Iowa City schools controversies may lead to new law on splitting up school districts

Officials: A school seceding from a district would be unprecedented in Iowa history

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IOWA CITY – The Iowa City school district has been figuratively divided in recent years. A change in state law being considered could lead to a physical separation.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said Wednesday he is having a bill drafted that would make it easier for a community to form its own school district or join another.

There’s interest in that from a few small communities in northern Iowa, Jacoby said, but his focus is on the Iowa City school district, where parents from North Liberty and Coralville are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as a lack of attention being paid to their wishes.

State education officials have said having part of a school district break away would be unprecedented in Iowa history and, while possible, is unlikely under current law.

Jacoby said his goal is for the district, which includes Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Hills and University Heights, to stay unified. Still, his proposal sends a message.

“But not the message that we want to secede from the union,” he said. “The message is, we want a voice in the day-to-day activities with the students and the parents.”

Parents in the northern and western parts of the district are upset about the lack of progress toward building a high school in the North Liberty area. They also have voiced concerns that a diversity policy, which may be adopted next week, would cause their kids to be assigned to new schools and further delay a high school.

The idea of a North Liberty school district has been mentioned occasionally in recent years, but North Liberty parent Marisa Keeney said she’s heard more serious talk about it recently.

“I think it is that people have growing frustrations and distrust and concerns about whether there’s going to be adequate space for their child at junior high or high school, or honestly whether there’s adequate space for them now,” she said, adding that she’d prefer the district work out its problems and stay unified.

Parent Maria Gudenkauf, who lives in northern Coralville, said there’s interest in a new district because of overcrowding at West High, the distance to West High and the booming population in the area.

“I think people would definitely be willing to investigate it further and think about it,” she said.

Some parents already have. Robert Philibert of University Heights said he spoke with someone at the Iowa Department of Education about splitting the district and was told his inquiry would be forwarded to a department attorney. Philibert has not heard back, but he said the person he initially spoke with did not seem high on the idea.

State education officials told The Gazette last May that a split goes against the trend of consolidation and was unlikely to happen.

The Department of Education’s position has not changed and officials will not comment on draft legislation they have not seen, spokeswoman Staci Hupp said Wednesday.

Currently, a petition would need to be submitted to the local Area Education Agency board, which would decide whether to send the matter to voters.

Jacoby said his bill would allow a community to call a vote as long as certain criteria were met. He said those may include the number of students in the new district, enrollment projections, whether the new district would decrease class sizes and whether it would improve student performance.

Jacoby said the AEA and the Department of Education could deny an affirmative vote only if it was determined the plan did not meet the criteria or was not in in the taxpayers’ best interest.

Jacoby said he may wait until after Feb. 5 to file the bill. That’s the date the school board is to have its final vote on the diversity policy and the public will vote on a document that would allow the school district to borrow up to $100 million in future sales tax revenue.

Iowa City schools Superintendent Stephen Murley said a smaller district would not have as many educational and extracurricular opportunities. He also said there are financial benefits to all of the communities in the current setup.

“I think there is much to be said for the economies of scale that we get from one school district serving the communities,” he said.

The district also would not want to lose the fast-growing North Liberty and Coralville areas. North Liberty accounted for 9 percent and Coralville 17 percent of the school district’s fiscal 2013 property tax revenue, according to a Gazette analysis last fall. Iowa City contributed 62 percent.

The chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, said he would not comment on the prospects of an undrafted bill.

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