Iowa City school diversity plan draws fire

Debate brings accusations of east-west politicking in district

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IOWA CITY — A diversity policy the Iowa City school board seems ready to adopt would more evenly distribute low-income students in the district — a move educators say would benefit all students.

But it also would set capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools before another secondary school could be built. Even the superintendent says that provision is not related to diversity.

Many people see an ulterior motive at play, one that is more political in nature and related to an east-west divide in the district and a debate over whether to build another comprehensive high school.

"It’s about moving kids to City High," said Dave Jacoby, a Coralville parent with kids at West High and Northwest Junior High. He also is a member of the Iowa House.

There also is speculation that the policy, which generally is most popular on the east side of the district, is being used to win Iowa City votes for a Feb. 5 special school election on a measure that would open up approximately $100 million for construction projects.

At least four of the seven school board members appear supportive of the policy, and they acknowledge they want it approved in advance of that vote.

Controversy erupted earlier this week when a special meeting to vote on the policy was scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday.

Following a backlash, the meeting was changed to a "listening post." The vote will be held Tuesday, and one more vote is needed after that for adoption.

School board President Marla Swesey said that although she wants an expedited process, it’s not a political issue for her, and she’s disappointed it may be for some people.

"Because when you’re talking about students’ education, it should not be political," said Swesey, a retired teacher. "It should be what is right for student achievement and what’s not."

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, a common measure of poverty.

Many educators say schools with high concentrations of poor students face more challenges, which hurts classroom performance.

The highest free-reduced lunch rates in the Iowa City school district tend to be in the City High attendance area on the east side of the district.

That has led to speculation that west-side students would need to be moved to the east for the rates to be balanced.

But also drawing scrutiny is a provision in the policy that says before a new junior high school or high school is built, the existing buildings must be near capacity and their capacity rates must be within a certain percentage of each other.

Critics say this is not related to diversity at all, but rather an attempt to shift students to the smaller City High and to prevent a third comprehensive high school from being built anytime soon.

West High has been overcrowded for years, and parents in North Liberty have been especially vocal about wanting a new high school.

City High, meanwhile, has roughly 175 open seats this school year, and its parents have argued City High’s capacity should be used before a new school is built.

Superintendent Stephen Murley, who did not write the diversity policy, did not dismiss the theory that the capacity language is intended to win the votes of east-siders on Feb. 5.

"Well, there might be" something to that, he said. "Again, there’s two sides to a coin."

The other side, he said, is the notion that the most fiscally responsible thing to do would be to have both high schools at capacity before building a new one.

Murley said building capacity and diversity are separate issues, but school board members would need to answer why they are being considered together.

Board member Sarah Swisher, who for years has pushed for better socio-economic balance and played a central role in writing the diversity policy, said capacity and diversity are connected because how many kids attend a school affects its poverty rate. She also said it’s not equitable to allow a school to become overcrowded if it affects the diversity.

Three board members have questioned that reasoning, however.

"I don’t see where there is a relationship between capacity and a discussion of diversity, and so I don’t think the issue of capacity should be in a diversity policy," said Tuyet Dorau.

Board members have said they would not want students bused to meet the policy and would rather use incentives, like special programs at select schools. The board also wants to build three new elementary schools, which would offer a chance to balance poverty rates by redrawing boundaries. But it will be years before any new schools open.

Elementary schools and junior high schools would have five years to comply with the diversity policy, but the high school would get two years.

"Could we do it completely voluntarily? No, we could not, not at this point," Murley said.

Charges of politicking are going both directions. Coralville and North Liberty factions are accused of working to keep their schools from losing their comparatively low poverty rates and pushing for a third high school.

And then there is the correspondence from the principals of west-side secondary schools.

In a Dec. 19 email to parents, Northwest Junior High Principal Gregg Shoultz said the diversity policy "surfaced last week" and warned the building capacity rule would likely result in more eighth-graders going to City High instead of West High next school year.

He also wrote that the policy "will mean that both West and City will have to be extremely overcrowded before any new facility could be constructed."

That led Ed Stone, an Iowa City resident and father of two City High graduates, to email Murley rebuking Shoultz for using his school email account "to advance his personal political agenda."

In a letter sent to parents last week, the principals at West High, Northwest Junior High and North Central Junior High said West High students could be reassigned to City High as soon as next fall.

In an email obtained by The Gazette, Murley wrote that an unnamed school board member asked him to tell West High Principal Jerry Arganbright that the board does not intend to move kids already in high school. The board member had heard from a Coralville family worried about that happening, and she wanted Arganbright to know about "the anxiety he has created for a student by his ‘letter.’ "

Arganbright said in an interview the letter was intended to keep parents informed and Murley and the school board knew it was being sent. He said parents are worried their children will be assigned to a new school.

He does not believe building capacity is related to diversity, but he does see the policy as an extension of the debate over whether to build a third high school. He also said some West High parents view the diversity policy as a political document as much as an educational plan, although he declined to give his opinion on that.

City High Principal John Bacon does not see politics at play. Parents he’s talked with, and his own view, is the board is trying to create socio-economic balance across the district, which he said would lift barriers to learning.

Julie Eisele, an Iowa City parent of a Shimek Elementary student and two City High graduates, has been speaking out on disparity issues for several years. She’s glad to see a policy in the works and said it was wrong to suggest it’s a political tool.

"That’s offensive to me," she said. "I think that there are a lot of people in this district who aren’t thinking globally. They’re only thinking about their selfish interests."

She believes the outcome of the diversity policy will determine the way many people vote Feb. 5, and said she’d be reluctant to give the district $100 million with no safeguards regarding balance when it comes to building new schools.

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