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Saturday, September 9, 2017

“Brush-off culture” led to flawed bond plan

I wrote the following opinion piece that appeared in both the Gazette and the Press-Citizen. I have updated it and added links below.

As a school board member, I had hoped to be able to support the district’s facilities bond proposal. I’ve always voted for school bonds in the past, and I publicly supported the 2013 ballot proposition giving the district the initial funding for its facilities improvements. But I’m voting “No” on the proposal that’s on the September 12 ballot.

Many have discussed the substantive problems with the bond plan, which funds capacity expansions that extend seven years out on the timeline, in many cases without any enrollment projections showing a need for them. A more sensible proposal would bond for a couple of years of projects, then reassess capacity needs based on updated projections.

How did we end up with such an enormous proposal? I believe it’s the result of serious problems with the district’s decision-making culture. In short, the district is resistant to any community input that doesn’t support its preconceived conclusions.

This culture has affected many district decisions. For example, it’s at the root of the district’s troubles with special education. Special ed parents had raised concerns about the district’s practices for years, yet the problems were ignored until outside authorities intervened, ordering the district to stop violating the law. An employee who raised concerns about the district’s seclusion enclosures was terminated for insubordination.

A related example arose last year when the board extended the superintendent’s contract and committed to giving him two large pay increases. When the mother of a student in special ed wanted to object to that decision—in a well-reasoned, thoughtful comment—a board member rebuked her and warned her that she could be held liable for defamation. When three board members explained why they opposed the proposal, the superintendent warned them that district policy banned board members from publicly expressing negative judgments of him (though the policy does not prohibit favorable comments).

Administrative proposals have routinely come with one-sided arguments—all pro, no con—and are sometimes presented at the eleventh hour, giving the board little choice but to approve them. When 2,500 residents submitted a legal ballot petition on the demolition of Hoover School, the board rejected it. The district then spent scarce funds defending that decision, only to lose in court.

This same “brush-off culture” characterized the process that led to the bond proposal. The district held elaborate “listening posts” only to disregard the input it received. Many people had legitimate concerns about the size and content of the proposal, but rather than pursue compromise and consensus, bond proponents doubled down on the existing plan, putting an extraordinary seven years of projects into the bond. Anyone who had doubts was either uninformed or not supportive of “the kids.”

Such a closed environment is inevitably liable to capture by well-funded interests. Now we have an enormous bond proposal, with proponents raising huge amounts of campaign money—twenty or thirty times what a typical school board campaign costs—and with the large majority of it from a small handful of banks, developers, and construction interests.

This is the district on its best behavior, with its hand out for $191 million. If it receives that entire spending authority all at once, there will be little reason for it to change its ways.

Good decisions don’t come out of a culture that is so resistant to differing points of view. The bond proposal is one product of that culture, and it shows. The board should come back with a more reasonable proposal next year, and in the meantime should strive to show progress in repairing the district’s broken decision-making culture.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Updated campaign finance reports

Both sides of the bond campaign had to file contribution and expenditure reports today. The “Yes” side’s report is here; it’s previous reports are here and here. The “No” side’s report is here; its previous report is here.

So far, the “Yes” campaign has raised $99,429.16—that’s over thirty times what the average board candidate raised. Nineteen donors have given a total of $1000 or more; those donors accounted for almost two-thirds of the total. They are:

Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce
$ 17,500
Hills Bank
$   8,006.85
University of Iowa Community Credit Union
$   8,000
MidwestOne Bank
$   7,506.31
Southgate Development Service
$   4,000
Gary Watts Real Estate & Development
$   2,500
Neumann Monson, Inc.
$   2,000
Hayek, Moreland, Smith, Bergus, L.L.P.
$   2,000
Arlington Development, Inc.
$   2,000
Maxwell Construction
$   2,000
U.S. Bank
$   1,200
Houser Enterprises
$   1,000
RPB Properties, L.L.C.
$   1,000
Rohrbach Associates, P.C.
$   1,000
TLD, Inc.
$   1,000
Cedar Rapids Building Trades, CR/IC
$   1,000
Veridian Credit Union
$   1,000
Mark Moen and Bobby Jett (jointly)
$   2,000

On the “No” side, there were no $1,000 donors. The largest contribution was $250. So far they’ve raised a total of $2502. That means the “Yes” group has raised almost forty times as much as the “No” group.

School board candidates also filed campaign finance reports today. Here’s how much each candidate has raised (click on the candidate’s name to see the report):

$ 7,425.31
$ 6,395
$ 3,352.89
$ 2,700
$    985
$    770
$    760
*Includes $902.89 carried over from his previous campaign.

The biggest single contributor to school board candidates appears to be Adam Ingersoll, who gave $500 to Janet Godwin and $1,000 to Ruthina Malone (as well as $1,000 to the “Yes” campaign). Ingersoll is a college admissions test prep consultant.

Finally, the Save Hoover Committee raised $602.40 (including $382.40 carried over from the previous campaign cycle).

Contributions made after September 2 will not be reported until January.

School district needs to stop breaking the law

The Johnson County district court ruled today that our school board majority acted illegally by refusing to forward the Hoover ballot petition to the County Auditor for placement on the September 12 ballot. The decision is here.
Plainly, if the injunction is not granted, the electors and voters, including Plaintiffs, will lose their ability to call to vote and vote upon a matter which the relevant statutes provide to them a right and power to vote. Moreover, their inability to call to vote and vote on the matter would occur despite their proper exercise of the right and power accorded by the relevant statutory provisions.

. . .

Finally, the court finds that the public interest in granting injunctive relief weighs in its favor, particularly in light of the fact that the relevant statutory provisions provide the clear right and power to voters and electors to vote on these matters of public interest.

(Emphasis added.) The court ordered the board to forward the petition to the Auditor. What will happen next is not entirely clear. The court decided that it did not have jurisdiction to order the issue placed on the September 12 ballot and that it would be impractical to do so at this point in any event. The September 12 election will go forward with the currently planned ballot.

I’ll update this post later with more details. But please keep in mind: If the board had forwarded the petition to the Auditor as it was legally required to do, this matter would have cost this district and the county nothing other than a bit of ink (since there was an election occurring anyway). How much has the district now spent—from the general fund, which pays for teachers in the classrooms—to defend the board’s illegal action?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Change versus more of the same

I’m a believer in meaningful democratic control of the public school system. I think it’s at the heart of generating good decisions about school policies and practices. At some level I think everyone knows that a big bureaucratic institution, left to run itself without democratic oversight, will not always act in the public interest—even if, like ours, it’s staffed by many good people. The primary role of the elected board is to ensure that the institution belongs to and answers to the public.

There is a real danger, though, of what they call in other contexts “regulatory capture.” Board members—who are unpaid part-time volunteers, after all—come to depend on the administrators who they’re charged with overseeing, and come to rely on them for most of the information they receive. Before long, it can start to seem like the board is working for the administration, rather than the other way around. It can be uncomfortable for a board to exercise real oversight over the people it works with all the time, just like supervising any employee can sometimes require hard conversations. But if board members back away from that responsibility, the public interest suffers.

What I want for this district is a board that’s willing to exercise that responsibility, even when it’s uncomfortable. I believe our current board has failed in that task. The clearest demonstration of that was the board’s decision last October to extend the superintendent’s contract out to three years and to give him the largest raise in the district and to commit to another large raise the following year—at a time when the district had experienced serious problems with legal non-compliance and also with its culture and climate. (See this post.) There should not be such a disconnect between the board’s oversight of the administration and the reality of the district’s performance.

So my main criteria for choosing candidates is whether I think they will change this pattern—whether they will withstand the subtle and overt pressures to take a hands-off approach to oversight. In my judgment, the candidates who are most likely to take administrative oversight seriously are Karen Woltman, Laura Westemeyer, JP Claussen, and, for the two-year seat, Charlie Eastham.

I’m not saying that the candidates have to be pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries. Karen Woltman, for example, is as judicious, considerate, and reasonable as anyone you’ll meet. But she knows how to think critically about a proposal and how to withstand the pressure to join a bandwagon, as she showed when she was sole dissenter on the state assessment task force’s recommendation to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced Assessments. (See this post.) Her ability to explain her point of view persuasively and stay focused on issues, rather than personalities, is her strength.

I know from Charlie Eastman’s longstanding involvement with equity issues in the district that he’s capable of pushing back against district decisions when he thinks they’re wrong. In my experience, he’s a straight shooter and is serious about engaging with people who raise questions about district practices and policies. Similarly, I’ve seen JP Claussen ask hard, challenging questions, both to his political opponents and his supporters, in situations where the easy thing would have been to remain silent. I believe that both of them are well suited to engaging in meaningful administrative oversight.

Of all the candidates, Laura Westemeyer has been the most openly critical of the district, and she’s the only candidate who has said she will vote against the bond. She’s been particularly critical of the district’s handling of special education—and why shouldn’t she be? If our district had been more open to what special education parents (and others) were telling it for years, there might never have been a Westemeyer candidacy. In any event, she’s more than demonstrated that she’s unlikely to be a rubber stamp.

In my view, those are the “change” candidates. The remaining candidates seem to be offering the same approach to board service that we’ve seen from the board majority over the last two years or more. Shawn Eyestone and Ruthina Malone have both been good soldiers for the district’s PTOs and committees for years, and that’s valuable work. But if the administration could choose its own candidates, they are the kind it would choose. Some of their statements—for example, Eyestone’s statement here and Malone’s statement here—make me wonder whether they have already begun to identify with the administration in a way that would make it less likely that they will engage in effective oversight. Janet Godwin, the chief operating officer of ACT, has conducted a stay-the-course campaign and (as I wrote here) seems very similar to our current board chair; if anyone seems like a “more of the same” candidate, it’s Godwin.

Any one of these candidates could end up surprising us if they’re elected. All you can do is try to make an educated guess about how they’d act as board members, and of course your guess, and your priorities, may be different from mine. I appreciate the fact that anyone is willing to run for these seats, since it’s a big, uncompensated time commitment and also means publicly taking a lot of heat (for example, in blog posts like this one!). Whoever wins, I hope the board will re-assess its recent approach and start to more actively exercise meaningful oversight of the district’s administration. In my view, the success of all the board’s initiatives depends on that threshold change.


Other posts about the school board candidates:

Some things you should know about Karen Woltman
Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD
Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

For links to candidate websites and other election information, click here.

Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD

One of our school board candidates, Janet Godwin, happens to be the chief operating officer of ACT, Inc., the big standardized testing company that has its headquarters in Iowa City. A number of people have raised concerns about the conflicts that might create.

I’m not so worried about the direct legal conflicts; I assume that if Godwin is elected, she’ll have to recuse herself from any votes involving contracts with ACT. But I do worry about a broader kind of conflict. Many of the trends that have been spreading through education for the past twenty years are inextricably linked to an elevation of the role of standardized testing. In my view, that has led to a kind of reductive thinking about education and a de-emphasis of subjects (e.g., art, music) and qualities (e.g., intellectual curiosity, intrinsic motivation, critical inquiry about received ideas) that either aren’t or can’t be measured by a standardized test. How likely is it that the Chief Operating Officer of ACT could act to help reduce the role of standardized testing in educational policy?

A more concrete example: Last year, Godwin informed roughly sixty ACT employees that their positions were being eliminated because ACT was trying to shift away from paper-and-pencil testing to digital testing (which, in general, sells at a higher price). This trend toward digital coincides with the district’s own movement toward digital, as this year it starts the major ongoing investment of providing Chromebooks to every secondary student. Whatever you might think about the district’s decision, it would be useful to at least consider whether that trend in education is driven in some part by the money that can be made by private companies as a result. Godwin is not in the best position to raise that kind of question.

I’m also concerned about further immersing the school district in a corporate-style culture. I wrote here about why I think a public governmental entity is fundamentally different from a corporation in important ways. I’m afraid that our district has lost sight of that distinction, and that Godwin would be unlikely to reverse that trend. (At one point, during the candidate forums, Godwin even accidentally referred to the district as “this company.”) Our current board chair, Chris Lynch, also comes from a corporate operations culture; I don’t see much to distinguish Godwin’s approach to school governance from Lynch’s. As someone who would like to see a shift toward more democratically-informed governance, I will be looking to other candidates.

Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

Last year, before she was a candidate for the school board, Ruthina Malone spoke at the community comment portion of one of our board meetings. Part of her comment was about equity issues in the district. But her first topic was about the board’s evaluation of the superintendent:
First, I would like to urge the board to finalize Superintendent Murley’s evaluation and share those results with the community. As we enter a new school year, this should be something addressed, since this has been an ongoing agenda item for the last few board meetings. I’m sure there are many facets to his evaluation, but I believe that the community has a right to be informed of his overall performance from the eyes of our elected board. The community is looking forward for all of you to share any concerns or praises that you may have. Additionally, the board may benefit from offering an opportunity for feedback from the school community related to his performance. If the directors are contemplating ending his contract, the board should take into account that a potential search for a new superintendent will cost the district several thousands of dollars, time, effort, that would take away from other pressing issues. I feel that he and the school community deserves to have a resolution to what appears to be a very lengthy evaluation period.
(Emphasis added. Full recording here.)

The superintendent evaluation process is ongoing throughout the year, and the board doesn’t make the evaluation itself public. But to the extent that Malone was urging the board to make a decision about whether to extend the superintendent’s contract (technically a separate process, voted on publicly), it was a perfectly defensible issue to raise.

So what are my concerns? In my experience, board candidates all talk about holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance, but once they’re on the board—working constantly with the administration and depending largely on the administration for its information—there’s not much follow-through. I was disappointed last year when, just two months after Malone’s comment, the board chose to extend the superintendent’s contract from two years to three and to give him not one but two large pay increases. To me, that doesn’t reflect meaningful oversight, especially given some of the problems we had with legal compliance in the preceding year. (See this post.) One of the rationales offered for that decision was the same point Malone raised here—that it would cost a lot of money to conduct a superintendent search.

In my view, the board’s failure to engage in meaningful oversight of the superintendent plays a big part in many of the problems in our district—including some of those that Malone raised in the rest of her comment. Of course the board can’t fire the superintendent every time it’s dissatisfied with something, but somehow the idea that a superintendent search would be expensive led to extending his contract out to three years and giving him the biggest raise in the district.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Malone’s comment; you should reach your own conclusion. Unfortunately, voters often have to rely on educated guesses about which candidates will actually follow through on holding the administration accountable for the district’s performance. That Malone would devote part of her only community comment to arguing that a superintendent search would be expensive—and this before she’s even on the board—just makes me concerned about how assertively she would exercise the board’s oversight responsibility if she’s elected.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

No more temporaries!—er, never mind

When the district debuted its PowerPoint presentation about the bond, it contained a slide titled “No more Temporaries,” declaring:


It wasn’t long, though, before that slide was deleted from the presentation. Now the presentation promises only the “reduction of temporary classrooms.” Even the district’s own materials have to concede that kids will still be in temporaries after the entire $191 million is spent.

Where is this most likely? First, in the North Corridor. The district’s enrollment projections show virtually no growth in elementary enrollment in the area around Liberty High even ten years out. But in fact, in the time since our demographers made the projections, final platted developments including over two thousand units of housing have been filed in Coralville, as well as a smaller number in North Liberty. Drive around there and you’ll see it happening.

Second, at Alexander Elementary. Alexander is currently using four temporary classrooms and has already converted three interior common spaces into classrooms. And its enrollment is projected to grow. The bond plan gives it a four-classroom addition seven years from now.

Third, Hills Elementary. Hills currently has eight temporary rooms—four being used as classrooms and four as resource rooms. It receives nothing at all from the bond plan.

Is it too much to ask that after spending $191 million on facilities—including on three sets of blue-chip high school athletic facilities—we wouldn’t still have kids in temporary classrooms?