Fewer changes than expected in Iowa City redistricting

In the end, the changes brought by the Iowa City school district’s yearlong redistricting process weren’t nearly as extensive as was first anticipated.

That’s the conclusion from those involved.

“I didn’t know what to expect” at the start of redistricting last fall, Superintendent Lane Plugge said. “But I would say yes, I thought there’d probably be a little more change to boundaries.”

The school board’s immediate work wrapped up last week with the approval of the final parts of a five-step redistricting plan.

The only significant changes made to school boundaries was to assign Lincoln and Hills elementary schools to City High starting in the 2011-12 school year. Otherwise, boundaries were left mostly untouched.

That’s not to say little was accomplished. The plan calls for the school district to look at boundaries in the future. The board also made official its support for eventually building a third comprehensive high school — a major, and divisive, issue in the community — and set guidelines for making that school a reality.

Redistricting was undertaken in response to concerns about high school enrollment — West High is overcrowded and City High is under capacity — and to plan for future growth in what is now the state’s fifth-largest school district.

School board President Patti Fields, who also said she thought there’d be more boundary changes, called this past year’s work a “good first step,” especially on the high school issue.

She and others said the lack of changes at the elementary school level largely resulted from public input. There were several forums

that were each attended by hundreds of people, and the message that came through loud and clear was that most parents wanted their children to continue to attend their neighborhood schools.

“There was nobody petitioning the redistricting committee saying move us, move us,” said Jone Johnson, a parent and former president of the Districtwide Parents’ Organization. She also sat on the committee that studied redistricting scenarios.

The plan approved by the board calls for boundaries to be reviewed in coming years, meaning there won’t be a two-decade gap in redistricting like there was before the current effort, which many people believe made the process more difficult.

It also calls for committees to be set up to explore options for the new high school and to study the disparity among elementary schools in the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty

Some people wanted redistricting to better balance socio-economic demographics, but it turned out that couldn’t be done without sending some students to schools far away from their neighborhoods.

School board member Mike Cooper said he

can’t declare redistricting 100 percent successful for that reason.

“I was kind of hoping that we were going to somehow magically move these (boundary) lines around a little bit so what we would see is a better balance, and that just didn’t happen,” he said.

But Cooper and others said redistricting did resolve the immediate concerns with high school enrollment and made good progress toward a third high school.

The five-step plan sets trigger points for making decisions on when to begin planning and building a new school, although that action is likely a few years down the road.

The district paid a consultant, RSP and Associates, $109,000 to lead the redistricting effort, although the five-step plan came from Plugge.

Plugge and Fields said the work from RSP and the redistricting committee helped in several ways. First, they coordinated the public input, which proved very influential in the process, and Plugge said all the maps and data RSP provided gave the district the information needed to make decisions.

They also said that it was important to have someone not with the district involved to avoid accusations made in previous big decisions, like to close Roosevelt Elementary, that school officials were acting without regard for public input.

With redistricting, Fields said, “there was a better feeling that it wasn’t the district saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. What do you think?’”

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