Sunday, August 30, 2009

Beware of funky school district building numbers ...

In Sunday's Concord Monitor, there is a piece about the city's school district figuring out how to pay for its grand elementary school consolidation scheme: ["For Concord schools, a consolidation unknown: How to pay?"].
Overall, it's not that bad piece of work, with the exception of the very one-sided information provided by school board members and administration documents. As I wrote online earlier today, it reads more like a one-sided analysis piece, with the school district's thumb on the scale, flat out fibbing to people.
In addition, there is no opposition comment at all in the article with the exception of School board member Laura Bonk who thinks the process should be slowed down and the elementary schools should be consolidated to three, not four [we don't agree on that one ...]. There are people who oppose this plan in the community who could have offered some comments to balance it out.

How do they get those crazy figures?
First, let's take a look at the numbers. It is important for the public to know that if you go back and look at the school district's own figures, you can see where they slanted it toward consolidation instead of renovation.
A spreadsheet was released in 2008 showing the cost analysis. This spreadsheet, which I have seen, states that renovating the schools is only a bit higher in cost than the consolidation plan. In the article, School board member Jack Dunn is proposing a wild-eyed $26 million cost difference between consolidation and renovation. This is just not right [or, if there is this kind of difference, they are adding or subtracting subjective figures and assumed costs which may not be genuine].
According to the 2008 spreadsheet, the real difference is only a few million between the two. But even that isn't correct. The renovation costs are a bit higher than the consolidation costs because when putting together the spreadsheet, the auditor used current student capacity at schools like Rumford and Walker, and not potential student capacity, like they used with the consolidation figures. This skews the cost to make consolidation look less expensive when it isn't!
When potential student capacity numbers are plugged into this spreadsheet, the cost of renovation is less, not more, than consolidation. Essentially, the figures flip.

The red herring of asbestos
Note to activists: Any time you want anything new built, pull out the bloody shirt of "asbestos." It's the same talking point that is brought up time and again by schemers who have no respect for history [or the fact that these old buildings were built like fortresses!].
The asbestos issues will be there whether the buildings are left alone, renovated, knocked down, or sold.
Take Kimball, for example. The school district wants to knock down this historic building that is loved by the community. They say it can't be renovated because there is too much asbestos and cost of mitigation will be too high. Umm, hello, where do you think the asbestos goes when you knock the school down? It's still there! Asbestos still has to be mitigated whether you renovate it or knock it down. There is probably MORE asbestos mitigation because they are not only knocking down Kimball but the seven other houses they bought for $2-plus-million at the height of the real estate market. Kaaa-ching ... who knows how much that will cost too. More than renovation? You bet!
The only way to truly escape the asbestos mitigation problem at Kimball is to do nothing [and, FTR, I'm not proposing that]. Future asbestos mitigation is also still there if they sell the building. And the value of the building is much less on the market due to the asbestos. So this is a bogus argument but it is one that they use because asbestos scares people [boo-boo, cancer, asbestos, boo-boo ...].
This lesson escapes those who are obsessed, for lack of a better term, with the supposed "green" building phenom too - any cost benefit or green analysis must include the waste and disposal of the old building [duh!] but often never does. What good to the environment is saving a few dollars on energy costs if we are putting toxic materials into the ground when it gets buried or air via construction debris incineration? It isn't any good. There is no benefit. Everyone knows that renovation is ALWAYS greener than new because of the waste byproduct and they have similar energy savings costs during the renovation.

How could this article have been more balanced?
Overall, this isn't a bad article, don't get me wrong. But if the Monitor is going to do these long analytical pieces, it really needs to get a bit deeper. An exploration into the numbers is one thing. The issue of balance via some comment from opponents to this massive plan is another. Unlike some towns, Concord actually has an opposition group, ready for the quoting! The loosely organized group of opponents is called ABC and the Monitor has published their columns, letters, and even quoted some members in other articles. There are the any thousands of taxpayers who are rightfully freaking out about this consolidation scheme. Drop a finger in the phone book and find one [No, I'm being sarcastic, I'm not serious on this one ...]. There have been many other letters written in the Monitor about this issue by residents of the community who are not ABC members who could have been quoted. All of these people could have been given the opportunity to offer some wisdom, in order to make the article more balanced. Look at the figures - $58 million, $160 million, $186 million ... are these people insane? This is a smaller issue than the crazy school money numbers but it is relevant just the same.

The phony consensus argument
Proponents of the plan keep saying there is consensus on the matter. Well, no, there isn't. The reality is that there is no consensus on this issue despite what is going on in the heads of the proponents.
Here are how the numbers break down: On the Yea side, there are seven of the nine members of school board that agree with the plan. There is the administration too. There are some parent activists, most of them connected to the city's Democratic committee, and some connected lawyers who are in support of the plan. There are also some teachers who don't want to work in the old buildings. The Monitor's editorial board also supports the plan.
On the opposite side, there is the ABC group, about 10-plus active people [or more than the school board and administration combined], some city councilors and state reps. who are against the plan, and some members of the Concord Taxpayers Association, who are correctly freaking out about the cost of this scheme [and there isn't complete consensus on that side since I, for one, would buy Walker School and turn it into an artist colony in a heartbeat if I had the money and the opportunity!]. There are also a number of historic preservationists around the state who think it would be a travesty to knock down Kimball School.
In other words, the opposing views are just about even with proponents or maybe slightly more leaning towards the renovation/do nothing scale of things. There is no consensus no matter what anyone says. But there they go, plowing away at a flawed plan ...
Then, there are the masses of tens of thousands of residents who don't seem to care or are too busy to find out about what is going on. They, along with the rest of us, have to foot the bill. When are we going to hear from them? It remains to be seen. But if these folks don't plug themselves into the process, they will be shocked to see what happens.

1 comment:

Ben Venator said...

Tony - your comments and analysis of the analysis are excellent and greatly needed. I have certainly not been impressed by the low standards of "proof" and quality of communication demonstrated by the school committee and the school system. Kids are bailing out of Broken Ground to go to Conant, on the grounds of NCLB failure to improve, but also likely due to a letter that informed parents of rights to move, but did not provide reference percentages or explain why the school has failed to meet standards. A follow-up letter was quickly illustrated, but I suspect the damage has been done.

It is also interesting to note that one of only two schools that are "good" enough under NCLB is Eastman, scheduled to close, and the school system has taken a classic Catch-22 approach to that school. You can't transfer there because there are not enough classes. You can't have the roster of classes you have had in the past becuase there are not enough students. Bogus!