When the Davenport School Board (DSB), in its usual display of arrogance and disrespect for students, parents, and the public at large, voted 6-1 to close Grant and Johnson elementary schools this past January, concerned parents decided to appeal the school board's decision to the Iowa Board of Education. Their appeal was heard, along with the school board's defense of its decision, in Des Moines this past Tuesday, March 5. The Iowa Board of Education has no deadline to make its ruling, but typically it does so within 60 to 90 days.

Thank God for parents like Alan Guard, who care enough to do something about the lack of process so necessary to decisions that have significant long-term impact, especially where our children are concerned. The appeal is solid. It demonstrates that the DSB ignored its own policy for closing schools, as well as the state-sanctioned Barker Guidelines, which hold sacred the public's right to be involved in all decisions to close any schools. (See appeal story on page 7.)

To summarize, the school board is required under its own guidelines to notify students of any school closing well before any final decisions are made, so that the public, especially parents, can have a say in the matter. The board is further required to disclose its rationale by providing relevant financial statements, analysis, consultative work products, and well-documented input from the public sector prior to the mandatory public hearing. The public has the right to question the information in writing, to which the board is obliged to respond (also in writing) before the hearing. Finally, the public is entitled to engage in "open and frank public discussions" with the school board and administrators regarding all school closings, and be included in all studies and planning for such actions.

The parents allege in their appeal that the DSB did not comply with its obligation to provide timely notification of their decision to close Grant and Johnson. The public learned of it through the media in early January 2002. Less than a month later, on January 28, 2002, the DSB voted to close the schools. The required documentation supporting its decision was not available to the public until the evening of the public hearing, when the board presented it after the public spoke. Following its own presentation that evening, the DSB cast its final vote to close the schools.

The DSB is arguing that it did notify the public when it first introduced the possibility of closing the two schools in November 2000. However, the board tabled the matter and it disappeared entirely from the public's radar for over a year. The issue reappeared in January 2002 via a news story in the QC Times (January 10, 2002), where it was reported that that district was recommending closing the two schools. School Board President Jim Hester admitted in the article "this year is different from the last time the schools were recommended for closure. We're in crisis now." Clearly school policy dictating that the public be consulted and be allowed to give input with respect to closing two neighborhood schools, along with the DSB's fiduciary responsibility to actually consider it, was violated.

This dereliction is another example in a growing list of the school board's consistent disregard for the public's sentiments on school business. Why this board continues to think it can operate in a vacuum is puzzling. Perhaps it is because the consequences for doing so have been fairly benign. The public rarely holds the DSB accountable for open, two-way communication.

Citizens have to wonder why the DSB would deliberately create such ill will when it could be largely avoided by engaging the public in the decision-making process. It may very well turn out to be true, although highly doubtful, that closing Grant and Johnson is ultimately in the best interest of the students, as well as the financial health of the school district. But the case needs to be made in the light of day, not at the whim of a select few administrative cronies, and then supported by a board with little more than a herd mentality. Why choose to do things away from the light of day? One theory is that there are numerous problems with the budget that would be difficult, if not embarrassing, to explain. Full disclosure of such information would force accountability and those responsible are loath for that to occur. Therefore, the board manipulates the process to avoid such unpleasantries.

Another theory suggests a district agenda to close all the inner-city schools and build two mega-schools farther north. It commissioned a study conducted by RDG Bussard Dikis, a Des Moines-based space-planning firm, which completed a long-range facility plan for the Davenport School District that recommends this course of action. (Remember that, according to the state Barker Guidelines for closing schools, any studies or planning for such events must include a community component consisting of public input. RDG specifically qualifies its recommendations with the fact that there was no public input in its study.)

RDG also stated up-front that its recommendations were based on "the assumption that schools would close." This of course begs the question; upon what data is this assumption based? Where is the science for this wholesale "assumption?" My guess is that the consultant was given specific direction that dictated closing schools, and the study was to support this imperative. The long-range facility plan recommended closing Roosevelt, Perry, Washington, Grant, Johnson, and JB Young. Two mega-schools would be built to absorb the students. To date, the DSB appears to be following RDG's plan, evidenced by the closings of Roosevelt and Perry, with Grant and Johnson not far behind if the school board prevails.

By ignoring procedure in its effort to bypass citizen participation in closing Grant and Johnson, the DSB denied citizens the opportunity to evaluate the educational, economic and social consequences of closing two neighborhood schools, and to explore possible alternatives. While the board claims to have expended "extraordinary efforts" to avoid closing the schools, there appears to be little evidence to support this claim, nor has the board presented alternatives for the public to consider.

Admirably, the parents who are appealing the school board's decision also developed a viable alternative that could save the school district considerable money, while accomplishing most of the DSB's fiscal and educational goals without closing either school. Imagine that! A group of parents were able to effectively do the school administration's job, formulating meaningful options that remove many of the financial obstacles that ostensibly justify the closings. Intelligent, capable parents highly motivated by their children's well being could be this school board's worst nightmare. Let's hope so if we are to effect the much needed change across the Board.

In the past decade, numerous studies have been conducted nationwide in response to America's trend supporting mega-schools over smaller neighborhood schools, revealing the ineffectiveness of this approach, both educationally and economically, especially at the elementary levels. Michelle Magyar, spokesperson for Citizens United for Responsible Vision who is keenly aware of such crucial issues, suggested several web sites that provide in-depth coverage of smaller school closings and the correlating negative impact on neighborhoods, property values, municipal tax bases, and (drum roll please) school budgets! Visit www.plannersweb.com (see "Reducing School Sprawl"); www.nationaltrust.org/issues/schoolsRpt.pdf (see "Why Johnny Can't Walk to School"); and www.askeric.org/plweb-cgi/fastweb?search (search: "school closings," which include these following links: ED441640 - Long Bus Rides to School: Stealing the Joy of Childhood; ED456009 - The Oregon Quality Education Model - Distributions of Students vs. Equity of Services; ED449651 - A Community Guide to Saving Older Schools; ED437260 - What Difference do local schools make?; EJ595874 - Schools Struggle with Enrollment Declines; EJ600057 - District Consolidation & Rural School Closing; ED448955 - Long School Bus Rides: Their Effect on School Budgets, Family Life, and Student Achievement; ED447979 - School Consolidation and Transportation Policy: an Empirical and Institutional Analysis. Also visit www.nsbn.org (New Schools-Better Neighborhoods).

This information is critical in evaluating the wisdom, let alone financial prudence, of closing schools that contribute to neighborhood deterioration. These traditional school locations give neighborhoods a sense of place and anchor neighborhoods within the larger community. Kids can walk to school, families know more of their neighbors, and kids' behavior patterns relative to attending school are typically more predictable and manageable, which automatically establishes a more affordable, pedestrian-friendly, and safer environment for children. Couple this reality with empirical data that confirms students generally perform better in smaller schools than in larger ones, especially at the elementary levels. The priority should be the best possible educational environment, rather than some theoretically efficient means of corralling students that appears to be failing as an education model.

Some of the forces motivating mega-school trends that are serious departures from education altogether include : state funding biases that dictate the financial threshold for building new instead of renovating old; donations of land for school construction to increase the value of surrounding subdivisions or driving new subdivision development because the infrastructure is in place due to the school's construction; city zoning ordinances that require schools to occupy large acreages to accommodate incongruous land mass-to-student ratios set by the state; inflated renovation costs by architects and builders who prefer building new over more challenging renovations; inflexible building codes that make obsolete the older structures without considering viable options for modernization of these facilities; school fiscal policies for deferred maintenance that allow funds appropriated for maintenance expenditures to be used elsewhere causing further deterioration that eventually dictates replacement as the only cure; and the dearth of information forthcoming from school districts that is beginning to inspire more grass- roots efforts to enforce policies that include public consensus to combat this misguided educational trend against smaller neighborhood schools.

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