Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mid-Riffs: New blog lays high-school millage issue facts on the line

a view from mid-America
Better use this link and bookmark it (make it a favorite site). It starts out strong and will be another go-to-daily site for people interested in clear, direct, fact-based opinion writing. We'll see if it ever rises to the level of Jonah's The Iconoclast or Lessie's The Fayettevillage Voice. The key will be persevering and staying consistent unless a change of opinion is warranted by facts!
Castles Made of Sand
Posted by JMcGee | Arkansas, Education | September 08, 2009 | 4 Comments

Administrators decide the new high school will be constructed from sand. One school board member is quoted as saying, “Sand provides maximum flexibility. The students can create a new learning environment each day. And it’s green!”

The date of the much ballyhooed millage election is swiftly approaching. Next Tuesday, Sep. 15th, the citizens of Fayetteville will decide whether or not to provide the school district with a $115.825 million line of credit. The district plans to use this tidy sum to replace the current high school with a brand new “21st Century” campus. And why, one might ask, is it necessary to replace the current facilities? I can think of four reasons new construction might be necessary:
The buildings are falling apart
New facilities will improve student outcomes (i.e. the current facility is inadequate for 21st century learning)
The current facility is too small
New facilities will expand the tax base and enrich our community
First, I would like to dispense with the notion that the current facilities are dilapidated and deteriorating to the point that learning is inhibited. Back around the time when the district was looking to sell the high school campus to the U of A, an assessment of the current structures was conducted. The resulting report stated plainly that the buildings were in excellent condition. In fact, the U of A facilities department estimated they would only need to spend $11 million to make the campus usable at the university level. The propaganda supporting the millage often highlights the age of the main building. Take this quote from the A Stronger Fayetteville website, “The current Fayetteville High School was built during the Korean War…” Let’s be clear, while the high school is half a century old, the current facilities have gone through several renovations in those years (the latest was finished in 1993), and they are in good shape. There is a big difference between adequacy and wanting all the bells and whistles. If the voters decide that they would like to pay for all the bells and whistles, that’s fine; but it is dishonest to insinuate that the building is falling apart to get what you want.
Second, is it true that new buildings facilitate better teaching, collaboration, and general 21st century-ness such that student outcomes improve? It could be the case that rearranging the learning space really will pay dividends, but we do not have to blindly trust that it will. We can look at evidence from around the United States on the link between facilities and student achievement. In the Handbook of the Economics of Education, Eric Hanushek provides a review of the research on school resources. Professor Hanusheck identifies 91 studies which look specifically at the link between facilities and student achievement in the U.S. (see table on pg. 889). He reports that 86 of them find no statistically significant relationship. And in the remaining 14% of analyses, there was hardly a consensus: 9% were positive and 5% were negative. The punchline is that most of the high quality research studies which have explored this issue have found no relationship between school facilities and student performance. This is in no way a surprising result. Buildings don’t teach kids, people do.
A third reason a district may need to construct new buildings is if the current facilities are simply too small. The district brought this issue to a head by successfully lobbying the school board to add the 9th grade to the high school campus. This will increase the student population from about 1,800 to somewhere between 2,400-2,500 students. The high school’s student common areas and entertainment/extra curricular facilities have been undersized for some time, and it is time we did something about it. But building a top-notch performing arts center and student common areas does not necessitate demolishing all of the current structures and starting anew. Space concerns could be alleviated through a more modest construction plan which makes use of the investments the citizens of Fayetteville have made over the past 50 years. As a side note, it seems to me that trashing perfectly good buildings is about the least green thing we could do as a city.
The last argument that can be made in favor building new high school facilities is one based in economics. The argument goes something like this – If we build a new high school with all of the newest amenities, more people of means and businesses will be attracted to settle in our fair city. The resulting influx of businesses and people will expand the tax base and act as an economic engine for the city. This was the case that was made last week at the economic impact panel discussion. The only problem with this argument is that it leaves out one crucial detail: Tax rates will have to increase to pay for the new high school. And an increase in the tax rate will discourage both people and businesses from locating in Fayetteville. For the economic engine argument to hold true the positive effect of the new high school would have to outweigh the negative effect of the increase in the tax rate. A look at the whole picture reveals that Fayetteville already has relatively high tax rates when compared to other cities in the area (take a look at millage rates, assessed real estate values, and estimated tax to confirm this for yourself) and the high school is consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation. These two facts lead me to believe that any gains made by improving an already very good school will be severely diminished by an increase in the tax rate.
I am by no means against spending money on facilities. I just want us to be thoughtful and honest about our reasons for investing in brick and mortar when it is clearly secondary to what goes on in the classroom.

Comments (4)
Cheri Said On 08-09-2009

Thoughtful and intelligent assessment. Thank you.

JAE Said On 08-09-2009

Regarding the new FHS, it would serve the district well to focus less on economic development and more on student performance.

Why has the information linked below been kept from the public?


Shortcuts: Mid-Riffs, Refunds And The 50 States :: Fayetteville Flyer Said On 08-09-2009
[...] A view from mid-America A new season, a new school year and a new local(ish) website. According to the inaugural post on Mid-Riffs.com, the new site “will offer everything from serious news and public policy critiques to not-so-serious commentary about life in the region.” Make sure and read their post on the new Fayetteville High School. [...]

Dave Said On 08-09-2009

I have two kids in the Fayetteville School System right now and I plan to vote NO on this issue. Why? Because I went to school in buildings that were MUCH worse than the current Fayetteville facilities and still received a top notch education because the teachers were top notch. The line that says “Buildings don’t teach kids, people do” is right on the money. I am taxed to death already in this city, and had the school board brought forth a plan that called for a smaller millage and building the new campus in phases over a few years I might have been for it.

This is politics and pork at work.

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