The school board already showed an inclination to close Johnson and Grant elementary schools with a January 28 vote - which has since been rescinded because the DCSD didn't follow state guidelines or its own procedures for closing schools. So, however unfairly, parent groups from those two schools have the de facto burden of showing the school board alternative ways to eliminate a budget deficit that the district anticipates will be $3.2 million by June 30. The board is scheduled to re-vote April 22 on closing the two schools.
The 19-member task force includes nine parents as well as representatives of the school district and board and facilitator Ed Gronlund of the Mississippi Valley Area Education Agency. Last week's meeting was supposed to focus on brainstorming cost-saving measures, but the task force got bogged down by debate about what information would be valuable in considering options. "It's hard to know options until we have data," said one task-force member.
What was disheartening was not that the task force was opting for data over ideas, but that the requests were incomplete and ill-considered. When there were good questions, they got lost in the discussion and were never refined enough to produce good information. And with the district setting a vote so soon, the task force doesn't have the luxury of time.
Parents on the task force have asked for three major things from the DCSD: the district budget, its utility bills, and administrative job descriptions and salaries. But those requests won't yield much of use without other data to put it in context.
The first thing the task force must request is simple: a list of all options the school district has explored for dealing with its budget crunch, and all accompanying documentation and analysis, especially for the closure of Johnson and Grant. Some task-force members hinted at something like this, but they weren't specific enough and didn't press the issue.
Why is this so crucial? The school district, particularly superintendent Jim Blanche, has been adamant that it has considered all options. If that's true, a list of options will be a springboard to discussion. Why were certain options eliminated? Where's the data showing why certain options are infeasible or don't accomplish the district's goals? If the school district has been as thorough as it claims, the task force doesn't need to duplicate the work.
If, however, the school district cannot produce a list of all options it has considered and eliminated, then its critics will be proved right that the DCSD is hell-bent on closing schools.
Parents are convinced that the task-force process is merely a formality before the school board votes again to close Grant and Johnson. Parent Alan Guard filed an appeal of the school-closure vote with the state - which is scheduled to resume after the board re-votes - and suggested the district is uninterested in conducting a real inquiry into alternatives to school closings. The task force, he said, is mere lip service. "They have no structure," he said. "They have a very weak facilitator. It's apparent they have no desire to do a real process."
That assessment might well be accurate, but the task force is all the parents have to work with right now. And the better job the task force does in formulating reasonable alternatives, the better the chances that parents will prevail in keeping Johnson and Grant open.
The task force is charged with gathering information, and here is some of the information it should request, in writing, from the district:
• A list of all alternatives considered by the DCSC, with supporting analysis and documentation.
• A list, summary, and total of all school-district operational funds, with notations on what control the district has over them. What operational costs are fixed or out of the district's control, and what's open for discussion?
• A by-category comparison of the budgets of the DCSD and similar-sized districts around the country, especially in the Quad Cities, Iowa, Illinois, and the rest of the Midwest. Does the district spend too much money on administration? The only way to know is by comparing its costs to those of other districts.
• A list of all positions, job titles, and salaries in the district, with notations of salaries that are fixed by contract and for how long.
• A comparison of the costs and benefits of closing Grant and Johnson outside of cutting teacher positions. With its January 28 vote, the school board increased elementary class sizes by two pupils, and parents have proposed doing the same. Both proposals would reduce the number of teachers through attrition. That change would save the district $1.2 million, whether Johnson and Grant are closed or not. (The district estimates the school closings overall would save $2.3 million a year.)
• A state and regional comparison of administrative, teacher, and support salaries to those of DCSC. Are administrators and teachers over- or underpaid here?
• An inventory of all school-district-owned property, and their anticipated maintenance needs and operational expenses over the next five, 10, and 20 years.
• An analysis and legal opinion on the repercussions of violating the district's state-set "spending authority" limit. The district's financial crisis is a result of spending limits, not its ability to raise money.
• A breakdown of all past-due money owed to the school district. Does the district have any bad debt that it could be trying to collect more aggressively?
And this is just a start. If parents want to ensure the task force produces real and well-researched alternatives to closing schools, they need to carefully - but quickly - construct their own list.