Why Public School & Privacy Advocates Should Be Wary of Project Unicorn, InnovateEDU Inc., its Funders, and their Motives

Is your school committing its students’ data to profiteering ed tech vendors (and perhaps others) via a Project Unicorn pledge? You can check out the answer here. Project Unicorn makes the claim below. My school district, Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), is listed as a participating school; however, Project Unicorn does not represent my child nor would I ever give it permission to.

Project Unicorn is an intitiative run by New York based InnovateEDU Inc. to get schools to share children’s information and data with ed tech vendors and perhaps others as part of a data interoperability project. InnovateEDU Inc.’s list of supporters include, in part, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the NewSchools Venture Fund, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC. Issues include that data may not be properly secured against third parties, third parties may have a profit motive in gaining access to children’s data, third parties may politicize the data, and/or children can be educated without this massive collection of data by non-governmental third parties (or even governmental entities).

Zuckerberg, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. If Facebook cannot protect its users’ information (see here), why should parents trust that relative unknowns like InnovateEDU Inc. or its initiative Project Unicorn or profiteering ed tech vendors will  protect children’s information and data? Parents and privacy advocates should not trust these entities, especially when children’s information can be mined and monetized for commercial purposes and worse, the results used to manipulate children’s future behavior.

Just think. When an adult researches a car online or even searches for a vacation spot or pair of shoes and then logs into Facebook, related advertisements pop up in an attempt (sometimes successful) to nudge the adults into making a purchase. Do parents truly want companies to have the same opportunity to sift through their children’s data, personalized or not, look for patterns, and then use the information garnered to manipulate children’s behavior? Will parents’ goals for their children even be the same as the companies using the data?

By the way, below is how NewSchools Venture fund, one of InnovateEdu, Inc.’s self described funders describes itself with regard to “Ed Tech.

NewSchools Venture Fund invests in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations that are working to improve public education in a variety of ways. Our venture portfolio includes more than 150 organizations across the country.

For more information about NewSchools Venture fund, see here. The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s  Threat from the Right Intensifies (May 2018) also has an interesting write-up about the NewSchools Venture fund here on pages 25-26.

Schools are not legally required to share children’s information with InnovateEDU Inc., Project Unicorn, or ed tech vendors. Yet, the Iowa City Community School District made the Project Unicorn pledge.


Screenshot from Project Unicorn website showing some of the school districts and charter schools that have pledged.

Even if children’s data is anonymized in the future, what exactly “anonymize” will mean is unclear. For example, will location, whether the child works on a device at home or at school, be removed? Going forward, profiteering ed tech vendors and others will be able to track massive amounts of data on individual children and eventually data analytics will result in enough information to identify a child.

Many ed tech vendors profit off of selling products to “close the achievement gap.” If the achievement gap were ever closed, these profiteering ed tech companies might have to shut down profitable lines of business so there is a financial incentive for business entities to not actually close the achievement gap. There is also an incentive for ed tech vendors to sell products to schools to “test” where the kids are at and then to sell products to schools to improve the test scores. How many of these products are unnecessary? How much time is being devoted to assessing/testing on a tech device that  instead could be devoted to instructional time from a teacher?

When untrusted and relatively unknown third parties, big foundations, limited liability companies, ed tech vendors, etc. operate a data interoperability project, there is a possibility that the data and its use will be politicized and manipulated to drive their own agendas. Consider that public schools, charter and other private schools have made the Project Unicorn pledge. Since charter and other private schools can essentially cherry pick students and leave others behind, non-public school’s data may look better than public school data, and this perception may then be used to drive support for more replacements (charter, online, etc.) for public schools.

Too often education reform has resulted in replacing public schools with charter schools or even digital education where children are educated with little to no teachers present. There are even public schools moving toward a model of education where much of the curricula is delivered online, and the teacher then becomes more of a data manager than an educator. Public school advocates are rightfully wary of taking the humanity out of children’s classrooms.

Embarking on a data interoperability project with untrusted third parties, even those that espouse a public benefit, is an inherently bad idea for public schools.  Schools using ed tech need to remember children can be educated without it or that ed tech can be used without participating in a data interoperability project. Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse. Public schools should not participate in Project Unicorn. Frankly, charter and private schools should not either. From this parent’s perspective, such participation is a huge breach of trust.

Posted in Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Children's Data, CZI, Data Mining, Ed Tech Ethics, Facebook, InnovateEDU, Privacy, Project Unicorn, Public Education Advocates, School Board Ethics, Trust, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Who gets access to the kids’ information? InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn’s Pledges are Overly Vague–Did Your School Commit?

The big unknown question is who or what exactly will have access to children’s information that InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn is collecting as part of its (or maybe its funders’?) data interoperability project?

Schools are not legally required to share children’s information with InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn or ed tech vendors, and notably missing from Project Unicorn’s participating schools are the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. and Seattle’s Waldorf School.  Yet, a number of schools, including the Iowa City Community School District, made the Project Unicorn pledge–perhaps your school district or charter or private school did alsoProject Unicorn is an initiative run by New York based InnovateEDU Inc. to get schools to share children’s information and data with ed tech vendors as part of a data interoperability project. However, we should ask whether our schools’ “commitment to provide secure access to student data” has been subjected to the following scrutinies?

  • Parent,
  • Legal, and
  • Most important ethical review.

Clearly, the answer is no.

That InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn and its profiteering ed tech vendors have not sought explicit informed consent from parents to have access to a child’s information and data is disturbing.

Legally, contract and/or pledge language does not have to be vague yet InnovateEdu Inc./Project Unicorn’s school and vendor pledges are.


Our children are more important than our money, yet banks that protect our money cannot get away with such vagueness. The many problems of the Project Unicorn School Pledge include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The default is for schools to share children’s information and data. Parents do not have the right to “opt in” to sharing and withdraw permission (“opt out”) at any time.
  • Project Unicorn’s school pledge fails to explicitly
    • define “secure access to student data,” “student privacy,” “digital ecosystem,” “best practices,” “data privacy and security,” “data interoperability,” “data standard alignment,” “empower educators,” etc. (Do teachers and/or parents agree a “digital ecosystem,” whatever that may be, is a desirable goal?)
    • describe what data elements will be collected on children.
    • ban the collection of sensitive data (e.g. school, location(s), free and reduced lunch status, disability status or accommodations, etc.)
    • include a time limit on how long children’s data may be may be stored and/or used.
    • provide notice about the specific purpose(s) for which data will be used.
    • prohibit any participants from using the data for commercial purposes (e.g. to develop and sell “learning tools”).
    • prohibit school vendors from sharing children’s data with third parties.
    • include a requirement that parents will be notified of a breach of privacy involving their child’s information and data.
    • include a prohibition against combining children’s data with behavior, health, employment, or other data.
  • Paragraph #4 of the above pledge deserves special attention, for under it, schools commit to the following:

4) Adopt and Integrate Data Interoperability Standards for Our Technology Use

Therefore, we commit to procuring educational tools that are ranked level 2 or higher on the Project Unicorn interoperability rubric within one year of signing this pledge. Throughout the procurement process we will purchase products that give priority to best practices that protect student data and privacy. We will prioritize secure interoperability and data standard alignment in procurement documents and RFPs. [Emphasis added.]

InnovateEdu Inc./Project Unicorn‘s rubric (screenshot) is below. Under it, data quality level 2 is described as Linguistic plus numeric student identifiers (e.g. last name and grade level). Providing a student’s last name and grade level, which is listed as an example, does not show an intent to protect children’s privacy.

Screenshot_20180906-084026_Hancom Office Editor

Screenshot of Project Unicorn Rubric

InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn‘s vendor pledge, which has many of the problems noted above, is also problematic, in part because it includes: We will ensure that product meets at least a level 2 or above on the Project Unicorn interoperability rubric within one year of signing this pledge. Again, Level 2 of the rubric includes “last name and grade level” as examples.


The Project Unicorn pledges include: “We commit to maximizing equitable access and availability by advocating for data interoperability….”

  • “Equitable access” for whom?
  • “Availability” to whom?
  • And exactly how is “data interoperability” defined and how far does it go?

Even setting aside the ethical problems, the Project Unicorn pledge fails to include the name of a legally accountable business entity with sufficient financial resources to compensate injured parties should there be a privacy breach. InnovateEDU Inc.’s name is missing from the Project Unicorn pledges, and InnovateEDU Inc. was set up as a not for profit.

Ethically, school board members must understand that federal and state privacy laws are a “floor” not a “ceiling,” and their fiduciary duty requires them to do more than the legal minimum to protect children’s privacy. As part of their fiduciary duty, board members must affirmatively ensure that the employees under their control and their subordinates protect children’s information and data and that there are adequate audit and enforcement mechanisms in place to protect the privacy of children. The vagueness of the Project Unicorn pledges, the unknowns surrounding what data is being collected and what will be done with it, and the failure to secure parents’ explicit and informed consent do not support schools participating in Project Unicorn.

While an adult may voluntarily choose to “entrust” their data to Zuckerberg’s Facebook, children do not always have such choices so adults in their lives must protect them. And even if business entities, initiatives, and other profiteers could protect the data, ethically, the data should first belong to the children and their families. Making participation in a “Project Unicorn” and data interoperability project a condition for receiving a public education is an intrusion of privacy and ethically wrong. Say No to InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn and its ilk.

Posted in Children's Data, data interoperability, Data Mining, Ed tech, Fiduciary Responsibility, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Monetize children's data, Opt In, Opt Out, Privacy, Project Unicorn, School Board Ethics, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Project Unicorn Reminds Me of inBloom #studentprivacy

Staring at a school provided screen, often smaller than the one many adults work on, a 21st Century school child works as a research subject for outside companies, sharing information and producing data that these companies will then mine and use to develop new and improved goods and/or services (e.g. learning tools) to sell to benefit investors. Yet folks and firms, including InnovateEDU Inc. and its initiative Project Unicorn, involved in the child data collection business, do NOT transparently

  • ask for and receive parents’ explicit permission prior to collecting a child’s information and data,
  • inform parents of the specific name of each third party recipient of the child’s data (who?),
  • inform parents of the specific data elements each recipient will collect (what?), and
  • inform parents of each recipient’s specific and intended purpose in collecting and  using the data (why?).

Further, insufficient independent long term evidence exists to link the collection of a child’s information and data (e.g. in conjunction with a data interoperability project) to that particular child demonstrating substantially more academic improvement than the child would otherwise make. Parents and guardians must NOT be required to share their child’s information and data with outside third parties as a condition of their child receiving a free public education, whether it be with an entity like the now failed inBloom or InnovateEdu Inc./Project Unicorn and/or others of their ilk.

A paradigm shift from the school default being to share children’s information and data to the default being to NOT share children’s information and data must take place so that parents may then choose whether to exercise informed consent and “opt in” to sharing with the Project Unicorns of this world but could otherwise not be required to share.

opt out graphic

Without fanfare, Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) made the vague Project  Unicorn pledge, apparently agreeing to have its students commit personal information and data to Project Unicorn and its vendors. There is no provision for parents to “opt out” of or better yet to “opt in” to sharing their child’s information and data with InnovateEDU Inc/Project Unicorn or its pledged vendors.


Screenshot of Some of Project Unicorn’s Schools

Screenshot_20180906-084026_Hancom Office Editor

Screenshot of Project Unicorn “Student Data” Rubric

Project Unicorn is reportedly run by InnovateEDU Inc., a New York business entity registered as a not for profit. InnovateEDU Inc.’s address, 230 Ashland Place Ste 19C, Brooklyn, New York, 11217, appears to be a residential condominium building. InnovateEDU Inc.’s 2016 IRS 990 form showed reportable compensation to its executive director in the amount of $166, 212 and a cash grant of $86,518 for the general support of the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter school. InnovateEDU Inc.’s website list of supporters includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the NewSchools Venture Fund among others.

Innovateedu, Inc./Project Unicorn runs a data interoperability pilot for participating schools (e.g. public and charter) to share students’ information and data with third party ed tech vendors and is using values and needs based selling techniques to do so. The value proposition is that it’s all for the kids, closing the achievement gap, and improving teaching, which in turn creates a need to track children’s data to help monitor their progress thereby creating a false dilemna.

However, we should all remember schools and people can be “all for the kids” and not participate in Project Unicorn.

The Ed Tech Market continues to get bigger–to believe ed tech vendors and those they associate with will not use such information and data for commercial purposes, in addition to any philanthropic purpose their representatives may espouse, is naive at best. Parents must have the right of  determination about whether their child’s information and/or data should be used for commercial purposes, even if InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn proposes multiple uses.

At the beginning of this year, Forbes magazine reported that “[i]n 2017, across every market involved in ed tech, international funding reached a new record of $9.52 billion.”  Further, in 2017, “preK-12 companies received 13% of the overall global investment….” (Also see here.)

InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn reminds me of a smaller inBloom, a firm that was formed, in part at least, to collect data about children. inBloom failed following parents’ and privacy advocates’ protests about the collection of children’s data.

If parents and privacy advocates did not trust in InBloom (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) why should they trust InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn?

K through 12 school data must not follow children as adults into the workforce. If parents, after informed prior consent, opt in to sharing their children’s information and/or data, such sharing and storage must end no later than the earlier of the date the parent opts out, the child turns eighteen, or the child graduates.

The bottom line is that a child’s information and data should not be shared without prior informed consent, and data mining on children without prior informed consent is unethical. If parents choose to opt in to sharing their children’s information and data, and it is used for a commercial purpose, including a failed commercial venture, these children, many of whom are low income, should be compensated.

It is easy to imagine a world where an individual’s personal health, education, and social emotional data are merged and can be accessed by employers and used to slot individuals into jobs–a very serf like dystopian vision of the future. Ed tech and other school vendors’ and their affiliates’ desire to collect children’s information and data does NOT supercede parents’ and children’s right of privacy–the default must be to NOT share children’s information and data with profiteering ed tech vendors and the not for profits they affiliate with. InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn appear to be ramping up fast. The time to take action to protect children’s privacy is now.


Additional thoughts/comments:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot raises important ethical issues including about informed consent and research involving individuals, and I highly recommend it.

The word parents refers to guardians as well.

A business is engaged in a commercial purpose when it develops and/or improves a good and/or service (e.g. “learning tool”) to generate a cash flow and/or create a financial benefit for the business, whether in cash or kind, even if no profit is earned.

A business engaged in a commercial purpose should not be able to avoid responsibility for privacy breaches by affiliating itself with a not for profit entity or coalition or similar entity.

Characterizing privacy advocates, parents, and others who have concerns about the collection of children’s information and data as “fearful” is an ad hominem attack. There are sufficient data breaches that have been made public to justify concerns.

Finally, a child is more than data points. Teachers, who are able to interact with and know a child, must not be turned into simply managers of data.


Posted in Children's Data, Data Mining, Ed Tech Ethics, Fiduciary Responsibility, Informed Consent, InnovateEDU, Iowa City Schools, Opt In, Opt Out, Paradigm Shift, Privacy, Project Unicorn, School Board Ethics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What will ICCSD’s School Bond Cost Me? More than you might think.

$1.95033 per thousand of assessed property valuation is the projected debt service levy (tax) for the $191.525 million school bond if it passes, for the year 2018-2019 as shown as  in Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s)  “2017-2018 Certified Budget” 1 information, not $.98 as many bond supporters have promoted.



The total school levy (tax rate) is made up of multiple parts, including the 1) General Fund Levy, 2) the Management Levy, 3) the PPEL Levy, and 4) the Debt Service Levy. Added together, they are used as one input in calculating school property taxes. The PPEL Levy is currently constant at $1.67 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. Other levies may change over time.

In order to encourage voters to vote for a school bond, bond supporters, including school officials, often want homeowners to think they will pay less in property taxes than a bond will cost over time. So school officials 1) in the short term, may manipulate one or more parts of the school levy in an attempt to show that a school bond has less impact than it truly will over the time in which the bond debt will be paid down and 2) try to time a new bond so that payments take effect just as an old bond is being paid off–so they can advertise that school taxes overall will not increase or will not increase much (neglecting to remind property owners that they have finished paying on the old debt levy).

Helpfully, Minnesota requires the following “notice in boldface type” to be put on ballots where voters will vote on a bond referendum.  Iowa should do the same.


The part of the school levy to pay attention to when determining what a school bond will truly cost is the debt service levy.

To calculate the impact of the projected debt service levy (tax) for ICCSD’s proposed $191.525 million dollar bond, on a homeowner’s property taxes, compare 1) the school property tax rate with the bond debt service levy in it to 2) the school property tax rate without the bond debt service levy.

Tax Savings if Bond does not pass for 250000 in year 1

Property taxes on a $250,000 home if the $191.525 million dollar bond referendum passes are approximately $268.13 for 2018-2019 using ICCSD’s own projected debt service levy of $1.95033 per thousand of assessed property valuation.

The projected additional property taxes to service general obligation bond debt for 2018-2019 if the $191.525 million dollar bond referendum passes are about $268.13 per year for a homeowner whose home is assessed at $250,000.

If, for example, in five years, the home’s assessed value increases from $250,000 to $275,625, and the bond debt levy drops from $1.95033 to $1.7654 because the property tax base grows, a homeowner will still pay around a projected $268 per year to support debt related to the bond referendum, if it passes and assuming the district’s projections are accurate.

Assessed Value of Home

ICCSD currently plans for payments on its bond principal of $191.525 million (with interest and other costs projected to be $275 million) to be made each year to the year 2042 so more than one generation will bear this debt.

With only 44,127 non-exempt property tax paying parcels in ICCSD this past spring, that works out to over $6,000 per parcel. Sure the tax base will grow and some property owners will pay more or less than others; however, let’s face it, this bond is going to be expensive.

1See the chart at the top of page 28 of ICCSD’s 2017-2018 certified budget information.


Posted in Board, Board Discretionary Levy Reduction, Bond, Bond Ballot, Bond vote, Budget, Cup of Coffee, Debt Levy, Facilities Master Plan, General Obligation Bond, Iowa City Schools, Marketing a School Bond, School Taxes, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Iowa’s Residential Rollback

Most property owners, including owners of residential and commercial property, in Iowa pay property taxes based on a reduction of their property valuation. This assessment limitation is known as a “rollback,” and you can see the history of Iowa’s rollbacks here.

Iowa’s rollback for residential property (your home) overall has been trending up (see red line in chart below) in recent years.  If this trend continues, you will be taxed on a greater percentage of your property and will pay more property taxes even were your property value and tax rates to stay flat and not increase. This news is not good for homeowners.

Residential Rollback Updated - Use this

Posted in Bond, ICCSD, Iowa Schools, School Taxes, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why the school property tax rate by itself is a poor measure of school taxes overall

The assessed value of a property makes a difference when it comes to calculating and paying property taxes. In the Iowa City area, the assessed value of properties overall generally grows. If you were to sell your home, this increase is good news. However, for homeowners who live in their home for many years, the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) will collect more school taxes as the value of your home increases even if its tax rate stays flat and sometimes even when the tax rate decreases.

So be skeptical when bond promoters state “of the state’s 10 largest districts, the ICCSD has the lowest property tax rate.” What they often fail to mention is that ICCSD has the highest assessed valuation per pupil dollar among those same comparable schools so it makes sense that its tax rate is lower than its comparable districts. Tax rate by itself is a poor measure upon which to compare school districts.

Assessed Valuation Ranking


Posted in Bond, Iowa City Schools, School Taxes, Tax Rate | Leave a comment

2017 ICCSD General Obligation Bond Frequently Asked Questions aka FAQs

Question :  What do Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) voters vote on during the September 12th election?

A. Bond Ballot Referendum Language;
B. Facilities Master Plan (FMP) of the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD); or
C. Specific projects at specific schools.

Correct Answer: A.  Voters vote only on the bond ballot referendum language1.  The bond ballot referendum is NOT the Facilities Master Plan (FMP). Voters do NOT vote on ICCSD’s FMP, which can be changed in the future (so don’t count on the FMP).

For district publicized past changes to the FMP, see the links here and here


Question: Does the bond ballot referendum language assign specific dollar amounts for specific schools?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe

Correct Answer: A. No, the bond ballot referendum language (found below) does NOT assign or otherwise tie specific dollar amounts to any specific schools or projects. The language does NOT even mention specific dollar amounts other than $191.525 million.

If the referendum passes, the district is authorized to issue general obligation bonds over time (there will be more than one bond issued) for up to $191.525 million in principal, and then property taxes will be used to repay this principal plus interest. The funds obtained from the bonds can be spent according to the bond ballot referendum language, which does NOT require the district to spend a certain amount of money on a certain school or project.

Over the years that the bonds are issued, there will be some statement and disclosure (see here for examples) along with spending requirements.

The FMP can be changed by future boards to include other projects (or exclude currently planned projects) so long as they do not stray from ballot language approved by the voters.


Question:  If the bond ballot referendum passes on September 12th, can the district be held accountable if it does not complete all of the projects in its current FMP or in other descriptions of the projects?

A. No.
B. Yes, because what is in the description is also listed in ICCSD’s FMP;  or
C. Yes, because the description of my school’s proposed projects is on my school’s website.

Correct Answer: A. Voters vote on only the bond ballot referendum language. Pictures, promises, designs or descriptions about projects that are outside the  ballot referendum language do not count–so read the ballot language carefully before you vote. And remember that not all projects listed in the ballot referendum language have to be done.

No one can guarantee what future boards will or will not do so if someone informs you that certain FMP projects will be done, please be skeptical because no one knows what future boards will decide.


Question: Has ICCSD’s board made changes to its facilities master plan (FMP) in the past?  

A. Yes, it has made substantial changes.
B. Yes, but the changes have been minor.

C. No.

Correct Answer A.  Yes, the board has made substantial changes to its the Facilities Master Plan (FMP) at some of the schools.  For example, the board deleted 480 planned seats from inner Iowa City Schools–Lincoln, Longfellow, Mann and Shimek–in 2015 and added 75 planned seats at Lemme for a net loss of 405 seats to inner Iowa City schools at that time. In 2017, the board reportedly “delete[d] 5 classrooms from the original 5 classroom addition” at Lemme and added “proper sized classrooms for both music and art programs.” See here and here for reported changes.


Question: Does the bond ballot language 1 approved by a divided 5-2 ICCSD board require that projects in ICCSD’s current FMP projects be done?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer:  A. No.

Any statement that says projects in ICCSD’s Facilities Master Plan must be done is NOT true.  Likewise, any statement that says the projects in the bond have to be done is NOT true.

Bond Ballot language

ICCSD General Obligation Bond Ballot Language

Approved by Divided 5-2 ICCSD Board


Question: Could ICCSD’s district officials have presented bond ballot referendum language to the public that more closely reflected its FMP so that the district could be made accountable to voters if the bond passes and it does not keep its promises made to voters? 

A. Yes.
B. No.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer: A. Yes; however, it did not do so.


Question: Is proposed $191.525 million dollar school bond ballot referendum Iowa’s largest school bond vote?

A. Yes.
B. No.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer: A. Yes. You can find a link to Iowa’s 2015-2016 Bond Election Results here and past school bond election results here.


Question: If the bond ballot referendum passes, is ICCSD  required to keep schools like Lincoln or Hills or Horace Mann or Shimek or TREC (Theodore Roosevelt Education Center) or others open?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer:  A. No.

Even if voters approve the existing bond referendum, there is nothing in the bond ballot referendum language that would stop school district officials from later deciding to close a now existing school.


Question: If approved by voters, does the bond ballot referendum require a historic renovation for Horace Mann?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer:  A. No.

Even if voters approve the existing bond referendum, there is nothing in the bond referendum language that requires any school renovation to be “historic.”


Question:  Does the bond ballot referendum state a location for a specific school?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Correct Answer: A. No.

There is no specific location specified for an existing school in the bond ballot referendum language.

Consider 1) the past decision by an ICCSD board to “retire” the “existing” Hoover and build “new” Hoover after district officials and representatives promised voters prior to their vote on ICCSD’s 2013 Revenue Purpose Statement that all existing schools would be renovated, and 2) the failure of the bond ballot referendum language to even commit both specific dollar amounts and specific locations to existing schools.


Question: Does the bond ballot referendum language provide that projects set forth in ICCSD’s facilities master plan be done by a certain date?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Answer:  A. No.


Question: Does the bond ballot referendum require that promised projects must be completed in a specific order?

A. No.
B. Yes.
C. Maybe.

Answer: A. No.

There is no specific order in which projects must be completed.


Question: If the bond does not pass, what happens?

A. The district can bring an improved bond referendum before the voters in six months.
B. There can be alternative sources of funding down the road.
C. Both A and B.

Answer: C. Both A and B are true.

There can be alternative sources of funding down the road. 

If the bond referendum is voted down, ICCSD can bring an accountable transparent bond referendum forward in six or more months. School districts sometimes (or perhaps often) pad their first bond request so the next bond request should (but is not guaranteed to) be smaller.

Alternatively, or in addition to, in the next few years, the Iowa legislature may extend the penny sales tax for schools from the year 2029 through the year 2049 making an anticipated $440 million available to the district and perhaps making a bond unnecessary (see the picture immediately below from a district document).


From ICCSD’s Facility Master Plan (FMP) Proposed General Obligation Bond Funding Key Facts and Details 1/10/2017

There may also be additional funding sources such as a future PPEL funds, the district could seek a PERL, etc.


By now, if you support the Facilities Master Plan as it exists today, you should be concerned and ask why the ICCSD district officials did not have enough confidence in ICCSD’s plan to write specific and accountable bond ballot referendum language to put before the voters.

Voters deserve a bond referendum that makes school officials accountable for following the existing Facilities Master Plan. Remember, only the ballot bond referendum language counts. Please mark your calendars and vote on September 12th.



1Bond Ballot Language: Shall the Board of Directors of the Iowa City Community School District in the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to contract indebtedness and issue General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $191,525,000 to provide funds to address health, safety, and accessibility issues in all school buildings, including air conditioning all school buildings, reducing the use of temporary classroom structures in the District, addressing classroom, lunchroom, and gymnasium overcrowding, and dedicating rooms to art, music, prekindergarten, and science by constructing, furnishing and equipping a new building, constructing additions to and/or remodeling, repairing, and improving the school buildings remaining in the District’s Facilities Master Plan, as follows: Mann and Lincoln renovations, Liberty High athletic facilities construction and site improvements, new elementary school construction in North Liberty and site improvements, West High renovation, South East and North Central Junior High additions, Shimek renovation, City High addition and upgrades, Wood addition, Wickham upgrades, Garner and Northwest additions, Liberty High addition, Horn renovation, Kirkwood addition, Borlaug, Alexander, and Lemme additions, and Tate High addition and upgrades?

Posted in Board, Bond, Bond Ballot, Bond vote, Facilities, Facilities Master Plan, General Obligation Bond, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Iowa Schools, PPEL, Referendum, Steve Murley, Superintendent, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

School Bonds & the Cost of a Cup of Coffee

In what must be a truly amazing coincidence (or merely a good marketing scheme), a number of school bonds are marketed as only the cost of a cup of coffee. One might almost think there is a school bond playbook for school districts. In fact, see the article entitled “Passing a school bond in the era of social media.”

When a county commissioner opposed the bond due to potential tax implications, we fought back with facts. We broke down the potential tax impact in terms anyone could relate to with this simple message: “For less than a cup of coffee per month, the bond will address growth, safety and infrastructure needs.” [Emphasis added.]

The Round Rock School District saw its 2017 $572 million school bond package” fail.

…people on the online blog were angry about a mailer comparing the cost of the bonds to buying a cup of coffee. [Emphasis added.]

Aaron Cleaver, the Democratic chairman of Travis County Precinct 328, …said the “consensus of the people I talked to felt the bond issue was too vague and the projects were not developed well enough.”

And from Portland, Maine where bond supporters pushed the city council to endorse a bond….

A $64 million bond authorization with borrowing and repayment over 26 years would result in a total of $92 million in principal and interest. Strimling and supporters said that amounts to an average cost of $8.67 per month for a property valued at $240,000, or about the cost of a weekly cup of coffee. [Emphasis added.]

The problem is what is not said. The devil is always in the details and repetitions of “about the cost of a cup of coffee” are meaningless. Now if you start dividing the real cost of a school bond by the price of a gallon of milk on sale at Walmart or an Iowa football ticket or a drug copayment, that might mean something.


Posted in Bond, Bond Ballot, Bond vote, Cup of Coffee, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Marketing a School Bond, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prospecting for School Districts with Debt Capacity

As Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) stakeholders watch to determine whether its bond ballot referendum for $191.525 million (plus interest) will pass or fail on September 12th, there is an interesting discussion in some of the comments sections of posts on Chris Liebig’s Another Blog About School about whether school districts across the country have been targeted by those with a profit motive for these districts’ ability to borrow money to finance infrastructure plans. Certainly there is money to be made, and alongside the money to be made potential and real conflicts of interest exist so voters should carefully scrutinize what is in (and as importantly what has been left out of) ICCSD’s September 12th bond ballot referendum.

Question: How easy is it for business development professionals to prospect or mine for school district customers that have the capacity to borrow money via debt financing/bonds?

Answer: Very easy.

To test how easy it is to identify and target school district prospects such as ICCSD, one only has look at page 46 of ICCSD’s yearly audit, which is publicly filed and found here.

ICCSD's Debt Capacity

Iowa City Community School District Information About Its Debt Capacity From Its Latest Financial Audit

A school district like ICCSD that has the capacity to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars using bond financing is a “hot” prospect, especially considering it is an area where there is a low unemployment rate and a good property tax base. Of course voters will pay property taxes they would not otherwise pay to support repayment of these bonds.

ICCSD’s  $191.525 million dollar bond referendum could be followed by another bond referendum, and/or there is widespread support across Iowa for extending the penny sales tax for schools known as SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) from the year 2029 through 2049.

ICCSD’s financial advisor is reported to have stated “that if 100 percent of the sales tax remains for Iowa school use out to [the year] 2049, ICCSD would ha[ve] access to roughly $440 million.” (see page 2 here, and for more information about ICCSD and SAVE, see here and here). ICCSD could then, as could potentially other Iowa school districts, issue additional bonds (more debt) in anticipation of receiving sales tax revenues, which would then be used to repay the bonds.


From ICCSD’s Facility Master Plan (FMP) Proposed General Obligation Bond Funding  Key Facts and Details 1/10/2017

Lest one think ICCSD is unique with regard the ease of locating its debt capacity, the most recent audit for the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) found here also makes its capacity for additional debt easy to find. CRCSD has also seen its bond rating improve within the last couple of years (see here) helping to make it a “hot” sales prospect for taking on additional debt.

Cedar Rapids Debt Capacity

Cedar Rapids Community School District Information from Latest Financial Audit  about Debt Limit

In addition to financial audits, credit rating agencies and EMMA (Electronic Municipal Market Access) are among the sources of information available to business development professionals and others.

To see see exactly what you are voting on in ICCSD’s upcoming bond referendum, see here and note, the ballot language does NOT mimic ICCSD’s facilities master plan (nor will voters vote on ICCSD’s facilities master plan).

Objectively, borrowing money using debt financing needs to make sense not just for one’s school district and all of the outsiders who might financially benefit, but also make sense for a voter’s individual circumstances. Please mark your calendars and vote on September 12th.

Posted in Bond, Bond vote, Budget, Conflict of Interest, Debt Levy, Facilities Master Plan, FMP, General Obligation Bond, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Promises About How Little a $191.525 Million Dollar School Bond Referendum (With Interest)Will Cost–Don’t Count On Them

Below is what the Iowa City Press Citizen reported about Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) proposed $39 million dollar bond referendum in February of 2003. That bond referendum subsequently passed under a former superintendent.

The district’s current tax levy rate is 11.53 percent. If passed, the referendum would rise to 11.84 percent.

As you can see from ICCSD’s reported tax rates below*, over time, ICCSD’s school tax levy rose above 11.84 and is now 13.98260 per thousand dollars of assessed property valuation. The better figure to pay attention to when examining what a school bond will cost property owners (and anyone to whom property owners pass their costs onto) is not the total school tax levy, which can be subject to some manipulation of its parts, but the debt service rate for general obligation bond debt.


ICCSD School Tax Levy        (Total Rate)

ICCSD Debt Service Rate     (Debt Levy)

























A question was asked at ICCSD’s “Board of Education Work Session Discussion October 11, 2016” about what size bond could be had if property owners continued to pay a then projected $.54 debt service levy. The answer can be found on page 15 of “G.O. Bonds Funding for ICCSD Facility Master Plan”–a $46.705 million dollar bond–see below. The payoff would have been the year 2037, not the year 2042 as is now projected for the $191.525 million dollar bond referendum.


Some ICCSD officials and many bond supporters now assert the existing debt service levy for debt related to the $39 million dollar bond should continue past 2018 to the year 2042– an additional 24 years on top of the original 15 years. Remember that payments related to the $39 million dollar bond referendum were only supposed to be paid for 15 years ending in the year 2018, not for 39 years total ending in the year 2042.

It is no coincidence that many proposed school bond referendums take place just as existing bond debt is scheduled to be paid off. Such scheduling helps school officials and bond supporters sell school bonds to the voters.

So what number has ICCSD (or its outside financial consultant PFM Financial Advisors LLC) currently forecast for the proposed $191.525 million dollar bond referendum (plus interest)–the answer is a debt service levy of $1.95033 per thousand of assessed property valuation for the year 2018-2019. This fiscal year is the first year payments would be made if the referendum passes. Payments are projected to be made for 24 years.

Can ICCSD truly confirm yet what the $191.525 million dollar bond referendum with interest will cost if approved by voters? No. There are lots of factors that impact the costs of bonds, including that budget decisions are board decisions as it is the school board that must certify the budget each and every year and set the tax rate. No one now can confirm now how future school board members will vote. However what property owners will pay for a $191.525 million dollar bond with interest is going to be more than the “the cost of a cup of coffee.” Consider,

1) the debt service rate for debt related to the $39 million dollar bond plus interest and spread over a fifteen year period has ranged from .52868 to .74900 per thousand of assessed property valuation in recent years, and

2) ICCSD reported a $46.705 million dollar bond referendum could be had for $ .54 per thousand of assessed property valuation.

So, imagine what taxes property owners will pay for a $191.525 million dollar bond referendum plus interest spread out with payments made each year to the year 2042.  For many people, this bond referendum will be expensive if it passes.


The source of the tax rate information is the chart at the top of page 28 in ICCSD’s own “Iowa City Community School District 2017-2018 Certified Budget prepared by Dr. Craig Hansel, CFO/Board Secretary.  Also see http://www.boarddocs.com/ia/iccsd/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=AKNHD347EE34.


Posted in Bond, Bond vote, Budget, Debt Levy, General Obligation Bond, ICCSD, School Taxes, Uncategorized | 1 Comment