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Is Davenport School District’s Task Force a Farce? PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Editorials
Tuesday, 02 April 2002 18:00
On Wednesday, April 3, an informal community meeting will be held at 7pm in Johnson Elementary, 1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport, for the public to speak on the possible closings of Johnson and Grant schools. On Monday, April 15, the Davenport Community School District will hold a formal public hearing on the closings—the final opportunity for the public’s voice to be heard on this crucial matter.

A coalition of parents from both schools appealed the district’s January 28th decision to close the facilities to the Iowa Department of Education, but the appeal was continued so that something could be worked out to keep the schools open—or at least that is what the parents thought.

District representatives asked to continue the appeal so that they could go back and “reconsider their vote” to close. According to Alan Guard, one of the Grant parents bringing the appeal, parents specifically asked if that meant that the District would “vote up or down” to close the schools at their next meeting scheduled for March 11th. The district responded in the affirmative. (It is important to note that in the vernacular of government, to “reconsider” normally means to revote. This might explain why the terminology in the District’s subsequent resolution reads “reexamine” instead.)

However, upon returning from Des Moines, the District set the agenda for the March 11th meeting to include rescinding its own policy for school closings, and eliminating its policy that governed school boundaries. (Both policies require advance notice to the public, as well as the public’s input before a final decision is made.) These two actions would better clear the way to close the schools with less hindrance from the public. By way of explanation, the district said in a letter to the parents, “We will not be bound by policy in making decisions we are forced to make.” What will they be bound by if not their own policies? Initially, the District flatly denied these policies were binding to begin with, yet formally rescinded them mere weeks later—just in case they happened to be binding.

This is typical bunker conduct for the Davenport School District. Even though a task force was created to “reexamine” the decision to close the schools, the above actions best indicate the district’s true intentions—to close the two schools regardless of the facts, or the wishes of the community.

Consider the mission of the task force that was established to review the District’s decision to close the schools. It is made up of Grant and Johnson parents, District administrators, a school board member, and citizens whose purpose it is to reevaluate the data upon which the decisions to close the schools were made, as well as evaluate alternatives to the closings. However, in crafting the rules under which the task force operates, the district deliberately eliminated the requirement of proving merit or financial feasibility of any of the alternatives, including that of closing the schools. This way, the district removes itself from any real scrutiny under the task-force guidelines. During the first task-force meeting, the facilitator (who was hired outside the District’s staff, even though we have 14 full-time facilitators on staff earning approximately $88,000 annually, including benefits) stated that no preferences would be chosen by this group from the alternatives presented. There will be no analysis of comparative data to determine, for instance, the impact on education of closing two schools versus removing three associate principals.

It is important to note that Superintendent Jim Blanche boasts that the district’s administrative costs are the lowest among urban districts in the State “as a percentage of the overall budget.” What Mr. Blanche does not tell us is that the District’s “overall budget” reflects local-sales-tax-option monies that are not available to most of the other districts in the state, and $6 million in federal funds that far exceeds what other districts receive. These two funding sources inflate this district’s budget so that any expenditure as a percentage will likely appear lower than the rest of the state. When Mr. Blanche does an apples-to-apples comparison with the rest of the state, and compares his administrative costs as a percentage of the general fund, which excludes the local-sales-tax-option and federal dollars, then Davenport is among the highest in the state at 10.3% (this information is readily available on the district’s own website at www.davenport.k12.ia.us/~dcsd).

This task force represents another disingenuous effort on the part of the school district to be inclusive when in reality its mind is made up. The time frame alone is woefully inadequate to do the due diligence necessary for a professional, intelligent, and meaningful, not to mention accurate, examination of the data. The task force will present its report to the board on April 15th at the public hearing, and the board will vote on closing the schools on April 22nd at its regular meeting—hardly sufficient time to accomplish a true “reexamination.”

To the parents’ credit, they are persevering under thoroughly unreasonable constraints and timeframes. They have asked for various documents and information for examination, including the itemized budget (for which the District, initially, was charging $56, but it backed off the absurd cost); job descriptions for all staff (they are still waiting for this information); a list of all “associate principals”, including salaries, benefits, etc, (they were given a list for “assistant principals” instead); and data showing the reallocation of teachers based on the closings of Grant and Johnson (they were given a spread sheet that depicted the reallocation, but when the data revealed serious errors in the district’s calculations, the parents were told they had the wrong spread sheet). The parents are now relatively certain the district’s financials are more than fuzzy, and they now question whether the district is truly saving the $2.8 million it claims it will if it closes Grant and Johnson. In other words, the district’s data is no longer credible.

The district is fond of framing issues in a way that pits one segment of the community against the rest. Such was the case with the Sugar Bowl. It was “preservationists” against the rest of the community, including students. Now the district points to a small group of parents against the larger community of parents and residents, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, these parents are incredibly focused on the district as a whole, which includes all students, parents, and their schools. These parents have worked tirelessly and are proving their positions with solid, well-researched science that all residents should avail themselves of. So far, the District appears to be both unable and unwilling to do the same.

The parents bring research to the table that shows precisely how important smaller, neighborhood schools are in educating students, especially at-risk kids. Smaller schools are far more productive, achieving significantly higher scholastic results than larger schools. Where is the science from the District that refutes this, or demonstrates better results with mega-schools? There is a long-term facility plan (by RDG Bussard Dikis, Des Moines) commissioned by the District that calls for the closings of nearly all the small, older inner-city schools by 2005, so that it can populate two mega schools to be constructed north of town. Where is the data in support of this plan? There is none, according to the RDG Facility Plan, which specifically states the closings were “assumed” in conducting its study.

I have always advocated the litmus test—if it’s the right thing to do, prove it. Show us the science. We are willing to be convinced, so convince us. If the district can not or will not deliver this basic measure of merit, then the community is entitled to its outrage over such lack of respect for public disclosure. Appropriate consequences should necessarily and swiftly follow, especially for school administrators who claim that theirs are the only solutions to the district’s financial woes, while they steadily increase their own salaries by 7% to 10% each year.
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