Superintendent Lane Plugge’s office on Dubuque Street is in the three-story brick building that used to be Henry Sabin Elementary School. The elementary school closed in 1979. Now it’s the Iowa City Community School District’s administration building, and site of increasingly fractious school board meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. Plugge has a big map of the entire district on his office wall, a map encompassing all the schools serving students throughout Iowa City, University Heights, Hills, Coralville and North Liberty. Keenly aware of budget constraints during this economic downturn, Plugge must see everything in a single vision to achieve equal educational opportunity for every student in the district. He mentions “efficiency” several times during our hour-long conversation.
We’re talking about Roosevelt Elementary, 611 Greenwood Drive, a 68-year-old school bursting with students and in need of repairs and updates. Some of the parents and neighbors and supporters of Roosevelt Elementary may have gone through all five of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famed stages of grief since the Iowa City School District announced a plan to close the school back in January. But of the stages in the sequence — from the initial shock, to anger, bargaining, denial and finally acceptance –- not so many seem to embrace acceptance. Plugge has heard the rancor and accusations, condemning him as a “suburbanite,” insensitive to the damaging effects of sprawl, among other things. But for the most part, he says, people have been civil.
The reason Roosevelt should be closed, he says, is to make way (and budgetary space) for a new elementary school on 13 acres in the middle of a SouthGate Development subdivision called The Crossings. He insists that the board doesn’t dictate growth, but it must respond to it and try to anticipate it, using projections in conjunction with The University of Iowa’s geography department. A decision about the fate of Roosevelt is expected at one of the next school board meetings.
“There are so many different audiences and their interests are different in this,” says Plugge. “You look at the teaching staff–they certainly have a perspective. The parents do. And some of the parents don’t have the same perspective. Some care passionately in specific ways, and some of the parents haven’t weighed in. And then you’ve got the neighborhood concerns. One of the things that I picked up through this is—and I knew it before—that people care passionately for their schools and most people would not want to see a change, a major change. I think the thing that as a school district we have to stay focused on is how best can we serve children. It starts with the children at Roosevelt, but also Roosevelt fits into the larger picture of the entire school district.”
Ruth Baker has lived in the same house on West Benton Street for 30 years, just down the hill from Roosevelt Elementary, in the heart of the Miller-Orchard neighborhood in southwest Iowa City. From her backyard you can hear both birdsong and the near-constant roar of traffic on Benton, zooming up and down the steep hill. Her 11-year-old rescued dog Kooper waits patiently for his walk while she talks about when the city wanted to accommodate the traffic by widening Benton — rather than funnel it toward nearby Highway 1 — and the only option on the table was whether to expand it to three or four lanes. She rallied neighbors to help stop it, filling the hall during city council meetings and work sessions. Baker said she was tired of hubcaps (and even an errant car) rolling into her yard and tired of the city treating the Miller-Orchard area like a blank slate for development projects, like it wasn’t a neighborhood with people who had a stake in its fate.
“They finally took us seriously as a neighborhood after that,” she said. “But we have always had to be on guard and reactive to everything, and it’s a distressing thing in your life when you can’t just sit back and say, ‘OK, the city’s behind us and is going to be supportive.’”
Baker breathed a little easier after the city stressed the value of neighborhoods, in-fill development and limiting sprawl in their most recent strategic plan. And there have been other small victories in the recent past. After a more than 20-year struggle, a neighborhood park was opened on land that might have easily been another huge apartment complex. But then, early this year, came The Plan from the School Board.
Signs of Support
The green “Save Roosevelt School” sign planted in Ruth Baker’s lawn on Benton and other lawns on Miller and Orchard and Hudson Streets might lead you to expect that Superintendent Lane Plugge would face a chorus of hisses and boos when he showed up for the Orchard-Miller neighborhood association meeting on April 8 in the Roosevelt Elementary gym. After all, Plugge is the point man for the school district’s “Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan” that would build an $11.5 million new school on the western edge of town, build additional classroom space at Ernest Horn Elementary and close down Roosevelt, which some value as the linchpin of the surrounding Miller-Orchard neighborhood. The district’s estimates say repairing Roosevelt will cost over $5 million, money it says is better spent on a new building that will accommodate mushrooming enrollment on the west side of town.
Back in February, after the plan’s announcement, scores of distressed Roosevelt parents and other concerned residents flocked to school board meetings, sitting through more than two hours of PowerPoint presentations and discussions among the board members before the board took questions and comments from the audience. When they finally spoke, they peppered the board and Plugge with mostly civil but sometimes caustic denunciations of the proposed shutdown or “decommissioning” of the nearly 80-year-old school, and the meeting extended far into the night.
At the February 10 meeting, Mary Knudson-Dion, a parent of a Roosevelt student, said she worried that the Miller-Orchard neighborhood and its less-than-affluent residents had been given short shrift for years by school boards and city councils, subject to a series of short-sighted zoning schemes that put the interests of developers and absentee landlords ahead of people in the neighborhood. She said the new plan seemed like “the nail in the coffin.”
“I feel like it’s the equivalent of taking an inner-city school and moving it out to the suburbs,” Knudson-Dion said. “And that it will marginalize us even more.”
Roosevelt was a focal point for the southwest Iowa City neighborhood after its construction, a way to lure homebuyers to a new subdivision. Affordable single family housing boomed in the area during the World War II era. But a trend toward high-density apartment complexes and commercial development in the area pushed more upscale single-family development further west to more suburban pastures. Now taking a stroll through the Miller-Orchard neighborhood isn’t always easy. Never mind the busy traffic on Benton Street and the fast food emporiums and check-cashing places on Riverside Drive that prey on the chronically cash-strapped — census data reveals a mostly low- to middle-income demographic, with about 27 percent of residents living beneath the poverty line. If you’re on foot, the most obviously lacking amenity in this neighborhood is sidewalks. There’s no walk to shovel – easy on the the lower back perhaps, but a challenge for kids walking to school, especially if they have to walk to Ernest Horn, several blocks west of Roosevelt.
Both Plugge and school board President Toni Cilek stress that their goal is not merely the well-being of this or that neighborhood, but a strategic vision for the school district as a whole, looking out for the well being of every child. It would be fiscally irresponsible to throw too much taxpayer money at a cramped, crumbling building in need of many expensive repairs.
In February, former city council member Bob Eliot wrote an opinion piece reminding readers that the school board must serve the interests of students first. Schools, he wrote, are not supposed to be a “tool to prop up neighborhoods or neighborhood associations.”
Ruth Baker chafes at the implication that resistance to the board’s plan is a not-in-my-backyard brand of crusading that doesn’t put the interest of Roosevelt students first. She fears the school board is minimizing objections, classifying them under the rubric of “feelings,” “concerns” and “sentiments” — touching emotional effusions, but without much value compared to the board’s statistics and more presumably more enlightened regard for children.
“It isn’t just neighborhoods,” says Baker, remarking on increased difficulties low-income families have participating in schools that are farther away. “A neighborhood is not just a word, it consists of children, for crying out loud. There are people in that neighborhood. It isn’t just a word that you use. It’s actual people.”
But walking around Roosevelt with Principal Mindy Paulsen, it’s obvious that space is scarce, and something needs to be done. The original 1931 building, the 1950s-era addition and the seven portable, trailer-style classrooms are all full of students. There are accessibility issues, the small classrooms in the main building lack modern amenities like air conditioning and some brick walls need tuck-pointing.
Beyond the limitations of the building, Paulsen appreciates Roosevelt’s multi-racial and international student body. “I’ve had parents tell us that they like the fact that their kids interact with kids that are different from them and from other countries,” said Paulsen. “So when they go to Northwest Junior High and West High, that’s just what school is [for them] — seeing kids that don’t look like them and have different beliefs.”
Was this voted for?
The local option sales tax that passed in February 2007 was projected to generate over $100 million over the next decade. At the time, many who voted for it believed the money would be equally applied to refurbishing older schools as well as to the construction of new schools, as needed. Now many feel they have been sold a bill of goods. Roosevelt had to go, said Plugge’s strategic plan, because it was old, overcrowded, inaccessible and inefficient; because the school’s low test scores and high percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (57 percent at the time of print), the State Board of Education had deemed the neighborhood unacceptably “socioeconomically and racially isolated.” That board’s vision of equity demanded Roosevelt be closed in favor of a new school further west. The superintendent’s PowerPoint presentation made an emphatic point: “All children deserve access to the best possible education in a state-of-the-art school.”
Right now, according to the Roosevelt Principal’s office, the school has 340 students, with an ethno-demographic breakdown of about 42 percent white, 40 percent black, 10 percent Latino, and seven percent Asian and Asian American students. Along with Grant Wood and Mark Twain Elementary Schools, Roosevelt has been identified by an Iowa Department of Education equity report for having a students-of-color percentage 20 or more percentage points higher than the percentage of students of color in the district as a whole. Of the district’s 18 elementary schools, 14 have fewer than 10 percent enrollment of black students. Overall, the district has a minority enrollment rate of about 30 percent, with African Americans making the largest contingent at around 16 percent.
The Department of Education report cites racially and socio-economically isolated enrollment patterns as demonstrated predictors of achievement disparities by race. Citing Iowa’s Administrative Code, the department writes, “It is important that racial and socio-economic integration be one of the primary criteria utilized when making decisions related to the placement of new buildings, the closing of buildings, the drawing of boundary lines, the design of feeder patterns, and the placement of specialized programs. Decisions made in the next few years will have a big impact on how segregated/integrated the district and the community will be in the future.”
Many at the school board meetings were from the Miller-Orchard neighborhood, but people from other neighborhoods with older elementary schools, such as Longfellow and Horace Mann, were also alarmed. No matter that the council assured them that the plan was merely a working a document, subject to change throughout the process. They had launched a website–-WeLoveOurNeighborhoodSchools.wetpaint.com — to help organize their concerns and had a battery of questions for the board. Were they ignoring the city charter’s emphasis on in-fill development and reducing suburban sprawl? Was there a developer-friendly bias built into the metrics of evaluating older schools? Had the district been manipulated into building a new school in the midst of Southgate Development’s 400-some acre holdings near Camp Cardinal Boulevard? Was maintenance and repair at older schools being deliberately underfunded to make a better case for building new schools?
And if equity was a prime consideration, why were around 75 students from low-income families who lived in federally subsidized Pheasant Ridge apartments being bused past nearby Ernest Horn Elementary to attend Roosevelt? (Ernest Horn students score high on standardized tests and the school is still under its enrollment cap, while Roosevelt has been over capacity for several years, making do with portable classrooms outside the main building.) Why the concern over “disproportionate concentrations” of poverty but not with concentrations of affluence in other neighborhoods?
The students from Pheasant Ridge–who are mostly black–seem to have been treated like a demographic hot potato, bussed not to the newer, predominately white Irving Weber Elementary along with other kids in the area, nor attending the predominately white Ernest Horn Elementary, which is also closer than Roosevelt Elementary. Looking at the map in his office, Plugge notes some of the peculiarities of the school boundaries and the Pheasant Ridge “wraparound.” The decision to send Pheasant Ridge students to Roosevelt and not Horn was made long before Plugge arrived in Iowa City nine years ago.
A perhaps neglected factor in this demographic calculus is a scandal dating back to 2005, when The Des Moines Register’s Lee Rood discovered that scholarship athletes from The University of Iowa, including the son of multi-millionaire head football coach Kirk Ferentz, were exploiting a loophole to qualify for subsidized low-income housing. Once this loophole was closed and truly in-need families occupied the housing units, what had been a contingent of around 45 students from Pheasant Ridge attending Roosevelt doubled within a few years, and a stopgap measure intended to reduce crowding at Horn (before Weber Elementary was built) suddenly burdened Roosevelt beyond capacity.
In the Roadrunner’s Den
On April 8, Plugge sat in a gray suit and lavender tie at the Miller-Orchard neighborhood workshop held in the Roosevelt Elementary gym. Mary Knudson-Dion had invited Plugge to the meeting. The superintendent chatted amiably with her and Mark Cannon and other neighborhood association leaders before the meeting began in the elementary school gym. The workshop, too, was pleasant and civil. Plugge sat attentively in a blue plastic chair near the intersection of the two lunch tables where everyone was sitting in the middle of the gym—and listened, just listened and thumbed through the document along with the rest of audience during the presentation. The mood in the room was positive, with no visible or audible acrimony despite the prospect of impending doom. Even “Roosevelt the Roadrunner,” the school’s red-sneakered cartoon mascot painted huge high on the south wall, looked down and smiled on the occasion.
University of Iowa urban planning graduate students Doug Ongie, Milton Thurmond, Nate Kabat and T.J. Patton’s final project, “Planning for Action, Neighbors for Improving Miller-Orchard,” outlines a strategy for “neighborhood recovery” that they had developed with the community over the past nine months. The urban planning students did such a good job the neighbors didn’t want them to leave, despite graduation looming.
“We don’t have all the knowledge about what can be done. We’ve got jobs, families to take care of,” said Ruth Baker. “I was so pleased to hear the students chose our neighborhood as their project. They have been absolutely great. They did surveys of the neighborhood. The walked it. They’ve spent quality time and have really sparked our hope.”
Cedar Rapids native Milton Thurmond went back to school to study urban planning after driving a city bus for a few years and spending some time living in Las Vegas, learning first-hand the impact built environments can have on peoples’ lives. Before Thurmond launched into his presentation, he held up a copy of Charles Dobson’s The Troublemaker’s Tea Party: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, recommending its activist approach to community-building. Thurmond spoke methodically and with conviction; he hoped the neighborhood would use the plan they had worked on together to pursue their goals for the neighborhood. Whether they wanted to improve sidewalks, beautify neighborhood entrances or create a “nuisance and rehabilitation task force,” Thurmond said, “this will tell you where to go, who to call, and how to get at least a good solid start.”
Even if Roosevelt is eventually decommissioned, the document makes clear that the neighborhood wants a say in what comes next, and a candid relationship with the school board.
“The document is impressive,” wrote Superintendent Plugge in an email exchange after the workshop. “It is a comprehensive document which can be used as an ongoing action plan. The document provided me with a variety of insights to the community.”
Plugge also acknowledged that the administration could have done a better job communicating with the recently formed neighborhood association. Knudson-Dion wanted him to appreciate that the community and the school reinforced each other for the better, despite all the neighborhood’s challenges, and that the decision to close Roosevelt shouldn’t just be one of numbers on a spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentations, square feet ratios, state of the art facilities and efficiency. It seemed a cruel irony, she said, that the plan to close Roosevelt was announced just when the neighborhood was starting to stabilize. Though the announcement was a devastating blow, she says having the urban planning students working with them and having a regular schedule of meetings in place helped the neighborhood regroup.
The Anvil Overhead
Since those contentious meetings when the Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan was first on the agenda, there have been community forums and Superintendent Plugge has proposed additional scenarios, some of which might save Roosevelt — if only as an administrative building. But even so, and even with all of this neighborhood solidarity, Plugge remains convinced that constructing a new school at The Crossings subdivision near Camp Cardinal Boulevard can’t wait. While Plugge writes that he cannot speak for the board, “I can state that the board will work with the City of Iowa City regarding the future of the Roosevelt Building. I anticipate that they will also work with this newly formed Neighborhood Association.”
The respect for the Miller-Orchard neighborhood’s input may hearten association members, but Plugge offers no grounds for false hope about the future, referring to the Roosevelt building. Not school.
Plugge quietly left the neighborhood workshop after about a half-hour to make a meeting at City Hall between the school board and the city council (he apologized in advance for his early departure). Meanwhile, Mary Knudson-Dion, Ruth Baker, Mark Cannon and the rest were still at the Roosevelt gym talking over options and circulating underneath a basketball hoop looking over neighborhood improvement options scrawled with magic markers on big sheets of paper and taped to the south wall. Votes were cast by affixing stickers next to a handful of their favorite plans among the dozens that had been floated at earlier meetings. But for all this grassroots democratic activity, the neighborhood association’s goals and the grad student generated-document can’t trump the Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan or stop the school board from shutting down Roosevelt when they make their final decision. Still, the neighbors say, the effort doesn’t seem wasted. If nothing else, they want the school site to become a public space, community center or meeting place, not merely another high density student apartment complex.
“We’re saying we’re tired of fighting all these people, spending hours and hours, months and months fighting these people every year,” Knudson-Dion said just after the workshop. “We finally have to show them that we have pride in our neighborhood and we’re not marginalized at all. And we want to improve the neighborhood — show that it is a neighborhood — even though we have all these people driving through, and driving through it fast. This is a neighborhood that represents a lot of different people that we’re all quite proud of. And so it is challenging and we’re tired. We have a lot of battles, but we have a lot of pride.”
Perhaps I am just another special interest, unable to transcend my own presuppositions and see what is truly best for children. I have fond memories of attending Longfellow Elementary, another older three-story brick schoolhouse. And I have an inclination to get disproportionately sad about the demise of buildings and businesses.
In a town full of do-gooders, everyone wants to get this right. No one wants to be a reactionary, standing in the way of positive change for ignoble reasons. But in this case, what is the true north?
Are the neighborhood advocates just out to defend their property values and forgetting to put kids first? Are we falling into what the anthropologist Renaldo Rosaldo called “imperialist nostalgia,” indulging in toxic sentimentality and bad faith, maudlin tears over that which we are responsible for killing?
Or could the school board’s zeal to build a new school lead them to neglect the curious school boundaries and busing routes and inequities throughout the district that created problems at Roosevelt in the first place?
No matter the passions and interests of the school advocates, community stalwarts, Roosevelt students and all the other stakeholders in this debate, the board is making a precedent-setting decision. A particular approach toward growth and equity in the district must be affirmed or reworked, but the final choice will inevitably alter the options available to students and the texture of life in the neighborhoods. It’s a change that means new lines on Plugge’s map, shifting boundaries, new divisions–and new allegiances.
An alumnus of Iowa City’s Longfellow Elementary, Southeast Junior High, and Community Education Center (forerunner to Elizabeth Tate High School), David Henderson is now pursuing a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications at The University of Iowa.
For more information:
The District’s plan can be found at: www.iccsd.k12.ia.us.
See the neighborhood plan at: http://www.icgov.org/default/?id=1924.
A website devoted to saving local schools: weloveourneighborhoodschools.wetpaint.com/