Split Iowa City School Board Supports Diversity Policy

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Joseph Chenof Coralville speaks during a "listening post" held by members of the Iowa City Community School District Board to discuss the district's proposed diversity plan at the district's Educational Services Center in Iowa City on Saturday, January 12, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

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By Jay Knoll

IOWA CITY, Iowa – A proposed diversity policy that has widened already significant divisions in the Iowa City school district is a step closer to becoming a reality.

The school board reflected that split Tuesday night, voting 4-3 in favor the policy. It was the second of three readings needed to adopt the proposal, but it was the first time the board voted.

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 measure of poverty. It also sets capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools before more secondary schools can be built.

The policy has been the subject of intense debate since it was unveiled one month ago. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the crowd at times was rowdy, and board members took a few shots at each other.

Of the more than 30 people who spoke at the meeting – out of a couple of hundred in the standing-room only crowd – most of the people who backed the policy lived in Iowa City, while those opposed were primarily from North Liberty and Coralville.

Proponents said the policy would address the big disparity in free-reduced lunch rates at schools, which range from less than 6 percent to nearly 79 percent this school year. Several of the highest rates are in eastern Iowa City schools.

City High teacher Robin Fields called that a “catastrophic disparity.”

“Let’s allow as many teachers as possible, and as many buildings as possible, to make a difference for all students,” she said.

Opponents, meanwhile, said they support a diversity policy, but not this one. They object to the inclusion of the capacity language, which they see as an attempt to block the opening of a new comprehensive high school. They also believe some of their children would be sent to east-side schools to balance poverty and capacity rates. And they spoke against the way in which the policy was created and brought to a vote.

“This process appears to have been rushed to adhere to the agenda of a narrow swath of the community,” said Bob Gillispie of Coralville.

To that end, school board member Jeff McGinness introduced a motion to table the vote until later this month, saying the policy was created primarily by board member Sarah Swisher and one parent in a non-transparent manner. The motion was defeated 4-3, with Tuyet Dorau and Patti Fields voting with McGinness.

The vote on the diversity policy fell on the same lines, with Swisher, Karla Cook, Sally Hoelscher and Marla Swesey voting for it.

Swisher reminded people that the district discussed balancing poverty rates during the redistricting debate three years ago, but nothing was done about it.

“I think it’s time to have a sense of urgency,” she said.

Iowa City's policy would be broader than the ones that exist in the five school districts in Iowa currently with diversity plans. Each of those applies only to open enrollment or transfer students, and none has building capacity language.

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