On May 8, the Iowa Department of Education's Administrative Law Judge, Susan Anderson, presided over an appeal filed by Davenport parents to reverse the Davenport School Board's (DSB) decision to close Grant and Johnson elementary schools. The appeal points to the Davenport Community School District's (DCSD) lack of process, ignoring state and local policies and procedures established for school closings. A decision should be forthcoming by mid-June.

Judge Anderson must consider whether the DCSD followed Iowa's Barker Guidelines, as well as its own 1980 policy, which set specific deadlines and procedures for notifying students and parents, and engaging the public in the decision-making process when it decided to close Grant and Johnson.

The appeal was first heard on March 5, when the judge asked the parents and the DCSD to go back and work things out before continuing with the appeal. Grant parent Alan Guard asked for clarification of "working things out" and was told by the DCSD's attorneys that the DCSD would "reconsider" the issue at its next meeting scheduled for March 11. According to Robert's Rules of Order, "reconsider" means an opportunity to revote on a previous issue. Guard maintains that his understanding of the judge's directive, according to the DCSD's legal counsel, meant that the Board intended to vote the matter up or down at its next regular meeting.

Instead, the Board returned on March 11 and immediately abolished its own 1980 policy, thereby sending a clear message of the bad faith by which it intended to operate. It eliminated any policy that would hold the district accountable to the public for any school closings. Now it only had the state's guidelines to overcome. It was only after this action that the Board then voted to "reexamine" the issue, changing the terminology so as not to be held accountable to Robert's Rules. It created a task force comprised of parents, one school board member, Superintendent Jim Blanche, and citizens from the community to examine alternatives to the closings, with the Board's final vote scheduled for April 22. This gave the task force approximately five weeks to accomplish what normally takes at least one year when done correctly.

The parents claim that the DCSD had no intention of examining any alternatives; it was going through a semblance of a process to satisfy the Barker Guidelines so that when the appeal was revisited, it could claim that it complied with the state's procedures. The evidence and recorded testimony bears the parents' allegations out.

During the public hearing on April 15, parents presented several viable options to the DSB for its consideration. Few questions were asked of the parents regarding the data they submitted, and the following week produced no further investigation of the alternatives by the board as a whole. Furthermore, out of eight task force meetings, no board member other than the member assigned to the task force attended more than two meetings. The CFO for the school district, Marcia Tangen, was also not in attendance for the majority of the meetings. No DCSD staff participated on a regular basis who was qualified to answer detailed questions relative to the budget, or to explain why the critical financial information kept changing.

When asked to justify its decision to close two elementary schools with detailed financial analysis, and compare such analysis with the well-documented alternatives that adequately saved the district the necessary money it needed to meet its entire budget shortfall, the DCSD flatly refused.

In addition, the DCSD's own policy dictated that any school closings must be initiated by October 15 of a given year, and finalized by January 15. Neither of these conditions was met by the DCSD in closing Grant and Johnson. (The Board voted to close the schools on January 28.) Nor did the DCSD meet the necessary criteria for involving the public in its decision. Both the state Barker Guidelines and the DCSD's 1980 policy require notification of students and parents; open and frank discussion with the public prior to any closings, and the board is charged with putting a process in place to collect data and research, and study the impact of any closings on enrollment, staff requirements, any boundary changes, etc. Parents learned of the closings just 17 days before the January vote via the media. In addition, Iowa case law demonstrates that teachers and administrators of the affected schools should also be part of the decision-making process, but this was also ignored by the DCSD in closing Grant and Johnson. All these parties, including neighboring residents and taxpayers, are entitled to be part of any DCSD decision that directly impacts their children and families. Regardless, the DCSD continues to engage in bunker tactics that alienate and enrage citizens.

However, it was not until the parents appealed the board's decision to close the schools, and Administrative Law Judge Anderson directed the parties to resolve things, that any sort of process involving the public took place. Meanwhile, it was during this time (from March 5 through April 22) that the DCSD filed its projected budget with the state (due by April 15) showing the two schools as closed, but before its final decision to actually close the schools took place on April 22. This further demonstrates the DCSD's disingenuous conduct.

It is curious that in the last two years, the DCSD, including its previous Board to no small degree, has been characterized at least twice as utilizing "bad faith" tactics in proceedings with the public. In the first case, 'bad faith" was alleged by the Historic Preservation Commission relative to the DCSD's demolition of the Sugar Bowl. It is no different in this case with the closings of Grant and Johnson elementary schools. The DCSD has been transparently arrogant in strategic effort to implement a public process for the duration of a meager five weeks, and only in response to a formidable appeal by parents that held it accountable. For Superintendent Blanche to claim he didn't know about his district's 1980 policy, and therefore not a procedure by which the district must comply, is as ludicrous as it is incompetent. And claiming ignorance of the Barker Guidelines is no less so, especially when, as a school superintendent in Iowa, he is the regular recipient of documentation that informs of these specific protocols, such as the Iowa Department of Education's Administrative Procedures for Iowa School Officials and the monthly Superintendent's Update.

During the appeal hearing on May 8, the record shows that DSB member Pat Zamora felt uncomfortable with the five-week process that was implemented by the district. She believed there was little chance that the board would change its mind about closing the schools. She explained that certain board members had indicated to her that they were just going through the motions with no serious intention of reviewing alternatives presented by parents. She read from the DSB's April 22 meeting minutes, where she is recorded as saying that "the community has had an opportunity to speak and the board has listened. But the board has not listened and we have not heard what they [the parents] have had to say." Zamora testified that there was no further discussion of the alternatives by the board as a whole, only individually with staff members from April 15 through the 22.

In fact, Blanche, Tangen, and other staff met individually or in small groups with board members in an effort to comply with Iowa's open meetings law, but in direct defiance of the Barker Guidelines, which requires that any such meetings be posted, so that parents and other stakeholders are properly notified to attend, and where all minutes are recorded as part of the official record. None of these private meetings between board members and staff was made public, so parents had no voice, and could not respond to any questions by board members. Meetings weren't posted or identified as part of the process, and parents weren't invited, leaving board members unduly influenced by one side of the argument. To further aggravate the situation, there were no minutes taken for any of these discreet meetings. This conduct utterly fails the open-and-frank discussion component of the Barker Guidelines, as does the lack of detailed minutes.

My own conversation with DSB member Richard Clewell demonstrated that he had been given no detailed analysis of the district's rationale for closing the two schools beyond what was presented at the January 28 meeting, when the Board voted to close. Just prior to the vote, because the DCSD claimed ignorance of the Barker Guidelines, parents provided a copy of the guidelines to each board member and asked them to table the matter for 30 days so they could seek legal counsel on the subject. The DSB ignored the parents' request to table and steamrolled ahead, voting 6-1 to close the schools, in spite of the evidence before them.

The lack of substantive information as the basis for the board's vote to close two schools is alarming, especially when one considers that this information changed significantly between January 28 and April 22, with no explanation as to why. The DSB did not challenge the DCSD's administrative or financial staff on any of this confusion or subterfuge, nor did it require clarification of the data, let alone comparative analysis of alternatives presented. Simply put, the DSB completely dropped the ball. As an observer of the parents' presentation to the DSB on possible alternatives to closing the schools on April 15, it became apparent that most of the board members do not have the skills to deal with the complex financial information that was before them. It would be interesting to learn how school board members are recruited, and what sort of board development is undertaken.

The big white elephant in the room, of course, is the DCSD's RDG Long-Range Facility Plan, which calls for the closings of the inner city elementary and middle schools by 2005 to make way for two mega-schools to the north. Corralling students under one roof has proven ineffective, and more costly in the long run, but the DCSD doesn't want to hear the facts. To make matters worse, it continues to deny that the RDG Study is a plan that it is following, even though it has been implementing it to the letter. Blanche has stated it is merely "a coincidence."

The long-term negative consequences for closing neighborhood schools is well-documented. Such actions devalue property, erode the community's tax base, and contribute to neighborhood deterioration and blight. But even more importantly, students do not respond as well in mega-school environments, especially at-risk children. During the educationally formative years, smaller neighborhood schools are better equipped to deal with students in a more intimate, engaged setting. Not only is there a sense of place, but of security and safety, as well. These factors influence how well students are able to absorb and adjust to new information.

Davenport residents agreed to a one-cent local sales tax to finance school improvement projects. The question is, would citizens have agreed to this extra taxation if we knew it meant following a plan that called for the closing of our inner city schools? The revenues generated from the local sales tax should help prevent school closings, not promote them in favor of new mega-facilities. Should the public support building a large sports complex in tandem with the YMCA next to West High School if it means we will lose two of our inner city elementary schools? Local sales tax revenues paid for the new classrooms at Garfield, and the DCSD's decision to build them directly impacted its more recent decision to close Grant. Blanche admitted during the May 8 hearing that Grant could not be closed without Garfield's new classrooms. (The DCSD intends to move 90 Grant students to Garfield if it is allowed to close the schools.) How many other plans like this are in the works unbeknownst to the public? To get a good idea, research the district's RDG Long-Range Facility Study.

At the end of the day, school districts and school boards are only as good as the people who occupy the seats. If intentions are based upon serving the community for the community's sake, versus serving for personal gain or the agendas of special interests, then these entities have substance and honor. Our students' education should be the number one goal of the DCSD, but this is not the case. Every proposed action taken by the DCSD should pass a litmus test of student/education-based criteria before a decision is made. When our children's education becomes this district's priority, then we can hope for more responsible fiscal management that better reflects our common goals.

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