While history depicts Johnson's support of the bill, in reality he was strongly opposed to allowing journalists access to documents that might defy the official view of reality. These sentiments are even stronger in the current administration and, according to Moyers, "Not only has George W. Bush eviscerated the Presidential Records Act and FOIA, he has clamped a lid on public access across the board. It's not just historians and journalists he wants locked out, it's Congress...and it's you, the public, and your representatives." (Click here to see the full Now with Bill Moyers transcript, as well as links to other Freedom of Information Act resources.)
In the name of national security, the administration is locking up documents that have nothing to do with security and everything to do with undue influence from the private sector on public policy. Documents to be hidden include a memo issued from Exxon Mobil demonstrating the enormous influence of oil companies on the administration's global-warming policy, and documentation from Enron executives that mirror the president's energy policy. The list goes on. Without the FOIA, the public would never know about these abuses of power. So the strategy is to eliminate the public access by rescinding laws that dictate disclosure.
Sound familiar? It should, because this is precisely the same strategy currently being employed by the Davenport Community School District. Its board recently rescinded two policies that would inform the public about school closings and boundary changes. Both subjects can dramatically affect families' lives. The public has a right to know about such matters and be a part of the decision-making process. The school district forgets that it is our tax dollars that pay its freight.
At the crux of the issue of closing both Grant and Johnson elementary schools is the district's claim that it will save $2.2 million necessary to survive the budget crisis looming due to state cuts. In truth, the state is cutting $2 million, but this is more than offset by the large increase in property taxes, nearly $7 million in revenue to the district. Upon examination of the district's budget, the parents who are appealing the school closings found that the district will receive $4 million in new revenues, but only has $1.6 million in new expenses, leaving it $2.4 million ahead. The district claims it has $2 million in new debt service, but this debt is paid through local-sales-tax-option monies, not with revenues from property taxes. This is an important distinction when analyzing the budget and understanding the financial picture.
The parents have made a compelling case for appealing the district's decision to close two neighborhood schools. At a minimum, an investigation into the district's accounting practices and its level of disclosure is warranted. The parents have raised legitimate, practical, and important questions to which the district has failed to respond adequately or convincingly. For example, the Davenport school district has one administrator for every 200 students. Cedar Rapids has one for every 236, and Des Moines has one for every 253. To bring ourselves in line with the rest of the state, we could free up 13 administrators at an average of $85,000 per year.
In fact, there are many fuzzy numbers relative to administrators, facilitators, and whether these positions are funded with grants or through the general fund. It appears that some of these positions were originally funded through grants, but when the grant funds ran out, the administration absorbed their costs into the general fund. The parents' contention is that the district should not be absorbing such positions at the expense of basic services, such as the operation of our schools. Should taxpayers be paying for what appears to be an overserved school administration at the expense of closing schools?
Furthermore, the parents have offered, through hard work and a genuine desire to see the best actions taken for the good of the entire district, sound alternatives to closing the schools, but those appear to be falling on deaf ears. The taxpayers, parents, and students of Davenport must not let this occur again. Show up at the April 15 public hearing and stand with the parents in asking for proof that closing the two schools is the only viable solution to the district's financial woes. Taxpayers might also want to inquire about the district's legal bills in the past five years.
Meanwhile, the district's RDG Long-Term Facility Plan calls for closing most of the older, inner-city schools by 2005 and building two large schools - a northwest school and a southwest school. The plan also shows the district closing J.B. Young Junior High School, and the district's actions somewhat bear this out. There are renovations and improvements being made to the other middle schools, but no money is being spent at J.B. Young. (Rumors are circulating that the district intends to sell J.B. Young to St. Ambrose University.)
Meanwhile, this year's budget shows $400,000 each for Grant and Johnson media centers that will not be built if they close the schools, so where does that money go? Eisenhower got five new classrooms through local-sales-tax-option funds, which in turn brought students up out of the basement, where they were located because of the lack of space. Closing Grant and Johnson will put those kids back in the basement again, so no gain occurred through the use of the local-sales-tax-option monies. Voters will not approve such folly again.
Finally, there are serious discrepancies in the district's teacher allocations and reallocations if they close the schools. The district claims it will need 342 teachers, but the parents' research shows the district will only need 328. Which is correct? The parents have utilized the district's data to ascertain these numbers, and when asked about the difference, the district claims the parents have the wrong data. But it is the district's own data that it gave to the parents in the first place. The parents can show their calculations, and all they ask is that the district do the same. This is reasonable and professional, and the district must treat it as such. School-board members need to remember that they are representatives of the community's parents, students, and taxpayers, and not rubber-stamping advocates of the district's administration.
Closing schools at the district's current rate is not healthy or appropriate for the community. Numerous studies show that smaller neighborhood schools do a superior job of educating children compared to larger schools. In addition, small schools provide tax value for a municipality, property value for homeowners, and an anchor for neighborhoods. The trend toward larger schools is almost purely driven by real-estate development and has much less to do with education than with economics. The parents have valid information dispelling the notion that it is more economical to herd students together in one large building. At a minimum, the public should be allowed to analyze this data, have open and frank discussions on the matter, and generally engage in the meaningful decision-making process.
This should be a matter that all taxpayers care about because when a school closes, the property values in the surrounding neighborhood decline, which in turn erodes the tax base, which in turn causes taxes to increase to make up the shortfall. And make no mistake, at least eight schools will absorb the 360 students from Grant and Johnson, but that isn't the end of it. Because Grant and Johnson students must now go to Madison, Mckinely, Adams, Wilson, etc., various students from those schools will be moved around as well to satisfy racial-equity ratios and other requirements the state has for student volume and ethnic composition. So these two school closings do not affect just those families. The decision impacts in ways the district isn't talking about. If you are a parent of a student in any one of the eight schools that will absorb the Grant and Johnson students, you might be dramatically affected as well.
The public hearing is scheduled for Monday, April 15, at 7 p.m. in the district's administration center at 1606 North Brady Street. Show up and speak out. Support the parents who are doing everything in their power to make our community stronger through communication, even if our own school district and school board would rather do otherwise. No schools should be closed until the common-sense dialogue and more thorough financial evaluation occurs.