Despite legal concerns, Iowa City school board to vote on diversity policy

District's attorney says Department of Education offered 'a very shallow look' at policy

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IOWA CITY – The Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa City school district’s attorney disagree on the legality of the district’s diversity policy proposal.

The majority of Iowa City school board members are siding with their attorney.

The board will vote as planned Tuesday night on a diversity policy that the state says would violate federal law.

Members of the board’s Governance Committee said Monday they’d press forward after the district’s attorney, Joe Holland, called the Iowa Department of Education’s judgment “one person’s opinion” and a “very shallow look at your policy.”

“I think this opinion is premature,” Holland said.

The Education Department last week told the school district that how the district would use free or reduced-price lunch information would potentially allow students in that program to be identified without permission from their parents, which would violate federal law.

The diversity policy would require schools to be within a certain range of each other in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

Debate over the policy has been intense and is scheduled to culminate Tuesday night, when the final vote needed to adopt the policy is scheduled. The board is split 4-3 in favor of the policy, a division that is reflected in the community, too.

“We’re very comfortable with our position and with moving forward” with the vote, school board member Sarah Swisher said.

Holland said he believed the state was focused on the implementation of the policy, which is still to come. He told district officials that they would have to be careful in how it carries out the policy so as to not use free-reduced lunch information inappropriately.

“I think right now it’s a big question on how you go about implementing this,” he said.

For example, he said, the state said parental consent is needed to release free-reduced lunch information, so why not ask for parental consent.

It’s not clear what would happen, though, if a parent refused to give that approval. Holland declined to answer questions from The Gazette after the meeting.

The plan for how the policy would be carried out is still to be developed and would be undertaken by Superintendent Stephen Murley and his administrative team.

Murley said the district would need to “be in close contact” with state officials because, if the district is found to be willfully disregarding the state's guidance, the district could risk being ineligible for coverage of legal costs through its insurance policy should the diversity policy be challenged.

The Education Department’s “conclusion was vetted properly through our own chain of command and our attorney,” spokeswoman Staci Hupp wrote in an email. The state also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an interpretation, she said.

Holland noted that part of the state’s letter to the district was nearly identical to a USDA document dealing with free-reduced lunch in a North Carolina school district. He said that policy was different from what the Iowa City school district would do.

“They didn’t even do their own work,” he said of the Education Department. “They simply cut and pasted it.”

Hupp responded: "The USDA communicated to us that the use of FRL data as outlined in Iowa City's proposal is not permissible. If the school board votes to adopt the diversity plan as is, we would likely contact the USDA for a review."

In 2011, the USDA told Wake County, N.C., that free-reduced lunch data could not be used to assign students to schools, according to the News & Observer newspaper. But U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized that school board’s previous decision to end the program as “troubling” for efforts to promote racially diverse schools.

Spokespersons for the two federal agencies did not immediately provide comments for this story.

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