Friday, February 20, 2009

The debate over Roosevelt school

Recently University of Iowa officials acknowledged that they have a series of problems communicating with the public. Their answer was to create a new high-salary position — vice president of strategic communications — and then to hire to consultants to work until that position is filled. My answer is to have them just speak more plainly, be more forthright and provide the public information that people ask for.

After many conversations about the Iowa City School Board's facilities plan, I'm starting to see a few similarities in the way that school officials are responding to some of the questions. Because I definitely don’t want the district to have to hire high-priced help to craft their message, I'd like to submit the following as an example of how I think the district should respond to the many good questions raised by the guest columnists in tomorrow's (Saturday's) Opinion Forum.

Here's an example of what I wish they’d say:

The Press-Citizen Editorial Board is right: the Iowa City School Board’s plan is to close Roosevelt. Any talk about “replacing” the school or “relocating” it to Camp Cardinal Boulevard has been deliberate message crafting.

So let’s say it plainly and not get hung up on semantics: Because of Roosevelt’s condition and limitations, it is not a building that the district should invest in right now. But let’s also say plainly that we are convinced that changing the attendance areas and opening a new school will help right the "wrong" of busing low-income students past Horn for more than three decades.

Yes, it’s somewhat is duplicitous for us to say we are closing Roosevelt because it has too many poor kids. After all, our district policies are partially responsible for creating those conditions. It’s important that we own up to our part in those bad policies before we explain how the new plan would make the situation more equitable for all west-side schools.

But unfortunately the fervor over Roosevelt — a decision that is years down the road — is being fueled by concerns for the long-term plans for other facilities, namely Longfellow and Mann. As a result, too much time and attention is being taken away from the most pressing issue facing the district: Because of state budget cuts and declining revenues, Iowa City area schools are facing a budget crisis that is daunting at a time of continued growth.

It’s important for everyone to remember that school funding is always based on the student numbers from the year before. That may make sense for the districts in the state that have a steady enrollment. But districts experiencing growth — especially those growing as quickly as we are — are always stretching dollars to make funding based on last year’s numbers work for this year’s students.

To break even with where we were last year, the district would have to cut nearly $1 million from our current year budget, which ends June 30. That simply isn’t possible, and it probably means we will have to dip into an already very low reserve fund.

For next year, we are looking at having to possibly cut $6.8 million from the budget. That’s not just a “tightening of the belt” cut. It means many hard decisions about our general fund dollars will have to be made and made quickly (the PPEL and SILO funds will remain stable in comparison). It could mean increasing property taxes, bigger class sizes, bell schedule changes, less extra services and even staff cuts — which we all pray won’t happen.

Amid these hard short-term decisions, we also need to decide how to redistrict the high school attendance areas before we run out of room at West High in 2012. Unfortunately, given the state budget situation, we don’t have anywhere near the money needed to build and to staff another secondary building.

None of these questions have easy answers. They all require a complicated balance between addressing the needs of individual schools and making decisions that are in the best interest of the district as a whole. It is always easy to come up with answers when you are concerned and focused on your own children; it really is much more difficult when you have to keep your focus on what is best for all of the children.

In order for you to trust us to make those decisions, we need to make sure that your concerns are being heard and addressed. Please read through the plans on the district Web site and share your thoughts at one or both of the public forums on the proposed changes to elementary school boundaries: 7 p.m., March 2 at West High, and 10 a.m., March 7, at Northwest Junior High.

The above statement wouldn’t alleviate everyone’s concerns — nor would it make the Roosevelt community feel any better about the decision to close the school. But at least it would set the tone for a candid conversation about some very hard decisions that need to be made soon.

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