A Debate Gets Heated Over Building a New Iowa City High School

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – So explosive is the debate over whether to build a new high school in the Iowa City school district that sparks were flying at a meeting in which not much happened.

The school board's Governance Committee on Monday discussed the possibility of eliminating language in a board policy that reserves $32 million in special tax money for the construction of a new high school.

A majority of school board members said last week they are interested in taking money from the voter-approved school infrastructure local-option sales tax, or SILO, and using it to build new elementary schools and elementary school additions instead.

In the end, the committee chose to send the matter to the full school board for discussion, but not before things got testy.

Tuyet Dorau said the matter shouldn't even have been on the committee's agenda and instead should have gone straight to the full board.

"It seems rushed," she said. "It seems like you guys are trying to skirt the system."

The Governance Committee is made up of four school board members: Dorau, Sarah Swisher, Marla Swesey and Jeff McGinness. Swisher is chairwoman of the committee; Swesey is president of the school board.

Dorau said potential changes of this magnitude should be discussed by the full board and the community. She also said she felt the public was not given enough notice of the committee meeting. The agenda came out late last week for a meeting held at 10 a.m. Monday. Fourteen members of the public were at the meeting.

Swisher and Swesey said they thought starting the process with the committee was appropriate and emphasized any proposal would receive a full vetting by the board and the community. The committee cannot change policies itself.

McGinness said if the intent was for the committee to make a recommendation to the full school board to eliminate the SILO language by a vote at an upcoming meeting, then the process was being rushed. If the goal was to send the matter to the board for discussion, then that would be OK, he said.

Dorau responded, "Either way, it's slimy." Superintendent Stephen Murley has not provided a detailed long-term facilities plan and the board is talking about hiring consultants to provide data to help make these decisions, she said, so it's premature to decide what to do with the SILO tax dollars.

"That terminology bothers me," Swesey said of the "slimy" comment. "We're all above board, and the agenda came out for the public and for us."

The high school issue has been around for a few years, but the debate has ramped up in recent months with parents and officials from the various cities that are part of the district weighing in.

One side argues a high school is needed to relieve overcrowding at West High and to serve the growing northern and western portions of the district. The other side has argued elementary school needs in eastern Iowa City are more pressing and high school students can be shifted to under-capacity City High.
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