Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pass the Bond

This is the final post in a four-part part series on the proposed ICCSD G.O. Bond. The first post was general information about the bond, the second post was about what would likely happen if the bond passes, and the third post was about what would likely happen if the bond doesn’t pass. In light of the information in my previous posts, this one is my defense of the bond, and my response to criticisms of the bond.

We live in a state and a country where public education is under attack. Teachers are being targeted by the Iowa State government’s collective bargaining restrictions. School funding is functionally going down given the rate of inflation, and it has been for the better part of the last decade. Many school districts around our state are having to make tough choices as relative funding declines and as student enrollment declines. Our district has fared better than many others--partly because we made a prudent decision in 2014 to get out ahead of these financial challenges and partly because our student enrollment has been increasing.

Yet, in our district, we have a decision to make. We believe that public education is needed in our community. We believe that public education is for the common good--for the good of all parts of our community. We believe that our teachers need adequate support--in financial decisions, personnel, and infrastructure. The Facilities Master Plan (FMP) speaks to these values. The projects that have been completed already under the Revenue Purpose Statement (RPS) from 2013 and those that will be completed under the proposed bond loudly proclaim that public education is needed and that we will support it. It has and will provide important and valuable upgrades, improvements, and new construction all across the district, particularly in those parts of the district that had previously been left without. It has and will continue to benefit those attendance areas that are most vulnerable in our community. It provides every teacher in our district with the facilities infrastructure to do their job to the best of their ability, which is why our local teacher’s union leadership unanimously supports it.  The RPS, approved in 2013, was a down payment on this vision. On September 12, we have a chance to fully fund and complete this vision at least as it relates to our facilities.

This is a vision that I find compelling and important, even as I disagree (as I’m sure most people do!) with some aspects of the bond. Nevertheless, there are those who weigh these matters differently than I do--and I respect that. As such, I think it is important to hear these concerns, to express them well, and to respond to them. In my mind, that is how we show our respect for those points of view. The prior three posts have laid the groundwork for that, and I will attempt to respond to those objections.

Objection #1: The bond is a blank check for the administration to spend on whatever they want.

This language is not accurate, since a blank check leaves the dollar amount open and it can be spent on anything whatever, but the bond proposal explicitly states that the cost is $191 million and the flexibility built into the bond is limited. What this objection really amounts to is the claim that the bond language gives the board and administration too much latitude to make changes. The wording of the bond certainly allows the board some flexibility; for instance, they could shift the Borlaug addition to Shimek or to Garner (just examples, not proposals), or they could increase the capacity of the new North Liberty elementary school. As such, this much of the objection is true. That is to say, the bond language on the September 12 ballot gives the board some latitude to make changes. But it is important to acknowledge that this objection is weak.

  1. For the past four years, the board had that sort of latitude (even more so) with the RPS. I think it is clear that the spirit of the original FMP has been maintained, even as slight adjustments have been made.
  2. The objection goes too far. It would suggest that it was wrong to give the board the latitude that we did with our RPS vote, and that would mean that Alexander and new Hoover would not have been built. Longfellow would not be renovated. The Penn and Van Allen additions would not have been completed, and Liberty High would not have be built. Twain, Coralville Central, and Lucas would not have been renovated.
  3. There will be very little flexibility for the first seven projects funded under the bond. The board will approve those seven specific projects in the first of four bonds purchased (probably this Fall if the bond passes), and those projects will be locked in (See my earlier post for a lengthier expression of this argument.), since the board is only making changes when they get new data (which they won’t have before they purchase the first bond)
  4. Any changes that take place will almost certainly be similar to the prior changes to the FMP. That is, they will be proposed by the administration to the board, the board will evaluate them with community input, and the board will approve changes that are necessary in light of changes in enrollment projections or school needs.
  5. Having flexibility toward the end of the FMP is a good thing. It will allow the district to make changes that are necessary in light of changes in enrollment projections and new information.

Objection #2: The bond costs too much.

The bond funds the second half of the FMP. The total cost to do so is $191 million. That is a lot of money. It will also increase personal and business taxes by a significant margin (although comparatively less for home-owners with the homestead credit). The district estimates that the cost will be about $4.25 per $100,000 taxable valuation for home-owners like myself. That sum is substantial and it should not be minimized, but we also ought not think the sky the falling because of the proposed amount.

  1. We need to weigh those costs against the communal benefits of the plan. Ultimately, I think the increase in my monthly mortgage is a small price to pay when I see the changes that have been done at my children’s school under the FMP. Our school has a high concentration of low-income students, but we got the same upgrades and facilities as other schools in the district. We have a fully secure entrance, high-quality heating and air conditioning, dedicated art and music rooms, new furniture and equipment that was badly needed, etc. I want all students in our district to see these same benefits. I want all teachers in our district to be able to work in such an environment. We are a community that is willing to make some personal sacrifices for the sake of the greater good.
  2. We need to realize that costs have been going up dramatically over the last several years (see the argument for that in this post).  At a minimum, the seven projects at the beginning of the G.O. Bond are important and necessary, and they are extremely likely to be part of any other bond. Those projects currently cost $127 million. Based on recent history, for each one-year delay in the projects, the cost will go up about 8%. Thus, the cost will only go up as we wait, or we will have to cut critical projects that are important for our district.

Objection #3: The projections for growth could be wrong.

This objection is harder to properly express. I’m no expert on local zoning, housing development, or the enrollment projection methods used by ICCSD consultants. The argument is that the enrollment projections that the district relies upon are most likely fairly accurate with respect to Coralville and Iowa City, but that they are less reliable with respect to North Liberty. This situation is problematic because the projections indicate that the attendance areas in North Liberty are already overcrowded and would likely continue to be even when the new North Liberty elementary school (Grant) becomes operational in 2019.

Ultimately, this objection comes down to the claim that some other projects that weren’t included in the FMP are more important than at least some of those that are presently in the FMP. I will address that argument below.  

Objection #4: Other projects are more important than at least some of those in the FMP.

I disagree with some aspects of some projects on the FMP. I suspect most people do.

  1. The question is when are those disagreements sufficient to warrant rejection of the bond that funds the second half of the FMP. Here is what it would take for me:

  1. The bond-funded projects go against fundamental values of public education. That is, if the bond provided funds exclusively for an elite charter school to be built, then I’d be against bond. (deal-breaker for me)
  2. The bond-funded projects go against what is just. That is, if the bond perpetuated injustice in our district, or put low-income or racial minorities at a relative disadvantage to the general population, then I’d be against it. If the bond sacrificed the immediate needs of a vulnerable population within our community for the benefit of the most-advantaged people within our community, then I’d be against the bond. (deal-breaker for me)
  3. The bond-funded projects were selected with little or no rationale beyond the immediate concerns of particular board members or administrators. If a board member wanted to improve his or her business and included the projects on that basis, then I’d be against the bond. (deal-breaker for me)
  4. The overall spirit of the bond is to benefit one part of the community at the expense of another. For instance, if the bond did not build a new North Liberty Elementary school or did not complete Liberty High while attempted to address capacity concerns throughout the rest of the district, then I’d be opposed to the bond. There are cases where I would support a bond that benefited one part of the community, but only if it wasn’t at the expense of another part.

I think the overall spirit and trajectory of the bond promotes each of these values. The failure of the bond wouldn’t necessarily make these worse, but it would continue the status quo (which has clear problems) and it could very well result in worse outcomes for public education, justice-related concerns, etc.

  1. Furthermore, the built-in flexibility of the bond gives the administration and board the ability to make adjustments to account for weaknesses in the plan. Thus, an addition could be moved around, or cut if not needed.

Objection #5: We ought not trust the administration or school. A “no” vote is a vote to change the administration/board.

This objection is often accompanied by a long-line of policies or actions that the person disagrees with, and thus, voting no is a way to signal one’s disapproval of the administration and/or board. I’ve disapproved of the administration and the board in a number of cases, and I understand the sentiment. But here’s why I think we have good reason to support the bond even as we question the judgment of the administration or board in certain other cases.

  1. The spirit of the FMP remains the same as it was when it was adopted in 2013, and the bond will fund the second half of it, just as the RPS funded the first half. The RPS did a lot of good for our district, and it provides a pattern for how the bond will be carried out. While one may have good reasons to not trust the district with respect to some policies or actions (and I believe there are some good reasons available), that is not the case with respect to the FMP or the projects funded by the bond. For further elaboration, see my arguments above about the blank check objection.
  2. I will be voting for school board members who will constructively and critically work to change the school district for the better and who will see their fellow directors and the administration as partners in that endeavor. Our school board election is the best way to change the way that our district has operated.
  3. If your goal is to change the administration for something better, it is much less likely to happen if we (a) have a reputation for voting against school bonds, (b) run our Superintendent out of town, and (c) can’t come together as a community to support a FMP that has been supported through several school board elections.

Objection #6: Voting no could cause the district to reevaluate its direction on x.

This objection seems to be that if enough people vote no, then the new school board and the Superintendent will take the no vote as a sign that the community opposes a particular policy (or set of policies) or action (or set of actions). I don’t see any real merit in this objection.

  1. If the bond barely fails (which is much more likely than it failing miserably), there will be no such message sent.
  2. Even if a message is sent, which message is it? Is it that people (a) didn’t like redistricting, (b) don’t support administration/board regarding special education or seclusion “rooms,” (c) don’t support the board’s decision to give the superintendent a raise, (d) don’t support Hoover’s closure, or (e) don’t support one or more (which ones?) of the projects in the FMP? These are all serious issues and significant portions of our community have disagreed about them. Still, there is no magic bullet for interpreting a failed bond. If the bond fails, I certainly wouldn’t know which, if any, of these concerns resulted in its failure. And I certainly wouldn’t want the district to reverse every recent policy because it “received” such a message.
  3. In my opinion, the best way to change district policy is to support board members who will make those issues known and address them at the board table.

Objection #7: The bond promotes urban sprawl and/or inner-city school closure.

This objection is based on (a) the closure of one school, Hoover, a school near the center-city area, which has been a sore subject in our district since 2013, and (b) the shift of several additions from buildings (e.g., Lincoln, Longfellow, and Mann) where enrollment projections declined to buildings where enrollment projections increased (e.g., Garner and Weber). I’ve written about Hoover extensively, and I won’t reiterate that here. As it relates to the bond, I think it is wrong to vote against the bond because one wants to keep Hoover open.

Furthermore, I think some well-meaning progressives in our community misperceived the shift of the additions as a signal that the school district valued growth on the periphery of town more so that protecting and growing the inner-core of the community. To me, it is clear that this criticism did not take seriously how projected enrollments had shifted, nor did it recognize that the FMP as a whole and the bond in particular is still slated to spend tens of millions of dollars renovating and upgrading the elementary schools closest to downtown Iowa City. That is to say, the bond is a good balance of protecting our inner-city schools while also building and making additions where needed in response to enrollment changes.

On September 12, I think we should support the bond and support board candidates that will improve our district. I think that's what the evidence and arguments most strongly support.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What happens if the bond doesn’t pass?

This is the 3rd part of a several part series on the proposed ICCSD G.O. Bond. The first post was general information about the bond, and the second post was about what would likely happen if the bond passes. This post is about what will likely happen if the bond doesn’t pass. I confess that this post is much more speculative than my post about what would happen if the bond passes. There is a good reason for that. We don’t know a lot about what will happen if the bond doesn’t pass. In what follows, I’ll provide some information, pose some questions, and make some predictions about what happens if the bond doesn’t pass.

When can another bond be passed?

Legally, no part of the September 12 bond can be sent for a revote for six-months. But when would another bond proposal, if any, be made? It is hard to know. Suppose the bond fails, but that it garners the type of support that the RPS vote did in 2013 (e.g., around 55%). It is highly unlikely that the bond receives significantly less than that. If it receives 55% but less than 60%, I suspect you’ll have a significant number of board members who would want to tinker around with the current FMP, rather than revising the whole project from the ground up. However, some other board members might want to start over and develop a new approach.

If the bond fails by that margin, how likely is it that tinkering with the current FMP would produce a bond capable of getting 60% of the vote? What sort of tinkering would the board do in that case? If a new bond is developed from the ground up, how long will that take? Given our past timelines, I’d suspect that it would take a minimum of two years to have a workable bond proposal if it was developed from the ground up. Would such a bond pass? I don’t know.

For a little history: In 1991, a bond for five projects failed. Seven months later in 1992, a smaller bond also failed that included several of those projects. Seven months later at the end of 1992, two bonds were put forward. The first was identical to the smaller bond earlier in 1992, and then it passed but it was about 14 months after the original bond was proposed. Another bond which had the remaining projects from the original 1991 bond failed (although it had about 57% support).

My prediction: If the bond fails, it will have between 55% and 60% of the vote. In which case, I don’t think we will have a replacement bond that will pass for at least 18-months, which would functionally delay the FMP by 2-years. If the board tinkers with it, and puts forward something quickly; then I think it probably fails a second time (like in the early 90s). After which, it would pass as residents see the specific disadvantages of doing nothing. If the board starts from scratch, then it will probably take at least two years to get something ready.

What will happen to the projects in the bond?

The projects that are slated to begin next Summer have already begun the planning phases (e.g., Mann and Lincoln renovations). At a minimum, these projects would be delayed until another bond is passed or until other funding sources arrive. (It is also unclear which, if any, of these projects would be on a new bond were it developed from the ground up.) In any case, it seems pretty clear that neither the new elementary school in North Liberty nor Liberty High’s comprehensive athletic facilities would be complete for their slated opening in 2019. Liberty High is opening this Fall, but 2019 is the first year that Liberty High will have all four grades at its campus. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the renovations at Mann and Lincoln will take place over the 2018-2019 school year as planned. This delay could very well have a domino effect throughout the district (as I will discuss later), but at a minimum, all other projects would be similarly delayed. I also think that failure of this bond would likely result in a process whereby the administration and the board try to isolate the “most important” projects. Such a process would likely prioritize projects that have the backing of those who are most well-off in the district, and back away from projects that don’t have as many advocates (i.e., those projects that help those who are most vulnerable).

My prediction: The first seven-projects on the bond (see here) would be included on any future bond. There will be a lot of in-district fighting over subsequent projects, and those who are most vulnerable in our district will get the short end of the stick (e.g., resulting in less investment in facilities for attendance areas at Kirkwood, Alexander, and Grant Wood), and subsequent projects beyond the seven would primarily benefit the most well-off.

How much would costs likely increase for each year of delay?

This is hard to gauge as well. Construction costs have gone up pretty substantially since the FMP was adopted three years ago. For example, the original proposed cost was $14 million for the new North Liberty elementary school, but it is now $19 million. Over a four-year period, the estimated cost has increased by over 33% (averaging about 8% per year by my rough calculations). There were similar increases for other projects. So, suppose we just did the first seven projects mentioned in my previous post. Those projects account for $127 million, and most of them are long overdue. With a two-year delay, those projects alone would be almost $150 million dollars.

My prediction: The cost of a new bond will be at least $150 million dollars.

What happens to attendance zones that were made under the assumption that the projects in the bond would be complete?

Some of the 2019 attendance zones assumed that the bond would pass. For example, the board assumed that Grant Elementary would be built by 2019. The board assumed that Hoover (new unless otherwise stated) would have Lincoln and Mann swinging through the facility in 2018-2019, and thus would not be able to open until 2019. The board also assumed that Liberty High would be a fully comprehensive 1,500-seat high school with all the extracurricular activities available at our other two comprehensive high schools. These assumptions could very well turn out to be false (some of them definitely will) if the bond does not pass this year.

Would we need to reconsider high school boundaries given that Liberty High might not have outdoor athletic fields or since it might not have enough seats for the students that have been assigned there?

How would the district handle elementary attendance areas? It is unlikely that Grant would be ready to open in 2019, and thus, North Liberty elementary schools would remain extremely overcrowded until a new elementary is built there.

How will the district handle the complications associated with the swing-school situation? Under the bond, Longfellow would swing into the Hoover building in 2017-2018 as Longfellow is renovated. In 2018-2019, Mann and Lincoln would simultaneously swing through Hoover as they are both renovated. But if the bond fails, those projects become much more complicated. Suppose that Grant and the renovations at Lincoln and Mann are funded in a smaller bond one year later (an optimistic supposition!). In that situation, swinging Lincoln and Mann through Hoover (new) would delay its opening and the East-side redistricting for one year. But it would be difficult to renovate Mann and Lincoln without swinging the students out of those buildings--the plot of land at each school is too small to accommodate the 6- or 10-plex, and putting those at Mann or Lincoln would delay other projects that need them during the 2019-2020 school year. Furthermore, it may be that Windsor Ridge families near Hoover would push to have their children stay at Hoover starting in 2018? Would the board decide to swing Lincoln or Mann through the old Hoover building? What effect would that have on City High’s construction timeline?

There are a number of unexplored questions about what happens to attendance areas at elementary and secondary levels if the bond fails.

My prediction: The board will make some quick decisions on the fly in order to address these boundary concerns. The changes made will primarily take into account the interests and goals of those who are most well-off and largely ignore the interests of those who are most vulnerable, largely because of the speed required to make these decisions and because the voices of the most-well off tend to be magnified in such circumstances.

Will the board keep Superintendent Murley?

If the bond does not pass, what will that mean for Superintendent Murley’s position? We don’t really know. Ultimately, whether he is retained is a decision that the new board must make. The school board election is more likely than the bond vote to have an impact on the Superintendent’s job security. As far as making educated guesses about what will happen, I think two of the four remaining board member would be open to going another direction with the Superintendent. I know that Director Hemingway has said as much. And we know that three seats are up for election--two of those seats have had board members who support the Superintendent, and one seat has had a director who does not. If that distribution is flipped (two want to replace and one does not), then Superintendent Murley's tenure could very well be in jeopardy.

I do know that one of the big fears, expressed somewhat frequently over the last year, regarding replacing the Superintendent has been that it could scuttle the bond. I'm not sure what effect a failed bond would have on Superintendent Murley. If it fails by a small margin (e.g., greater than 55% but less than 60%), then that will probably ensure that Superintendent Murley stays around at least until some bond is passed (unless he finds a job elsewhere). But if the bond passes, then needing a bond to pass is no longer a consideration in favor of retaining the Superintendent.

I also know that if the bond fails, state funding stays where it is, and there is little coherent direction from the board, then we won't be an attractive landing spot for good superintendent candidates.

My prediction: If the bond fails, it will fail by a relatively slim margin (no less than 55%). If it fails by such a margin, then we will retain the Superintendent until another bond passes or longer.

Will non-Facilities-based plans or procedures changes because of the bond vote? Is there any good reason to think that special education policies or achievement gaps between low-income or racial minorities versus the overall population will change if the bond fails? The answer is most likely no. The way to change policies is through having a strong, capable board able to make such decision and hold the administration accountable. Luckily, we have a school board election on September 12 along with the bond.

My prediction: The only way to get changes regarding policies disagreements will be through voting for like-minded school board members and their public activism. The failure of the bond will have no effect on the matter.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What happens if the bond passes?

This is the second post in a several-part series on the proposed G.O. Bond for the ICCSD. Last post, I presented the bond text itself and some of the history behind the present bond. In this post, I will discuss what we can reasonable expect to happen if the bond indeed passes on September 12. In the next post, I’ll discuss what we can reasonable expect to happen if the bond fails to pass.

Although there is some room for disagreement, I will describe a few different categories of what we can reasonably expect.

First, we have that which is extremely likely to happen (maybe not guaranteed, but I would be shocked if it didn’t happen). That is to say, it would be unreasonable if someone denied that the following events will occur.
  • Several months after the bond passes, the administration will make a proposal to the board to sell the first of four two-year bond, authorized by the September 12 vote, that will cover the first several projects mentioned in the G.O. Bond language and in the Facilities Master Plan (FMP). The board will approve that proposal, and it will lock in these projects. It is projected to be for approximately $46 million (see here for the information source), but by the time the projects that begin under this first phase are completed, the projects will cost a around $127 million of the $191 million dollars being requested.
  • The projects included within that proposal are all but guaranteed and they include:
    • The construction of a new elementary school in North Liberty (near 980 N Front Street, North Liberty) with an estimated cost of $19 million.
    • Lincoln and Mann renovations, which include full air conditioning, ADA compliance, dedicated music and arts rooms, important cost-saving upgrades to the building, and a new gym/multipurpose room. The estimated cost is $4.8 million for Lincoln and $11.7 million for Mann
    • Liberty High Athletic Fields: creating outdoor athletic fields for Liberty High School with an estimated cost of $12.5 million
    • City High Phase 2, which will include a classroom and wrestling room addition, expansions of the cafeteria, kitchen, and gym, full ADA compliance and improvements, full AC and a geothermal heat pump system, and roof replacement. The estimated cost for the project is $30.3 million.
    • North Central Junior High, which includes an addition with ten classrooms and a second gymnasiums, expansions of the library, cafeteria, kitchen, and the geothermal heating and AC system. The estimated cost for the project is $11.1 million
    • South East Junior High, which includes a classroom addition, full ADA compliance, giving the school full AC, locker and roof replacement, and a new kitchen and larger cafeteria. The estimated cost for the project is $15.6 million.
    • West High Phase 2, which includes full AC, some renovations and upgrades to the building, and new windows. The estimated cost for the project is $22.5 million.
  • Homeowners can expect their tax bill to increase by approximately $4.25 per month per $100K taxable value.

Second, we have that which is likely to happen, but there is a reasonable chance that these plans can be modified. Such modifications are likely to be comparable to the sorts of changes made previously (see my prior post for a discussion of what those changes were)--and as such, they will likely be based on significant demographic changes and must be approved by the school board to take effect. These projects will be around $46 million combined, and they include:
  • Wood ($7.4 million)
  • Wickham ($2.3 million)
  • Shimek ($4.9 million)
  • Northwest Junior High ($15.7 million)
  • Garner ($1.2 million)
  • Liberty High Phase 3 (500-student addition for $6.2 million)
  • Kirkwood ($7.3 million)
  • Horn ($1.2 million)

Third, we have those projects that are slated to occur toward the end of the 10-year plan. These projects are almost completely funded under the fourth of the four bonds the board will approve, and collectively, they account for about $15 million of the overall $191 million. Among all the projects mentioned, I think we can reasonably expect some work at each of these schools, but the scope and whether the additional classrooms (beyond the dedicated science, art, and music rooms) will be added is more flexible, depending on need. Once again, any changes here are likely to be similar to those undertaken previously (see my prior post for a discussion of what those changes were). These projects include:
  • Tate ($3.5 million)
  • Lemme addition ($8.0 million)
  • Borlaug addition ($1.5 million)
  • Alexander addition ($1.5 million)

Fourth, I think the bond has some more general outcomes that are likely but hard to quantify. It will likely give the district greater flexibility with redistricting. Greater space at target schools allows us to more effectively balance redistricting goals, including proximity to schools, improving demographic balance, and keeping our clean feeder system. Second, it will reduce the risk of future budget cuts, which is particularly important as we enter into a squeeze on state support for public education. Third, it will reduce our reliance on modulars.