Emails Show Parent Involvement in Iowa City "Diversity Plan"

By Gregg Hennigan

IOWA CITY, Iowa – An Iowa City parent who has been a vocal advocate for east-side schools played an active role in drafting a diversity policy proposed for the Iowa City school district that has drawn strong objections from west-side parents, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.

Ed Stone, the parent of two City High School graduates, exchanged drafts of the policy with board member Sarah Swisher, the policy's chief architect, during the first two weeks of December.

The policy was released to the public Dec. 13, and some school board members said Stone likely saw it before them.

The school district Saturday morning provided 173 pages of emails between Stone and district officials in response to an open records request.

The school board also hosted a forum Saturday seeking feedback on the policy. A couple of hundred people attended and voiced strong opinions for and against the policy

The diversity policy would require schools to be within a specified range of each other in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. It also sets capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools before more secondary schools can be built.

Schools in the City High attendance area have several of the highest free-reduced lunch rates. Also, West High is over capacity and City High has room to spare.

That has led west-side parents to speculate that their kids would be reassigned to east-side schools to meet the policy. There also are accusations that the capacity language is intended to delay construction of a third comprehensive high school.

Board members say they have received a lot of feedback from the public on the issue. Stone, who has spoken out on diversity and capacity issues for years and is a polarizing figure in the district, seems to have had more direct involvement than others, though. The emails show he discussed the policy with board members as it was written and even offered revisions.

On Dec. 2, Swisher sent Stone an email with an attachment titled "second draft diversity." On Dec. 10, Stone sent an emailing thanking her for sharing the drafts with him and suggesting changes, which he said she should "feel free to use or disregard." The attachments were not included in the information provided by the district.

On Dec. 11, Swisher told Stone that she "adopted most changes" and a board committee would discuss Stone's suggestions at an upcoming meeting. She also asked Stone to get the document out of "edit mode."

Swisher and Stone said in separate interviews Saturday that they did nothing wrong.

Swisher said she accepted some of Stone's suggestions and rejected others, and she said up to 30 people in the community had some input on the policy. Asked if any other parents reviewed and revised the policy, she said she doesn't believe anyone else asked to.

"I'm not embarrassed about that at all," she said of Stone's involvement.

A board committee discussed the diversity policy at meetings in November and early December.

Stone said he spoke with all of the board members – emails reflect that he met with several of them – and said he did not have any more access than any other member of the public. He also said the district has dragged its feet for years in addressing the socioeconomic disparities in schools and he's spent a lot of time trying to resolve that.

He also noted that the principals of the west-side secondary schools sent letters to parents that he felt were meant to stir up opposition to the diversity policy.

"I would be much more concerned about that unfair political advocacy," he said.

School board President Marla Swesey said she was not aware of Stone's involvement in crafting the policy and referred questions to Swisher.

Board members Jeff McGinness and Tuyet Dorau said they did not see the diversity policy until a few days before a Dec. 18 meeting when the full board discussed the matter for the first time.

McGinness criticized the negative perception Stone's involvement would create and what he called the lack of transparency in how the policy was drafted. He said he believes it's been a small group of board members and a couple of community members who have had the most involvement in writing the policy.

That said, he added, board members meet with the public all the time to discuss issues. Dorau made a similar point, saying she didn't have an issue with stakeholders like Stone having input in board policies. But she said as many people as possible should be asked for feedback, and she does not believe that occurred in this case.

The emails to and from Stone also show that the longstanding and deeply divisive debate over whether the district should build a third comprehensive high school was at least part of the discussion as the diversity policy was being drafted.

Stone wrote in a Dec. 5 email to Swisher that he had "HAD IT" with Superintendent Stephen Murley talking about a third high school being a pending need and West High being overcrowded while being "absolutely tone deaf to the needs of the rest of the community."

"You should shut Steve up – or better yet, get him to say publicly that kids WILL NEED TO BE MOVED SOON at the high school level," Stone wrote. "There is no other path to equity."

Swisher, a vocal supporter of Murley, said Saturday she did not support the sentiment of that email. She said she also believes a third comprehensive high school should eventually be built.

The board is to have the second of three readings of the policy on Jan. 15. The first vote will occur then.

About 30 people spoke at Saturday's "listening post," with Swesey, Swisher and Sally Hoelscher representing the board. They had the speakers mostly alternate those for and those against the policy, so the comments were balanced.
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