Told their school is in danger of closing as a budget-cutting measure, the students of Johnson Elementary in Davenport asked their teachers how much money was needed to save it.
A million dollars, they were told.
Suddenly, little decorated shoeboxes showed up around the school.
"The kids thought they could save the school by taking donations," Johnson Principal Pat Robinson said with a smile. "We had to tell them they couldn't collect money, but we felt their enthusiasm should be put to positive use."
So, "Johnson Dollars," small pieces of paper on which a brief note can be written, were introduced, enabling the children to express their feelings about the school and why going there is important to them.
Efforts such as Johnson Dollars, picketing and yard signs, along with numerous telephone calls, e-mails and letters, have been directed toward Davenport School District Superintendent Jim Blanche and the seven school board members in the past two weeks. Some described the experience as "gut-wrenching."
That is a feeling shared by parents, students, teachers, staff and others throughout the school district as Monday night's regular board meeting approaches.
Because such a large audience is anticipated — mostly because of the recommendation to close Johnson and Grant elementaries — the 7 p.m. meeting has been moved to the auditorium at North High School, 626 W. 53rd St.
During that same meeting, the board will vote on all-day kindergarten and — in a change of direction for the district — the board will vote to increase class-size qualifications in K-5 by two students at elementary schools. The savings from the increase of class sizes will go to pay for additional kindergarten teachers.
At the board's Jan. 14 meeting, Blanche submitted a proposal to close Johnson and Grant Elementary schools, which the administration says will save an estimated $2.2 million.
With a budget already in the red at the start of the school year, Blanche and the board watched it shrink by another $2.7 million this fall when the state government, facing a financial crisis of its own, cut the budget 4.3 percent across the board, including school funding. Suddenly, the deficit facing the district jumped to $4.9 million.
Purchases and travel were frozen, some janitors and maintenance employees were laid off and early retirements were offered to building principals. Those actions and a few other measures saved $1.8 million, the administration says, but more needed to be done, and the board directed Blanche to suggest further cuts.
It is the second time in less than two years that, Johnson, built in 1910 and located just south of West Locust on Wilkes Avenue — and Grant, built in 1912 and located just north of West Central Park Avenue and west of Brady Street, have been on the chopping block. They are the oldest schools with the smallest enrollments.
"We've told Jim Blanche to get the budget in order the past two years," board member Richard Clewell said. "His performance appraisal is coming up, he's laid it out on the line and if the board disagrees with it again, something has to give. We can't tell this guy he's not doing his job if we fail to act on what he's advised us to do."
Ultimately, the decision on the future of the two small neighborhood schools — which will affect six other elementary schools around the city — is the board's, not Blanche's.
But Clewell said he will not make up his mind until Blanche displays and explains all of the budget numbers at the meeting Monday night.
Having been an educator for more than 28 years, Blanche said he understands the agony and feelings of anger being experienced by hundreds and hundreds of parents, students, teachers and others involved.
"It gives me no joy to close schools," he said. "But we are in a crisis situation. We can no longer resort to onetime tricks. We have to make decisions that give us recurrent savings.
"We need to do what's best for the entire district and it needs to start now," he said. "If we wait and do nothing, the district will be in a such a hole that it will take a decade to get out of it."
With a shrinking student enrollment base — from 17,461 in 1997 to 16,622 this year — which means decreased state funding, and finite resources, the district must do something to live within its means, he said.
For school board President Jim Hester, it has been an emotional two weeks.
His frustration grew when he attended a meeting last week in Des Moines and watched the Legislature bicker over an amount of money he considers a relative pittance, while some lawmakers made it sound like a great gift to Iowa schools.
"The state government is talking about 1 percent in new money," he said. "That's nothing. They talk about education, but don't tell me they're doing the best for education when Iowa's prison system is one of the fastest-growing in the nation. I wish they could be here Monday night to see how real it is when it gets down to the real people. We as a board and administration will have to deal with our decision, whatever it is, live and in color. I'll do my homework and then I'll do what's best for the Davenport School District.
"Everyone will try to be fair. It's a complex and complicated situation. But when I call the roll and the vote is in, it's done," he said. "Either way, it's over. We have to move on as a community."
Smaller schools vs. smaller classes
Alan Guard's daughter, Brenna, is a first-grader at Grant.
He is not satisfied with the financial information the district administration is presenting. Anyway, when it comes to educating children, he says, money should be no object.
"This is not an issue about an emotional attachment to a building or a matter of convenience," he said in a recent letter to the school board, adding that the real issue is educational quality.
Citing an 1996 report from the School Improvement Research Series, Guard, the budget manager for the City of Davenport, said the school board and administration need to consider their actions carefully.
The gist of the report is that smaller school size is more important than smaller class size, he said.
Smaller schools, the report says, have many advantages, including better attendance and lower dropout rates, a greater sense of belonging for students and a higher rate of parental involvement.
Also, minority students and those from poor economic backgrounds are affected more adversely by attending large schools than other students, he said.
As of Sept. 21, Grant had a student population of 196, while Johnson's stood at 250. In comparison to the other elementaries that would receive additional students if the two schools are closed, on that same date, Adams's enrollment was 519, Wilson's was 581, Jackson's was 341, and Harrison's was 453. Madison's enrollment was 308 and Garfield's stood at 379.
School administration officials estimate that after redistributing students after Johnson and Grant close, Madison's enrollment would climb to 352, while Garfield's would go to 479. Jackson's enrollment would increase to 406, and Wilson's enrollment would drop to 530. Harrison's enrollment would climb to 486.
Initially, 78 Adams students would have been shifted to Buchanan to make room for Johnson students, but now the recommendation is that those Adams students now would be sent to Harrison.
"By moving these kids to the larger schools, the administration is guaranteeing these kids won't be successful," Guard said. "You might as well sign them up for a prison cell."
School board member Patt Zamora, who is outspoken in her desire to keep Johnson and Grant open, agrees that smaller schools are better.
"I've been involved with kids and education my whole life," said Zamora, a lawyer who does a lot of juvenile court work. "Education is my main interest in life. I see what happens when you fail to provide kids a quality education," she said.
Zamora said she has high regard for her fellow board members and respects the district administration for doing what it thinks is right. However, other options must exist, she believes.
"I understand the hard financial time the district is having," she said. "But there must be a better way to save money than closing small, community schools. I don't like elementary schools of 500 kids. It takes away opportunities. By closing Johnson and Grant, we would be letting our vision of education slip away."
"They're right," Clewell said. "Small schools have that kind of impact. I also hate to see us moving in the direction of larger class sizes. If money weren't an issue, there would be no question that all our schools would be smaller. There's something there that a larger school cannot produce."
The difficulty, though, is objectively measuring those advantages, he said. "How do you put a price on what these schools have produced? They really promote something in the schools we want in Davenport."
But then, what is to be done with the hard, objective red numbers on the district's financial report, he added.
A no-win situation'
Karen Metzger has four children, two of whom attend school at Grant, one in first grade, the other in fifth. When she speaks about the possibility of Johnson and Grant closing, the exasperation in her voice is obvious.
"Clearly, you can't look at one option and make a reasonable, sound decision," she said. "I think it's unfair that we haven't looked at the district as a whole." she said.
Her children, she said, "know everybody there. As they walk to school, they meet people and come to know them. They build their friendships and bring them back here to the community. I strengthen this neighborhood because my kids go to a neighborhood school."
Like Clewell, Steve Imming, the school board's vice president, said he wants to gather all of the available facts to make the best possible decision for the district.
"If we had enough money, I'd make all the schools small," he said. "But something has got to give somewhere. We could raise taxes, levy a cash reserve fund, do any number of things to raise money. Iowa doesn't limit how much you raise. But the state does limit spending."
There have even been suggestions to save money by reducing or eliminating the music and athletics programs. All that would do is water down the curriculum and opportunities for all students in the district, he believes.
"No matter what we do, we'll be wrong in somebody's eyes," board member Susan Low said. "This is a no-win situation because either we're going to be fiscally irresponsible, or, if necessary, shut down Johnson and Grant."
The district, she said, has been working to shrink its deficit and build a cash reserve. "But we've had to keep putting out fires. And now we're down to biting the bullet and making significant change."
Low said she appreciates the fact that the Johnson and Grant parents are teaching their children to fight for what they believe in.
"I'm a parent of three children and I'm fostering a 4-month-old. I want quality schools in this city and in this state," she said. "But we're down to the bare bones. We've nickled and dimed the budget to death. It's hard to impact a budget that is 80 percent salaries and benefits. We can't run at deficit, so something has got to change. And either you can look at change as a negative thing or a positive-growth experience."
Thomas Geyer can be contacted at (563) 383-2328 or email@example.com.