Saturday, December 08, 2012

Two Words and an Orphaned Election

A bombshell in the Iowa City school district yesterday as Superintendent Steve Murley, just days after re-negotiating his contract and raise (and time off) announced he was one of three finalists for the Omahas superintendent job.

If that should come to pass, Murley will leave behind some unfinished business: the February 5 vote on the district's revenue purpose statement, which is shaping up as one of the odder local elections I've seen.

The ballot question seems to be orphaned. There appears to be no organized effort, for or against, this proposal. Not to have an ego, but usually when a campaign is going on in this town I hear about it.  As an activist I'm sought after, as a journalist I'm looking for a story. I still have bruises on my arms from all the twisting to get me on the Yes side of the justice center.

A top-level administrative job like a superintendent inherently has a political dimension. I worked on two school funding elections - the 2003 bond and 2007 sales tax - with former superintendent Lane Plugge, and the man was everywhere. But Murley's only political effort seems to have been trying to recruit allies to run for the board in 2011.

You don't just put a question on a ballot and expect it to get approved. The case needs to be made. From the official side, there needs to be a clear explanation of what the proposal would do. There also needs to be an unofficial side to make the Vote Yes ask.

Since no one else is explaining this, I'm going to try.

First off, what little I've read about this is from conservatives trying to tag it as a "$100 million tax issue." A bit misleading. The 1 percent school sales  tax is going to stay. It USED to be a local option. But after Linn and Johnson counties, the last two holdouts, approved it in February 2007, it became a statewide tax. That 100 million figure was/is an estimate of how much would be raised.

The district's Officially Neutral case (pdf) is: 
Legally a new RPS has to be in place 60 days before the current RPS expires. ICCSD is beginning the 6th year of the original SILO RSP which only leaves four years remaining until this RPS expires. Without the community’s approval of a new RPS, the district must first use any sales tax collected under the SAVE program to reduce existing tax levies and until those are satisfied does not have the legal authority to plan to spend sales tax dollars on school buildings past 2017. This creates a significant barrier to “big picture” and “long-term” planning. 
Since the original revenue purpose statement doesn't expire till 2017, the district could have held off till this fall's school board election, and thus saved the cost of a special. But that would have put the question on the same ballot as three board members (Sarah Swisher, Tuyet Dorau, and  Karla Cook)

Instead, here, the strategy seems to be "put a question on the ballot fast so it looks like we're doing something." Murley and the school board were in such a hurry that they initially looked at putting the issue on the ballot this past week, on December 4, but cooler heads prevailed.

So what, if anything, is getting changed in the revenue purpose statement itself?

During the 2007 campaign there was if not a promise a strong implication that a big pile of the pennies would be used to fund a third comprehensive high school in the northern part of the district i.e. North Liberty. That pressure was a factor in the 2009 and 2011 board elections.

But now the school board is under a counter-pressure from east siders - always a high-turnout constituency in local elections - who want new and/or improved elementary schools.

I don't have a horse in that race. My kids' school was the one that closed. But as a public service, I dissected the 2007 revenue purpose statement and the 2013 proposal to see what this vote would actually do.

Full unedited language is here for 2007 and 2013 but to cut to the chase I removed the introductory and concluding whereas stuff and compared the actual revenue purpose statement.

To my amazement, I can only detect a TWO WORD difference. The 2013 proposal adds two words, bolded, to the original statement.

To provide funds to build and furnish a new school building or buildings; to build and furnish addition(s) to school buildings in the District; to remodel, repair, expand, and improve the school buildings in the District; to purchase and improve grounds; to furnish and equip district facilities.

Monies may be used for emergency repairs to respond to natural disasters, such as fire, wind damage, flood; unanticipated mechanical, plumbing, structural, roof, electrical system failures; environmental remediation; or to respond to changes in demographics that require construction of additions, demolition or improvements to school buildings or new school buildings.

Monies may also be used for the purchase, lease or lease-purchase of buildings, technology, or equipment (including transportation and recreation equipment) as authorized by law, to implement energy conservation measures, sharing or rental of facilities, procuring or acquisition of libraries, or opening roads to schoolhouses or buildings.

Monies also may be used to establish and maintain public recreation places and playgrounds; provide for supervision and instruction for recreational activities; or for community education purposes, including the operation of Family Resource Centers and all services provided at the Family Resource Centers; and any other authorized expenditures and purposes as permitted by law or hereafter authorized by law and designated by the Iowa City Community School District.

Monies may be used for the payment of principal and interest or retirement of general obligation bonds issued for school infrastructure purposes, loan agreements authorized by Iowa Code section 297.36, sales tax revenue bonds issued under Iowa Code section 423E.5, or property tax relief.
I don't see the phrase "North Liberty High School" in any of that.

So what does this vote mean? It seems to mean whatever you want it to mean. The more I look at this, the more it looks like a finger to the wind. Put it out there, see what happens, if it fails adjust as needed.

It's a Direction Of The District question. But Murley and the Board aren't defining that direction, which gives any coalition of the disgruntled the chance to do so. Are the disgruntled numerous, or just disproportionately loud?

In any case, it looks like Direction Of The District is going to be defined in Omaha before it's defined at our polling places.


Chris said...

Thanks for the informative post.

I'm interested in the idea that Murley has been trying to recruit "allies" to run for the board. Allies in what sense, or on what agenda? As you say, it's unclear what direction Murley and the board want to go. Do Murley's recruitment efforts shed any light on that question? Any particular names you're aware of? This behind-the-scenes stuff is often opaque to unconnected observers (like me).

John said...

He's neighbors with Jeff McGinness...

Adam B Sullivan said...

Good post, John. I'm not taking a position on any of this, but the last point in your post has been addressed by administrators and board members.

They have not been vague about what they will do with the the RPS: Borrow money to build two east side elementary schools, a North Liberty elementary school, and a North Liberty high school. They don't want to put that on the ballot because there could be some seismic shift in population trends in the next 10 years that eliminates the need for one of the projects. But Murley has a spreadsheet of project start dates for each new school (as well as for a Penn addition and a North Central addition) and most of the board members say they're on board with the plan at this point and they've mentioned some kind of resolution to state their commitment.

Julie VanDyke said...

John...while I appreciate this blog post in particular, I have to point out that I may have missed you at the RPS meetings. I've been to every one of them and recorded them all as well...the next time you imply nobody is actively speaking against it I know I would appreciate a chance to point out who is and where...I'm pretty sure Phil Hemingway would too, Jim Tate just wrote a very well reasoned letter in the Press Citizen...I'm a little disappointed that you haven't mentioned any of these things or any of the community comment. from others who don't have a horse in the race as well as people from the North, South, East, and West, from an even wider pool of the concerned from the ICCSD Board Meetings which are also available from the district's web page for review...please look deeper into the non-traditional dissent and not just what's being reported in the newspapers and on tv...

Julie Eisele said...

A lot of people have very mixed feelings about the proposal, which is probably one reason why there is no organized campaign for or against this issue. I also have reservations about who the backers of such a campaign -- particularly one **in favor** of the RPS -- might be. We have seen local developers, consultancy vendors and state politicians attending board meetings, school district committee meetings, and listening posts. I would like to see fewer of these types getting involved, and more parents and taxpayers.

Julie VanDyke said...

Reply to another comment on John's Blog @ Chris - one answer to your question might be the convenient appointment of Chris Lynch and Kevin Collins to the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan (CSIP) Advisory Committee Meeting that was on the 12/4/12 Board Meeting Agenda and has been tabled to the next meeting because of some interesting problems with the first list. In particular, Chris Lynch has been so vocally supportive of Murley and the RPS recently it's almost nauseating. Review his 2 different ______ licking commentary at the beginning of and during the RPS section of the last board meeting 12/4...and his every recent appearance, particularly the one at North Central, at the RPS meetings the district is holding. I couldn't resist = after his 12/4 Board Meeting comment contributions I congratulated him on his appointment to the CSIP Advisory Committee as he walked back to his seat. Look at the available video of the meeting when they post it on the district website, he couldn't be much more "transparent" in his support of Murley and the RPS...I hope Murley at least took him out to dinner first.