As a school board member, I had hoped to be able to support the district’s facilities bond proposal. I’ve always voted for school bonds in the past, and I publicly supported the 2013 ballot proposition giving the district the initial funding for its facilities improvements. But I can’t support the proposal that’s on the Sept. 12 ballot.
Many have discussed the substantive problems with the bond plan, which funds capacity expansions that extend seven years out on the timeline, in many cases without any enrollment projections showing a need for them. A more sensible proposal would bond for a couple of years of projects, then reassess capacity needs based on updated projections.
How did we end up with such an enormous proposal? I believe it’s the result of serious problems with the district’s decision-making culture. In short, the district is resistant to any community input that doesn’t support its preconceived conclusions.
This culture has affected many district decisions. For example, it’s at the root of the district’s troubles with special education. Special ed parents had raised concerns about the district’s practices for years, yet the problems were ignored until outside authorities intervened, ordering the district to stop violating the law. An employee who raised concerns about the district’s seclusion enclosures was terminated for insubordination.
A related example arose last year when the board extended the superintendent’s contract and committed to giving him two large pay increases. When the mother of a student in special ed wanted to object to that decision — in a well-reasoned, thoughtful comment — a board member rebuked her and warned her that she could be held liable for defamation. When three board members explained why they opposed the proposal, the superintendent warned them that district policy banned board members from publicly expressing negative judgments of him (though the policy does not prohibit favorable comments).
Administrative proposals have routinely come with one-sided arguments — all pro, no con — and are sometimes presented at the 11th hour, giving the board little choice but to approve them.
This same “brush-off culture” characterized the process that led to the bond proposal. The district held elaborate “listening posts” only to disregard the input it received. Many people had legitimate concerns about the size and content of the proposal, but rather than pursue compromise and consensus, bond proponents doubled down on the existing plan, putting an extraordinary seven years of projects into the bond. Anyone who had doubts was either uninformed or not supportive of “the kids.”
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Such a closed environment is inevitably liable to capture by well-funded interests. Now we have an enormous bond proposal, with proponents raising huge amounts of campaign money — 10 or 20 times what a typical school board campaign costs — and with the large majority of it from a small handful of banks, developers, and construction interests.
This is the district on its best behavior, with its hand out for $191 million. If it receives that entire spending authority all at once, there will be little reason for it to change its ways.
Good decisions don’t come out of culture that is so resistant to differing points of view. The bond proposal is one product of that culture, and it shows. The board should come back with a more reasonable proposal next year, and in the meantime should strive to show progress in repairing the district’s broken decision-making culture.
• Chris Liebig is a board member in the Iowa City Community School District. This column represents his opinions and not those of the board. He blogs at AnotherBlogAboutSchool.blogspot.com