State, feds still question Iowa City school district's diversity policy

Guidelines to be issued in coming weeks

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District is using its diversity policy to help redraw school boundaries even as the federal and state governments continue to question its legality.

Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, said Friday that there are lingering issues over the use of free and reduced-price lunch data that Iowa City and other school districts want to reference when setting school attendance zones.

He said his agency should be able to issue some guidance on the matter in the next week or two.

A district that doesn’t comply with the law risks being hit with sanctions, including the loss of federal funding, Berger said.

Iowa City school district Superintendent Stephen Murley acknowledged earlier this week that there are differing opinions but said the school board’s attorney believes the district’s methodology is appropriate.

“I think there’s some consternation at the state level,” he said. “I understand where they’re coming from, but we need to rely on our attorney’s interpretations.”

The school district is currently developing plans to redraw school boundaries across the district.

It’s doing so because the growing district will build new schools and put additions on existing ones over the next several years and to comply with the diversity policy.

A divided school board last year adopted the policy amid intense public debate. It uses free and reduced-price lunch data, which is a measure of poverty, to better distribute low-income students throughout the district.

Currently, there is a wide range of free-reduced lunch rates at the district’s schools. Some educators and research say schools with high numbers of low-income students have bigger barriers to learning.

Administrators are using the meals data to help make decisions on boundaries, and a proposal for elementary schools is to go to the school board May 13. Changes at junior high schools and high schools will be explored later this month.

The Iowa Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the meals program, said last year the district’s diversity policy would violate federal law by potentially allowing students in that program to be identified without permission from their parents.

“The problem is, yes, people are aware these data exist,” Berger said. “That doesn’t mean they get them, and that doesn’t mean they can use them for any purpose they can come up with.”

Berger said there are gray areas on what school districts can do, and that’s what he and federal officials are working on clearing up.

Murley noted the district is using aggregate and not individual student data in its boundary proposals. He said he’s received indications the district will be able to use the data to some extent but with restrictions on the number used to show how many students in a group are changing schools.

The current boundary maps list the number of students in neighborhoods affected by changes, but it says “less than 10” when the number is in the single digits. Murley said perhaps that threshold will need to be higher.

The issue also has come up recently in the Southeast Polk and Johnston school districts near Des Moines, Berger said.

The Des Moines Register reported this week that a consultant hired by Southeast Polk refused to use the data in boundary proposals on the advice of his company’s legal counsel. That led to an argument with school board members and the consultant’s vow never to work with Southeast Polk again, the newspaper reported.

Comments: (319) 339-3175;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.