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Monday, March 05, 2007

Criticism of the "Best Uses" Report

Last week, the "Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force" delivered its final report that recommended the closing of Valley Oak Elementary School.

While the group spent an admirable amount of time and energy working on its report over the last two years, the group has nevertheless produced a product that in the end falls well short of what both the school board and the district needed. The chief complaint is that this report reads like a lawyer's brief arguing for one viewpoint rather than presenting the school board with an array of options and evidence on which they could make an informed decision.

One of the first things that struck me about the presentation last week and the report as a whole was its format. The report and the presentation made an argument. Those things that fit into that argument were presented. Those things that did not fit into that argument were not presented. That may be helpful for a lawyer's brief, however, the purpose of this task force should have been to provide the school board itself with options, not to advocate one position or another. As such, the best format may have been to present fully all reasonable alternatives and then perhaps make a recommendation based on those alternatives. However, that is not what this report did.

That is not what the school board wanted. The school board is now stuck in a very difficult position of either accepting findings that they may or may not agree with, or going against the work of a volunteer group that has spent two years working on this. If they choose the latter, they fall prey to the question--why did they create the task force in the first place if they were merely to do what they wanted to do anyway.

However, this is not an accurate assessment for two reasons. First, the task force was created in March of 2005 under the previous board and second, what few may remember is that the original focus of the task force was not the closing of a school. That developed over time. The original purpose of the task force was to "create a plan to guide the district's use of its schools, given the capacity that has been increased with the construction of the new elementary school in Mace Ranch." They were going to look at relocation of existing programs in the school district.

I have heard a number of criticisms of the report and their methods. I was appalled last week as to how defensive Mr. Kirk Trost became at times during the meeting. I thought some of his behavior was extremely inappropriate. Did he not expect that he was going to be criticized? Did he not expect that the report would anger many parents in the Valley Oak Elementary School area?

Volunteering for something does not immunize one from criticism. Indeed the entire school board does not receive compensation for their services.

There are two key criticisms I have substantively about this report. First, they make an assumption about 420 students being a minimum size for an elementary school and second their use of a one-mile distance to demonstrate the lack of changes in distance from school for elementary school children.

The task force argues that "the most effective enrollment in a Neighborhood Program is 420 students with precisely 60 students at each grade level." The key to this argument they claim is to have "differentiation" that "will become increasingly difficult as enrollment drops below 420."

They make this assertion with no citation whatsoever for any kind of research. There is a wealth of educational research in the field that would probably support their contention. But they do not cite it. Moreover, there is probably a wealth of educational research that probably would oppose their contention. This is a prime example of the need to have alternative viewpoints that are fully fleshed out in both research and argumentation. To me it is simply inexcusable to make these kinds of assumptions with no citation or research to back it up.

The differentiation argument needs to be backed up with research and research in these fields is almost never undisputed and so there needs to be both sides presented and while the task force can make a recommendation, the school board should have the ultimate say over this philosophy.

My second contention is with their presentation of transportation and walking distance from school. Their statistics and projections suggested that closing down Valley Oak Elementary school would have virtually no impact on the number of Valley Oak students who would be within one mile walking distance and the number of students within a one and a half mile walking distance from their school. That means that for current Valley Oak Students, on average, the walking distance using those two metrics would be virtually unchanged.

The problem is that they used as their metric--1 mile and 1.5 miles as their examined distanced. The school board in the past had specifically requested to see half-mile distances and whether students were having to walk further using that figure as a guide.

The problem with a mile is that most young children will not walk a mile. They may walk half a mile to school, but who is going to let a six year old walk a mile to school? Virtually no one. So that is not a meaningful measure. If you have taken a bunch of kids who were within half a mile and are now making them walk one mile, that is a disadvantage to them.

Again these data were requested by school board members, Board President Jim Provenza asked again at this meeting, and Trost suggested that they had not looked at that and suggested that this was a distance standard used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and various walk-to-school organizations. He also pointed out that if they used a tougher standard it would not be uniform throughout the district--a point that is immaterial to the current discussion at hand which involves the displacement of some students not all students.

This argument does not work for young elementary school kids. I can tell you that growing up, I lived a mile from school and that I almost never walked to school. It was a long way and took 20 minutes to walk home. I would bike to school but almost never walk. And it is considerably less safe for kids to walk now than when I grew up. So one mile, might as well be five miles for younger children at the very least.

The suspicion here is that the half-mile data would show that there was a considerable difference for having Valley Oak open versus not having Valley Oak open. That is just a guess, but given that the data were requested but not provided, not an unreasonable one. And if it that turns out to be untrue and that closing Valley Oak makes no difference in this area as well, we need to know that as well.

Overall, I would suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of fundamental criticisms. I know a number of the families in the Valley Oak area were unhappy with the amount of time spent studying the ELL program which they argue is exemplary and the lack of contact made on that front. They were also very disturbed by the patriarchal attitude of several members on the Task Force. I did not witness this personally, but in talking with members of the public these were concerns that they raised. And a big problem is that projections are at best a rough guess and long range projections are very difficult to make with any degree of certainty and they are very susceptible to the assumptions that go into the development of the model.

The biggest criticism remains that this report does not present options. They do not present a lot of research and counter-research to support key contentions and also oppose their contentions. One of the questions I would have asked the members of the Task Force on several of their points is what is their best argument against their report. Every argument has strengths and weaknesses and to present a case like this that is at best nuanced as though it were black and white does a disservice to this community, to the school board and especially to the parents that this decisions will personally effect.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting