 100 students, it could probably be run, especially with combined-grade classes at least as efficiently as some of our other schools in the district. The district should consider ways to make that happen. I wonder what a public Montessori, or a progressive public charter, like this one might do to help Hills. I'm not sure if it would improve the situation, but it important to consider these possibilities and to try something before making a decision that could have significant unintended consequences. An attractive Hills Elementary could be an effective way to draw back a number of families who have left the ICCSD for those other school districts.
Fourth, this post has only been an evaluation of the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills. It is an important one, but there could be academic and social reasons for keeping it open that trump this argument.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Comparing Seven Schools
Part 3: Comparing 2 of our smallest schools to our newest, larger school
Part 4: A deeper discussion of the rationale for controlling for special education and at-risk funding