Proposed Iowa City school diversity plan should involve minimal busing, board members say

Plan might form school boundaries with 'limited shapes'

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Iowa City school board members indicated Monday they do not want kids bused away from their neighborhood schools to meet the goals of a diversity policy the board is debating.

Whether that is possible remains to be seen, however.

The board’s Governance Committee added language to the diversity policy, which is to be voted on this month, that says administrators cannot create new pockets of high- or low-income areas and bus those students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

That has been a major concern of some parents, especially those in the generally more affluent western and northern parts of the district, since the diversity policy was unveiled last month.

School board member Jeff McGinness, who proposed the addition, said he’s heard it referred to as the busing policy, as opposed to the diversity policy.

The diversity policy would require schools to be within a certain range of each other in terms of the percentage of their students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, which is used to measure poverty in schools

There’s a large disparity between elementary schools, and South East Junior High and City High, both in Iowa City, fall outside the allowable ranges.

A majority of school board members have indicated they support the diversity policy.

Banning non-contiguous pockets would not necessarily mean kids won’t be bused to new schools, Superintendent Stephen Murley said after the meeting. Instead, it might lead to the creation of some school boundaries with “interesting shapes” so that the neighborhoods in them are connected, he said.

Boundaries are rarely geometric shapes, but think of something more like an amoeba being drawn up so that schools’ free or reduced-price lunch rates are more balanced.

“If you can’t have islands, then you’re going to have to draw your attendance lines very differently,” Murley said.

Several “islands” exist now.

Busing and boundary lines are to be determined. The diversity policy is still just a proposal, and on Monday the Governance Committee of Sarah Swisher, Karla Cook and Marla Swesey, joined by McGinness, made revisions suggested by a district attorney, board members and administrators.

None of the changes discussed during the three-hour meeting significantly altered the policy’s intention. One addition to the policy said it would not affect open enrollment into or out of the district.

Perhaps the most contentious part of the meeting was over when the board should vote on the policy. It had a first reading last month, and second and third readings, with votes, are needed for it to pass.

Swesey, the school board president, and Swisher pushed for a special board meeting this Saturday so that the final vote could be at the regularly scheduled Jan. 15 meeting. They said they wanted the diversity policy to be voted on before a Feb. 5 special election on a school funding plan.

Swisher said she was “interested in giving people a policy” before asking them to vote on a document that would let the district borrow ahead on about $100 million in sales tax revenue for construction projects.

Swesey said it would be better to get the policy before the public as soon as possible so it is better understood.

“All the emails I’m getting are people who don’t understand it,” she said.

The implication is the policy would help garner support for the special election, which is a high priority for school leaders who say money is needed for new schools and building additions to handle increasing enrollment.

McGinness, however, was adamantly opposed to a meeting this Saturday. He said it was too important a policy to go through such a condensed process.

“For me, it feels rushed,” he said. “For a lot of people I’ve talked to, it feels rushed.”

Swesey countered that she’s heard from a lot of people who want the votes to occur quickly.

McGinness said he could accept a special meeting after the Jan. 15 meeting. The issue was left unresolved, with Swesey saying she’d look into the options.

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