Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It’s the closing, not relocation, of Roosevelt

There's been some concern that this "Our View" focuses too much on what amounts to a semantic difference. But I think it's important to call public officials whenever they try to minimize the impact of their decisions through euphemisms.

The sometimes passionate discussions about the Iowa City School Board’s Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan have brought up a number of important questions the Iowa City area needs to address as community:

* What is the value of maintaining a “neighborhood school” philosophy?

* What constitutes a “neighborhood school”? Is it geographic proximity alone? Can a school still be described as a “neighborhood school” when a large portion of students are bused in from homes that are geographically closer to other schools?

* How big is too big for an elementary school?

* How committed should the district be to keep existing facilities functioning as long as possible? At what point it is in the district’s best interest to tear down an existing facility and to rebuild it somewhere else?

* How well is the school board living up to the promises made before the 2007 SILO vote?

* And how might the decisions facing today’s school board bind the hands of future school boards?

The facilities plan (which can be viewed at already has inspired a number of critiques from Press-Citizen readers. Those critiques have focused both on what’s not included in the plan — no major upgrades to district’s oldest schools and no clear plan on how the district should move forward to alleviate high school over-crowding — as well as on one major component included in the plan: Closing Roosevelt.

Over the next few weeks, the Opinion page will include many more letters and columns attempting to answer the questions raised in these critiques. But to aid that discussion, we think it’s important to clear up some of the language used to describe what’s being proposed for Roosevelt elementary.

Even though school officials would prefer everyone use phrases like “replacing Roosevelt” or “constructing a new Roosevelt,” it’s more accurate to say that the proposal amounts to “closing” Roosevelt.

The facilities plan suggests:

* Decommissioning Roosevelt’s existing building (to be sold or used for another purpose),

* Constructing a new Roosevelt building along Camp Cardinal Boulevard,

* Expanding Horn from 280 to 400 students and

* Redrawing all the boundaries among all westside elementaries.

School officials say that the plan is a better deal financially than other options — such as expanding Horn while either fixing Roosevelt or rebuilding it on its present site — because the district will need to construct a new school at The Crossing regardless of what happens with the other schools. While the proposed plan would cost about $13.8 million, remodeling Roosevelt and constructing a new school at the Crossings would cost about $16.6 million — and it would cost millions more for the district to tear down Roosevelt, to lease a facility for a year or two and then to construct a new Roosevelt on the Benton Street site.

Even as school officials try to discuss the different options, they often trip over how to refer to the different Roosevelts being proposed: the “existing Roosevelt,” the “new Roosevelt at the Crossing” or the “rebuilt Roosevelt.” Their semantic and linguistic awkwardness all seems an elaborate way to avoid saying what the proposed plan actually means: The district needs to close Roosevelt and to build a new school in a new neighborhood that will bear no relation to the existing Roosevelt, even if some Roosevelt staff members and students relocate to the new school.

The Press-Citizen Editorial Board is making plans to speak with district officials next week to discuss how their plans would affect busing, school size and other features of “neighborhood schools.” And it may be that, after more community discussions, the proposed plan turns out to be the best option for helping the district:

* Address the infrastructure needs of an aging facility,

* Respond to the continued growth on Iowa City’s west side and

* Ensure the racial and socioeconomic diversity of all west side elementaries.

But school officials are not being honest — neither with themselves nor with the community — when they pretend their proposal is anything other than an outright closing of Roosevelt. If school officials decide to move forward with this plan, they’ll need to stop insulting the intelligence of the Roosevelt community.

Their first step should be to own up to the implications of their plan and to start calling the new school at The Crossing something other than “the new Roosevelt.”

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