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.

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