Superintendent says Iowa City school cuts final

Families push to save programs

The Iowa City Community School District headquarters Nov. 27, 2012 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Iowa City Community School District headquarters Nov. 27, 2012 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

IOWA CITY — Phone calls, emails, Facebook groups, a petition and even T-shirts — Iowa City Community School District families are not quietly accepting the $3.6 million in cuts announced earlier this week.

The budget reductions, which affect an array of subjects, class sizes and staffing levels, are final, however, district officials said.

There’s no avoiding the need to cut spending, Superintendent Stephen Murley said, and giving a reprieve to one program would come at the expense of another. Officials spent months evaluating the options that would cause the least harm, he said.

“Any program that has been brought forward has come through a process where those closest to the program, our building administrators have done the analysis,” Murley said.

The cuts are needed to prevent a shortfall in the district’s unspent balance, which is the amount of its authorized budget not spent at the end of the fiscal year.

Starting next school year, the district is eliminating foreign language and football for seventh-graders, junior high general music (that does not include band, orchestra and chorus) and fourth-grade orchestra. German-language classes are being phased out for all grades.

The district is cutting 43 positions, with 30 of them teachers, through attrition.

Despite the district saying the decisions are final, parents and students are not giving up on trying to save their favorite subjects.

The Iowa City Music Auxiliary, a parent organization that supports the district’s music programs, wants members to contact the administration asking them to reconsider, said Mara Goodvin, the group’s president.

“The Iowa City school district has always been very, very supportive of their incredibly strong music programs, and I think they were just taken aback by it,” she said.

Her children, a seventh-grader in band and an 11th-grader in choir, took fourth-grade orchestra in Iowa City schools and it helped make them the musicians they are today, said Goodvin, who teaches music in another school district.

At least two Facebook groups and an online petition have been created in opposition to the foreign language cuts, as well as “Save Iowa City German Classes” T-shirts.

The ability for her now sixth-grade daughter to study German was a consideration when Ute Brandenburg chose to move to Iowa City from Cedar Falls last year after marrying. She was born in America but grew up in Germany. Her daughter, Mathilde, is named after Mathilde’s German great-grandmother.

Now Mathilde will not get an opportunity to study the language in school.

“And it never would have crossed my mind that that would not be possible,” Ute Brandenburg said. “Of all the places in Iowa, Iowa City is a cultural capital, I feel.”

Jeff Martin’s son, Oliver, played varsity football for West High last fall as a freshman, and he got his start in the program with seventh-grade football.

Martin said Iowa City has great high school football programs and it’s unfortunate that, in the home of the Hawkeyes, an opportunity is being taken away from young athletes, including another son, Finn, who is in elementary school

“I played seventh-grade football and eighth-grade football, and they were some of the best memories I have,” said Martin, of Coralville. “I learned to play football in seventh and eighth grade.”

School board President Sally Hoelscher said she has heard from a lot of people this week and understands their emotions. Her son took German and played in orchestra starting in fourth grade.

But she said administrators worked hard to make “the least bad choices.” She also said it was the administration’s job to make the cuts, not the school board’s.

“What I’d really like to see is the Iowa governor and Legislature make education a priority and fund it” at a higher level, she said.

Murley also took state Republican lawmakers to task, saying Gov. Terry Branstad talks about making Iowa the top state in the nation for education but won’t provide funding to make it happen.

State aid has increased 2 percent in three of the past four years, and not at all the other year, compared with 4 percent increases each of the several years before that.

“I think there is a very visible culprit in this, and that’s the state government, particularly the governor and House Republicans,” Murley said.

The budget shortfall also results from the loss of $5.6 million in federal stimulus money that helped fund salaries. Murley proposed cutting 22 teacher positions in 2011, but the community strongly opposed that, and the school board approved dipping into its unspent balance fund, which is like a saving account, to keep them.

Murley and Hoelscher noted that even if the district raised taxes significantly, the state limits how much Iowa school districts can spend and it would not help with the budget shortfall.

Another question people have asked is how can a district that is growing by a few hundred students a year and is building at least four new schools under a $258 million facilities plan have to cut staff and programs. Construction projects are funded primarily by sales tax revenue and a specific tax levy, neither of which can go toward salaries.

The district also has been criticized for unveiling the cuts with no opportunity for meaningful public feedback.

Murley said administrators didn’t want to have teachers or parents lobbying for one program over another. Budget reductions had to be made, he said, so anything that was saved would have come at the expense of something else.

“You don’t want to pit one grade level against another, one program against another, because they all have value,” he said.

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