Thursday, January 29, 2009

Concerns about the Iowa City School Board's five-year facilities plan

The final version of this probably will be trimmed quite a bit, but here's a draft of our editorial response to Tuesday's meeting of the Iowa City School Board.

Oddly enough, controversies about the Iowa City Community School District’s $51 million, five-year facility improvement plan seem to come less from what was actually in the plan (a new building for Roosevelt Elementary and a 12-classroom upgrade at North Central Junior High) and more from what was left out of the plan (any major improvements for the district’s two oldest elementaries and any details about moving forward with a third comprehensive high school).

The school board did not take any action on the facility plan Tuesday and plans to discuss it further at its Feb. 9 meeting. Anyone wanting more specifics should read thorugh the nine-page plan ( and attend the meeting.

Closing Roosevelt

On Tuesday, district officials unveiled their plan to replace Roosevelt over the next few years. Because a recent study found that the school needed more than $5 million in repair, the district decided that constructing a new facility would be a more efficient use of funds than updating the 78-year-old building. The school — which has handicap accessibility issues and is over capacity — also was cited by the Iowa Department of Education last year as being "racially and socio-economically isolated" because of a higher percentage of minority and low-income students.

Because the district-owned land surrounding Roosevelt doesn’t provide any suitable sites for a new school, the board and administrators are planning to expand nearby Horn Elementary, to build a new elementary on the land the district owns along Camp Cardinal Boulevard and then to redraw the school boundaries between the area elementaries.

Several parents and teachers at Roosevelt Elementary who attended Tuesday night’s school board meeting said they were generally supportive of the proposal.

What about the two oldest elementaries?

But the decision to decommission Roosevelt’s building also has parents and residents worried about the long-term plans for the district’s oldest elementaries, Longfellow and Mann. Many of those residents said they voted for a Local Option Sales Tax in 2007 because they assumed at least some of the money would be used to improve the older schools. Yet the five-year plan doesn’t include any major improvements — despite Mann already having been tagged for being out of compliance with the American Disabilities Act.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board and administrators assured those concerned that they didn’t have plans to close any schools in the next five years. But they also said they can’t make promises beyond the five-year mark because most of the board members will turn over before then. What to do about Mann and Longfellow, they said, will be the responsibility of a future board.

While there doesn’t seem to be an overt “sin of commission” in terms of current school officials actively arguing to close Longfellow and Mann, those officials may be committing a “sin of omission.” By not updating the two older buildings, the administration and board risk allowing Mann and Longfellow to continue to deteriorate until the schools will have to close sometime in the next generation.

"What they're proposing is essentially demolition by benign neglect," said Michael Wright, Iowa City Councilor and former chairman of the Northside Neighborhood Association. "With no capital investment, old buildings become more outdated and less desirable. In the case of Mann, with limited land for a new building, I firmly believe a creative architect and a school board and administration committed to core neighborhoods could assure the future of the facility."

If the Longfellow building were to close sometime in the next decade or two, the district probably would build a new school in the nearby soccer field — meaning that the neighborhood wouldn’t lose out on a school. And while there’s less land surrounding Mann, the district might be able work with the city to build a new facility in the nearby the nearby North Market Square Park — that is, if a later board were to decide the building wasn’t worth saving.

Either way, the neighbors are concerned that if the district doesn’t address their concerns about the schools in the next five years, then the current board and school administrators, in effect, are limiting the options for future boards.

Third high school

Although the plan states that the district’s “enrollment projections do not show a need for a third comprehensive high school in the next five years,” the school board is continuing to live up to its promises in the SILO campaign and to set aside $3.2 million per year for 10 years. The set aside money could be used to build a third comprehensive high school for 600-800 students, but SILO money cannot be used to pay the estimated annual operating costs of $2 million for staff and $1 million for utilities and maintenance.

Instead, the board is asking for more community discussion on what type facility the district needs to serve its growing high school population. Some the options that have been discussed include:

* A ninth-grade center,

* A magnet school or

* A comprehensive high school (which the district says it can’t afford to operate).

The plan states, “The Board of Directors and community must engage in a candid discussion of updated high school enrollments and capacity and develop a long range high school enrollment plan prior to a major construction initiative.”

But those discussions have been taking place for the past few years. Even as the district deals with short-term effects of the state budget cuts announced Wednesday, it will have to take specific steps over the next five years to ensure that another high school comes to fruition.

Those steps should have been outlined in this plan. Hopefully, they will be included in the 10-15-year plan that is scheduled to be available on the district’s Web site Friday. And, if not explained in that plan, hopefully the details will be discussed in the Feb. 9 board meeting.

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