NORTH LIBERTY — Construction of the new Liberty High continues with the school on track to welcome its first students in fall 2017.
From where those students are coming may still be up for debate.
At issue is whether to draw students from the Iowa City Community School District based on geography or a desire to create more equity in the student body.
The results of a special school board election Tuesday could determine the final course on the matter.
In May, the school board voted 4-3 in favor of routing students to Liberty High based on geography. Boiled down, the move means students from Kirkwood Elementary are to continue attending West High and Northwest Junior High.
The vote changed a May 2015 decision by the board to send Kirkwood students to Liberty High and North Central Junior High. The goal of that move was to create student bodies at Liberty, West and City high schools that would be more equally balanced in terms of the socioeconomic status of students.
Without Kirkwood students, about 19 percent of Liberty High students would be of low socioeconomic status during the 2019-2020 school year, the first year the school is to have freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. According to district projections, that number jumps to about 29 percent if Kirkwood students attend the new high school.
About 22 percent of students are classified as low-income at West High and 37 percent at City High.
The Iowa City school district changed the way it identifies the socioeconomic status of a student after it was found to be in federal non-compliance in December 2014 because officials were only relying on free-and-reduced school lunch data. Several other factors, including participation in migrant or homeless programs, are now used to determine that status.
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School Board President Chris Lynch said it’s possible after Tuesday’s special election — featuring candidates J.P. Claussen, Paul Roesler and Janice Weiner — the geography vs. equity debate could be reignited. He called the special election “an up-or-down vote on secondary boundaries and an up-or-down vote on equity,” adding the most recent boundary changes could be overturned with a simple vote.
Roesler and Weiner have said they prefer the equity boundaries set in 2015, while Claussen favors the most recent change to geographic boundaries.
Claussen — who said he recently moved to Kirkwood’s neighborhood and has a daughter attending the school this fall — said he believes Kirkwood families want to stay in nearby schools.
“Many of the concerns stemmed from the fact that attending school in North Liberty, with very limited public transportation, would create more barriers for some families who already face barriers to school engagement,” Claussen said.
Kirkwood Elementary — where about 69 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals — is located 5 miles from Liberty High and 3 miles from West High. The elementary school is 3 miles from North Central Junior High and across the street from Northwest Junior High.
Roesler said he supports the equity driven boundaries because he believes schools should reflect a diverse society.
“Sometimes the real world isn’t necessarily what you see in your own backyard,” he said. “The previous boundaries moved us in that direction and it’s a direction I think we need to go.”
Weiner voiced concerns over what she perceives to be a lack of community input sought before the board changed the boundaries this past May. The 2015 decision came after months of debate.
“I was somewhat disturbed to see it brought up again without going back to the community,” she said Wednesday during a public forum in Coralville.
Tuesday’s winner replaces Tom Yates, who resigned his seat on May 13 three days after voting — along with school board members Chris Liebig, Phil Hemingway and Lori Roetlin — to establish Liberty High boundaries based on geography. All four of those board members were elected in September 2015.
Lynch joined school board Vice President Brian Kirschling and LaTasha DeLoach in opposing the change.
Kingsley Botchway, equity director for the Iowa City school district, said he sees both sides of the argument in the debate over how to set school boundaries.
“If you balance it out using the socioeconomic status, there’s a level of diversity that is achieved that is important to what we hold true to be our mission statement — wanting to educate learners to compete in a global community,” Botchway said. “With that, you want to make sure you’re not only providing diversity in staff but diversity in a work environment.”
On the flip side, he understands critics who believe adding distance between the home and school of a low-income student potentially adds barriers.
“A downside that the board has pointed out is that transportation piece,” he said. “For parents and kids who don’t have transportation, they could be bussed for possibly long periods of time.”
Botchway said it’s also important to consider socioeconomic balance because schools with higher numbers of low-income students often require additional financial resources.
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Lynch said settling the boundary issue is vital as district officials look ahead to a facilities bond issue worth upward of $150 million on the September 2017 ballot.
“Bond votes are often votes of confidence,” he said. “The more change and chaos you have, the less likely you are to get a vote of confidence.”
Where the candidates stand
Three candidates square off Tuesday in a special election to choose a new Iowa City school board member. The result could have an impact on how students are routed to the new Liberty High School, under construction in North Liberty and expected to open in fall 2017. At issue is whether those students should be routed based on geography or equity concerns. Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Here is a look at how each of the candidates feels about the issue:
J.P. Claussen — Geography
“Many of the concerns stemmed from the fact that attending school in North Liberty, with very limited public transportation, would create more barriers for some families who already face barriers to school engagement.”
Paul Roesler — Equity
“I would prefer that we went back to the plan that was passed in May of 2015. I want to see schools in our district where the students and staff there reflect the real world. Sometimes the real world isn’t necessarily what you see in your own backyard.”
Janice Weiner — Equity
“I believe that the May 2015 boundary decision, which was arrived at — as I understand — after considerable community input and consultation — was the better decision. Present it as an opportunity, an overall positive, provide late buses for after-school clubs and extracurricular activities — and it will be just that.”