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School Board Has Only Itself to Blame for School-Closing Disaster PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 29 January 2002 18:00
It was almost like the old movie cliché: the packed public meeting at which angry and emotional townspeople give passionate, eloquent speeches that convince the council to Do the Right Thing. But Monday’s meeting of the Davenport school board didn’t end with a dramatic tie-breaking vote and the cheers of hundreds of people. Instead, after more than three hours and four-dozen speakers, the board voted 6-1 to close Grant and Johnson elementary schools. If it wasn’t what members of the audience had hoped for, it was exactly what they expected.

School-board members talked about the difficulty of facing so many people who were so attached to their small neighborhood schools. They talked about how hard the decision was, and about how they had no alternative. The district’s projected deficit of $3.2 million on June 30, 2002, made drastic action necessary, they said.

The audience didn’t buy it for a minute, and for that, members of the school board have only themselves to blame.

It’s true that no matter how the school board approached the issue of closing schools, parents, students, and teachers would be upset. But the political fiasco that culminated with Monday’s vote could have easily been avoided.

Everything about the process goosed suspicion and mistrust. Consider:

• After the closing of Johnson and Grant schools was pulled off the table in late 2000, the issue wasn’t raised again until the January 14 school-board meeting. The vote was scheduled for January 28, giving parents little time to organize, have questions answered, and gather information.

• School-district administrators didn’t have a breakdown of the $2.3 million in projected savings to present to the public at the January 14 meeting. That information was offered at the January 28 meeting, after the public had spoken and just before the school board voted.

• Parents and interested citizens had no opportunity to review the cost-savings projections before the January 28 meeting. When I asked Davenport Superintendent Jim Blanche for the breakdown on Friday, January 25, he replied, “We’re going to share that Monday night.” Blanche also seemed puzzled that anybody would need time to study the figures. “The numbers are the numbers,” he said.

• The cost-saving information was still incomplete at Monday’s meeting. While the utility costs for Grant and Johnson were considered in the numbers, maintenance costs – such as cutting the grass – were not. In addition, increased transportation costs of $27,456 were not factored in to the school-closings picture. Those oversights don’t change the figures dramatically, but they certainly don’t engender trust.

To some degree, it seemed as if the school district and its board were prepared for the firestorm and just wanted to get it over with, whatever the political consequences and whatever damage it might do to the relationship between the district and its taxpayers. “There will be a vote on Monday,” Blanche said last week. “A decision needs to be made.”

Why prolong the suffering? If the entire public process is compacted into 15 days, it won’t be fun, but at least it will be done.

It didn’t have to be nearly so rancorous, though.

Even if closing Johnson and Grant is the best thing for the district, and even if any vote would have resulted in the schools’ closure, board members and administrators just didn’t get one thing: A patient and public process will result in much less animosity than shoving something down the public’s throat.

What might that process have looked like? It probably would have begun last fall, when the Iowa legislature cut its funding to schools by 4.3 percent. At that point, the school district was already dealing with a deficit of $2.2 million, and the state action increased that amount to $4.9 million. The school district knew then that it was in serious trouble, but the subject of closing schools was not raised.

In December, the board made cuts that optimistically would save the district $1.8 million, leaving a deficit of at least $3.1 million. There was still no mention of closing Johnson and Grant schools.

And when the process did start, it should have been transparent and open.

It might have included a series of public forums at which administrators laid out the district’s financial situation; discussed restrictions on certain funding streams; presented alternatives; and listened to ideas from parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers.

The process might have also included preference voting by school-board members and the public to narrow down the list of alternatives. That technique has been used at several town-hall-style meetings hosted by the City of Davenport on such contentious issues as what the city should do with land it owns at 53rd Street and Eastern Avenue.

At that point, the district staff could have prepared a list of options A, B, C, and D, rather than presenting only A. The staff could have listed with each option pros and cons, a cost/benefit analysis, and a breakdown of how much money might be saved.

Blanche claims that the district did consider alternatives. When asked whether the district has explored all possibilities, including recommendations from parents, he said, “Many of those things they’ve presented, we considered. … There’s just one factor after another that points to this.” He seemed baffled that citizens doubt him.

But the public didn’t see the district considering alternatives. The public part of the process consisted of the district giving the board the opportunity to vote a single proposal up or down.

Offering only one alternative gives the impression that there’s no other option, which is rarely if ever true. As one audience member said on Monday night, “There’s always another solution.”
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