A Tale of two Johnstons

The citizens of Johnston came out in a democratic voice yesterday and denied the school board the ability to raise $51MM in debt via municipal bonds to build a new high school.  Participation in this process showed me two views of my community that I’d like to share here, but first a brief intro to the project.
The Johnston public school district is growing and is projected increase by 1100 over the next 8 years.  After the past decade of improvements to elementary and middle schools, the district turned its attention to the aging high school, built in the 70s (when population was growing from 270 toward 2500 per the 70s and 80s census’), already overcrowded and aching for support.  After much consternation, the district presented a proposal to the community via public townhalls, participatory meetings and volumes of data.  This proposal, though not perfect, was a result of community interaction and changes were still possible if this vote had been approved.
The tombstone of the proposal is still available.  I was glad to attend two of the four public meetings and had my questions about the finances answered and voted yes on the proposal on 9/11/12.  Apparently a majority of Johnston residents who voted agreed this was important, but the votes weren’t sufficient for passage (the proposal received 55% support vs the 60% needed).
The Johnston that is engaged and one that isn’t….
I was able to attend two of of the four public sessions on this issue.  Scanning the Johnston middle school auditorium both times, I saw about 100 people in the room  comprising district employees, Principals, teachers and parents.  I saw the city Mayor, press and commercial partners.  In those two meetings, about 400 (eyeballed, not scientific count) of the city’s 17,550+ residents heard the case for (or against) the new project, the school and its cost in these four meetings.  Even if twice that number saw the detailed materials for the school on the district website, that represents less than 10% of our city engaged in a fairly important local issue.  Not very representative of a democratic society.
The east vs. the west side of Johnston
I was glad to hear comments from residents of the old Johnston – the one from 70s and 80s when the city was still <2500 people.  That Johnston is no more.  It will never be that Johnston again.  The complaints from the historic neighborhoods of Johnston that the new sections are causing this need for growth were interesting, but irrelevant.  Of course the new neighborhoods cause growth when new people move in.  The new neighborhoods are high valued properties paying their fair share in higher property taxes.  The formula for taxes is linear — 99 cents per $1000 in valuation.
The affected vs. the unaffected Johnston
WHO Radio asked me if I’d support the bond issue if my kids weren’t currently enrolled.  Of course I would — we grow as a community of residents, workers and corporations when we see an investment in the future.  The small and large corporate citizens of Johnston don’t exist here because this land is cheap – they exist partly because there is (was?) a higher focus on education in our community.  They see their future workforce learning in our K12 schools.  Their employees reside in our neighborhoods.  Though I wasn’t a product of Johnston’s school system (growing up in India makes it hard to ride the school bus across 12 time zones), I understand that we as a community invest in the WHOLE community.  If we expect to pay for every service received AT the time of receiving it, we need to plan for and begin a transition to a fully privatized school system or get educated in the art and science of homeschooling.

But we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
–President Barack Obama, September 2012

Participatory vs. Spectator Johnston
About 4800 people voted on Sept 11. 2012 in this election out of the 17,550+ residents of whom about 12,000 are of voting age (data from US Census).  About a quarter of the city’s population participated in setting a direction for the city’s non-voting population.  That non-voting populace is 100% our future that will now receive their education in:

    • mobile classrooms
    • crowded hallways
    • aging classrooms constructed in the 1970s
  • aging stadium

Or, perhaps some of the families will begin contemplating a move to Ankeny, Waukee, SE Polk and other school districts where the citizens have approved an investment in education.
Des Moines Register Coverage

11 thoughts on “A Tale of two Johnstons

  1. Thanks Audra and Christian. I’ve been following the conversation on the DSM register site as well and it is amazing how many comments there seem to be coming from ignorance of the underlying issue. Ironic that we are discussing uninformed responses to an issue concerning education

  2. This is wonderful. The East vs. West side point is something that we live everyday. As “West-siders”, we have even experienced “conditional” voting in the early days of our neighborhood, as the city itself did not have updated maps including my neighborhood within city-limits.
    We have chosen to make Johnston our home. I know that change can be hard to take, but I urge all Johnston community members to consider the things that make Johnston special and a wonderful place to live. Are you willing to give that up because you don’t like that the town has grown? Because many surrounding school districts have not, and young families like my own will not hesitate to take ourselves and our tax money to somewhere that puts an emphasis on the things that make a community thrive.

    1. Fallon – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate our school district, its committed teachers and their impact on our children everyday. It is growth of the city (through its Northern and Western sections so far, and southern even in this market) is a positive sign. I do hope that the vote defeat has awakened the citizens’ desire to act in greater numbers next time and vote for a growing community or choose to become a dying one…

  3. Thank you for taking the time to express your views and observations and sharing them with your community. I too have been following the comments on the DMRegister website. I voted no – but not for any of the reasons stated online so far. I am probably far more aligned with your thoughts and those who have commented above than the “can’t afford to buy milk” crowd. In the end, I simply was not impressed with the overall facility plan as it was presented. Do I recognize that the existing high school is in adequate? Yes. But that observation was also part of what made me vote No. If the HS is inadequate for 10-12, why is it adequate for 8-9? In the meeting I attended there were many negative comments about the existing HS that were used to validate why the new school was needed – but without much thought given to how those comments might affect our decision about moving the MS there. Also, I couldn’t get behind the idea of moving Wallace Elementary into the existing MS. Estimates of $14M – $16M to renovate the MS did not seem like a good investment when the school, as-is, seems perfectly adequate for the 8-9 kids. Also, the plan for the existing Wallace site was not explained with enough detail. Finally, I was annoyed by the fact that the administration seemed to be using the threat of continued use of modular classrooms as leverage to get a “Yes” vote. I could be wrong – but that was my perception anyway. In the end, I think the community will come together to support a new facility plan. I am hopeful that the issues are not east vs west; haves vs have-nots; informed vs not-informed but instead will be able to focus on the details of the new plan. There were many educated, informed and passionate parents, students, staff, and citizens who did a great job of developing the existing plan and I hope that group and more can continue to build upon that plan with new enthusiasm. I hope the Board will consider some listening sessions and encourage those who voted no to come forward to express their concerns and reservations and will spend the time genuinely listening without feeling the need to defend or justify the current plan. We are blessed in this community to have committed and talented educators. Johnston is recognized within the metro for the quality of our education system; it is part of the fabric of this community. I recognize that we do not have world-class facilities like Ankeny, Waukee, SE Polk, etc. but I feel confident that my kids are getting as good or better of an education as students in any of those districts thanks to these teachers. Clearly, with 55% of voters approving of the existing plan – we are close – and we will get there. I hope our paths will cross during these continued discussions and we can find many points that we can agree upon to get to an even better outcome. Sincerely – Rick

    1. Rick, Thank you for sharing your very thoughtful comments. I do agree that the plan for the HS was rich, needing a lot more input and pause before moving into construction. I, along with many other supporters, was planning to attend the upcoming board meetings to influence the decisions leading up to the architectural plans for new building past these artist renditions we saw, comment on the re-purposing plans for other buildings and the money to be spent.
      As with many projects, however, I felt the micro steps were important also. For example, this vote was to authorize the district to be able to market the bonds and not necessarily to go ahead with the building. There is considerable cost in getting the debt issued, consultants, counsel etc. and I was hoping to get the administrivia behind with this vote. The opportunity to obtain bonds at a cheap rate may have been lost, but hopefully the impact is small.
      I too, with you, hope that the issues are not E-W, haves/have-nots, but rather understanding. Judging from the breakout coming from the Polk county auditor, however, the vote seems like a split based on where people live rather than a uniform spread. Though all data isn’t tabulated, the initial data is not giving me a positive feel. I will await complete population of the data to make further decisions/statements on that part 🙂
      I do think we will run into each other as there are many of us wanting to do this, correctly. I do appreciate the district, its educational leadership in the state and the many wonderful teachers in our classroom.
      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts

      1. I just returned last night from a business trip that took me winding through both rural and urban areas of Iowa and Nebraska. As I passed through towns, I noted their educational and community facilities. The smaller towns had modest mostly brick buildings that were solid and functional looking. They were of the traditional feel that I think many of us recall from our youth. The buildings had really no frills, but that certainly does not mean there are not wonderful things occurring within those walls. There are probably staff inside teaching the children if not grandchildren of former students. These communities very typically had a traditional town square and then, quite often, a community park that offered opportunities for fellowship and recreational activities. You can picture it, can’t you? It gives you a warm, fuzzy truly Americana feel. I contrast that with the new construction I saw in the growth areas abutting the larger metro areas. Everything was shiny, new, very uniform, very “planned.” Yes…the appearance of these schools may be what some consider a bit over the top – and who knows…maybe they are? They definitely have a “wow” factor, and the recreational facilities were often amazing. Any parent that has endured a pick up and drop off experience at our Johnston community soccer fields, or has waded through them in ankle deep muddy water after a rain event would swoon with envy, 🙂 You almost expect to see a stadium sponsorship written on the outside. Does the mere construction of these facilities guarantee what is occurring on the inside reflects the excellence expressed on the outside? Not necessarily. So which group of students is receiving a world class education (as if we have really defined this well, but that is another story)? I would say there is a real possibility both sets of students are receiving a great education IF there is community support behind them. That is the key. I can tell you I honestly wouldn’t care which of the two facilities scenarios my kids were presented AS LONG AS they had teachers that were equipped with a solid curriculum and were wholly dedicated and ready to challenge, foster and educate them. It was as recent as 20 years ago that my mother (who had taught in one of the wealthiest districts in Houston) ended up teaching in a one room school in rural Wyoming due to my father being transferred. What a 180. She had 8 kids in 6 grades. They met it a remodeled farmhouse. She had one assistant, and the two of them did EVERYTHING. She was not just a teacher to them…she was truly an educator. She had nothing fancy to work with, but I tell you truly, those kids received an excellent education. So where I am going with this? I guess my point is now that the election is behind us, let’s come back together as a community and focus on what is most important…how we best provide for the education of this community’s children. I have read many posts, and I’ve heard many comments from within the community. We probably have less to haggle over than we think, but I do believe both those that voted “yes” as well as “no” need to recognize there is sometimes a very real difference between getting what you want and getting what you need. Let’s come together to solve the issue at hand in a forward looking, reasoned, and respectful approach.

        1. Lisa, thanks for raising the “why” of a school back to the surface. I think the conversation and discussions are once again underway in private forums, small-groups and families.
          As you reflect above – we have less to haggle over than we think. I think the fiscal prudence is leading many to say that we can build a learning environment for less than the $83MM, we can equip our already wonderful teachers with better learning environment, but at the same time not forget the large number of students who come to school for mental and physical nourishment.
          I look forward to our tiny group beginning discussions, in person, this weekend.

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