Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Does closing Roosevelt correct past mistakes?

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 19, 2009)

Months ago, the Press-Citizen Editorial Board provided a list of questions about the Iowa City School Board's proposed plans to decommission Roosevelt Elementary and to build a new elementary off Camp Cardinal Boulevard on the western edge of Iowa City.

Although the plan is not scheduled to be finalized until the June 9 school board meeting, Superintendent Lane Plugge has renewed his support of the proposal, and a majority of the school board members seem to back it as well. Critics of the plan have vowed to keep fighting.

In the weeks before the decision is finalized -- and in the two years until the Roosevelt building would cease to be a K-6 school -- the district needs to continue conversations on how best to meet the needs of the affected students as well as how to balance the needs of one school against the needs of the district as a whole.

Here are some of the answers we've found to our earlier questions:

• What constitutes a "neighborhood school"? Is it geographic proximity alone? Or should a school still be described as a "neighborhood school" when a large portion of students are bused in from homes that are closer to other schools?

If "neighborhood school" means one in which most students in the attendance area live close enough to walk to school, then the Iowa City district has very few "neighborhood schools." The boundary lines often include twists and turns that address democratic and socio-economic concerns of decades past. Of the 340 students who attend Roosevelt, for example, 100 live close enough to walk to school, 175 are bussed in and 65 have transferred in from other districts.

Although Roosevelt Elementary definitely is an asset to the Miller-Orchard Neighborhood -- a neighborhood that for decades has been struggling to stabilize and thrive -- many of the students who live close enough to walk to school would still be within walking distance of Horn, which is located just .7 miles away.

The district's future uses of the Roosevelt building -- especially the possibility of using it as a preschool site -- would lessen the blow to the surrounding neighborhood.

• How big is too big for an elementary school?

According to the recent reports, elementary student populations in the district range from 137 at Hills to 597 at Van Allen. The new school would absorb some of the 540 students at Weber, which is overcapacity, and several of the 438 Kirkwood students. The proposal calls for expanding Horn from 292 to about 400.

• At what point is it in the district's best interest to tear down an existing facility and to rebuild it somewhere else?

District administrators maintain that the main difference between Roosevelt and the district's other older schools -- Mann, Longfellow and Lincoln-- is that Roosevelt's classrooms are physically smaller than the district's standards. Because many of the walls between classrooms are load-bearing and cannot be shifted, any major upgrade to keep Roosevelt functioning as a K-6 school for another few decades would continue to cram students into spaces too small. (And if the district were to change the class sizes in Roosevelt to better fit within the school's smaller rooms, then it would have to increase class sizes in other schools to free up the money needed to pay the extra teachers.)

• How well is the school board living up to the promises made before the 2007 SILO election?

During the campaign for the 2007 SILO election, the district promised to conduct a facility study to determine the best way to allocate the money for new construction and maintenance of existing buildings. Its five-year facilities plan is based on that study.

School officials say that the proposed plan is better deal financially than other options because overcrowding at west-side elementary schools means that the district will need to construct a new school regardless of what happens with Roosevelt.

The proposed plan would cost about $13.8 million, while remodeling Roosevelt and building off Camp Cardinal Boulevard would cost about $16.6 million. Tearing down Roosevelt, leasing a facility for a year or two and constructing a new Roosevelt on the present site would cost even more.

• How might the decisions facing today's school board bind the hands of future school boards?

Because the district's facilities plan doesn't include any major upgrades for the district's oldest buildings, many critics have charged the board and administration with a policy of benign neglect. But the administration has addressed the facilities needs of Roosevelt in recent years, and Plugge repeatedly stresses that there are no plans to close any other schools. The current board, in fact, seems to be trying to correct inequities throughout the district that were left to fester by previous boards and administrators.

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