Editorial: Limit school closures


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On Tuesday, the Iowa City School Board put off a decision on two proposals for a long-term facilities plan, one of which it will need to adopt in order to accommodate a growing district.

Under the first proposal, referred to as Recommendation A, Hills Elementary, the district’s smallest school, would be rebuilt at its present location and would add 100 students. Roosevelt Elementary, which is now repurposed as the Roosevelt Education Center, would be closed. A new approximately 1,500-student high school would be built, and a more than 100-student addition at North Central Junior High in North Liberty would help feed it students. Two Iowa City and one northern Johnson County elementary schools would also open.

Proposal B, on the other hand, would close Hoover, Hills, and Lincoln elementary schools after new facilities are opened or existing ones expanded. It would keep the Roosevelt Education Center open.

The Editorial Board encourages the board to move forward with a plan requiring as few school closures as possible.

There is no question that the district’s facilities will require major upgrades in coming years; the district predicts that its enrollment will increase by approximately 3,000 students over the next decade. But there is some doubt about whether school closures are an optimal component of a facility-reorganization plan.

The negative effects of school closures are well-documented. According to a 2009 study of school closures from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, students who are relocated after school closures tend to suffer short-term academic setbacks and no long-term benefits.

Closing schools also tends to have negative effects on their neighborhoods. School closures can reduce neighborhood property values and disrupt small communities.

There are often perfectly good reasons for school closures, of course A 2002 study on the cost-effectiveness of public schools by researchers at Syracuse University notes that some very small schools operating in dense urban areas can often become a resource drain, costing more to maintain than they can contribute. The study notes that in high-density areas, elementary schools with enrollments under around 300 can become a resource drain, with that number falling as areas become less dense.

But Hoover Elementary, the most centrally located of the schools on the chopping block, has an enrollment of 360 students. Hills and Lincoln serve fewer students in less-dense areas. None appears to be a conspicuous drain on the district’s resources.

Perhaps most importantly, public support seems to run contrary to school closures. Many locals have spoken out against the district’s proposed closures.

“Closing a neighborhood school is a decision with grave consequences,” local attorney Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek said at the Tuesday meeting. “I have not received conclusive information from the district. What are the prospective uses of Hoover that could be used to help City High?”

Kerri Barnhouse, a West High teacher, told the DI that the School Board seems to be acting against the will of the community.

“When the scenarios and the decisions of the district don’t represent public opinion, it increases the perception that there is another agenda here,” she said. “So many people in this community have answered the call to come to those meetings. School closings are on the agenda, even though they aren’t what the overwhelmingly number of people want.”

The School Board should listen to the community members and the relevant history of school closures and move forward with a plan that minimizes closures.

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