Despite Legal Concerns, Iowa City to Move Forward on Diversity Policy

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa City school 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 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," said Joe Holland, the attorney.

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. It also sets capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools.

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 several times that the district would have to be careful in how it carries out the policy so as to not use free or reduced-price 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 North Carolina. 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."
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