I.C. school issues strangely linked

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Iowa City High School students wait to board school buses at the end of the school day Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, in front of the school in Iowa City. Opponents of the Iowa City Community School District's proposed new diversity policy say the measure will result in more kids being forced to be bused to City High as opposed to attending Iowa City West. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Iíve been confused by the fusion of two entirely separate issues: The new revenue purpose statement for Iowa City schools and the school boardís proposed ďdiversity policy.Ē

I figured the lumping of the two at forums and in conversation was just a case of bad timing. Both are set to be settled Tuesday evening. Polls close on the RPS special election at 8 p.m. The diversity policy is scheduled for a final board vote just a couple hours before that, but thatís where the similarities end.

It should have been noncontroversial, if not a no-brainer, for voters to give the district permission to borrow against future sales tax money earmarked for infrastructure needs in order to catch up on a backlog of the same.

But previous conversations about educational equity ó specifically, about how to even out the districtís horribly lopsided enrollments of kids living in poverty ó have always ended up a mess.

The districtís parents are generally supportive of school equity, but they also love their neighborhood schools. Itís a puzzle thatís seemed as if it could only be solved by picking up and rearranging all the districtís neighborhoods. After all, thatís where the segregation starts.

Proximity or diversity, thatís been the choice for a long time now. So you canít really blame parents for assuming the proposed diversity policy is the final move in a zero-sum game.

But thatís where the two odd-bedfellow issues, strangely, meet.

I hadnít thought of it that way until I talked with Superintendent Steve Murley last week. He pointed out that if the RPS passes, giving the district the ability to quickly build and open new elementary school buildings, balancing enrollments of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch could happen a lot more naturally as enrollment boundaries are, necessarily, redrawn.

ďI think sometimes they look at the diversity policy and think the sky is falling,Ē he said.

But when Borlaug Elementary was built and Roosevelt Elementary was closed, they managed, with plenty of scratch paper and lots of public input, to redraw school boundaries that kept kids local and brought free- and reduced-lunch enrollments in nearby elementaries that had ranged from 15 percent to 56 percent to somewhere in the 20s ó with a gap of 9 percent between the lowest and highest, compared to 40 previously.

It wasnít perfect, but it was pretty painless, Murley said ó a whole lot better than the nightmare busing scenarios that have many district parents so worried. And if the RPS passes and the district can fast-track new, much-needed, elementary schools, we can expect similar processes and results.

I know itís strange to think that the districtís proposed diversity policy could be implemented without compromising the neighborhood school setup that so many parents hold dear. But by letting the district borrow ahead to build now, voters set themselves up for a win-win.

So those who have vowed to use their vote in the latter to show their displeasure with the former should consider the opposite: That same vote could make implementing policy a whole lot easier.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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