Monday, September 26, 2016

Board agenda for Tuesday, September 27

At this week’s board meeting, we’ll discuss (and hopefully settle) the question of how the district should handle voluntary transfers from one ICCSD school to another. Info here. Posts here and here.

We’ll also hear a presentation on the planned renovation of Longfellow Elementary, a report on the ACT scores of district students, and updates on (1) how the cuts to discretionary have affected traffic at drop-off and pick-up times at affected schools, and on other transportation issues, and (2) how the district is responding in the short term to the lack of air conditioning at some of our schools. (In the longer term, the district’s facilities master plan includes plans to air-condition all district schools.)

This is also our annual organizational meeting, so we’ll elect officers, appoint committee members, etc.

The full agenda is here; please chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Voluntary transfers and fairness

The board has a choice between two approaches to voluntary transfers. One possibility is to write specific rules that make it clear who is entitled to an exception to our usual transfer rules. The other is to allow the administration to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a student’s circumstances rise to the level of a “hardship” that merits special treatment.

One reason I’m in favor of the first approach is that I doubt it’s possible to have a case-by-case approach without generating fairness issues. I don’t want to get into the position where, on the one hand, we’re telling a student from the Alexander neighborhood (in southern Iowa City) that it’s not a hardship to attend Northwest Junior High in Coralville, but we’re simultaneously giving a transfer to a student from another area who really wants to attend Liberty because it’s closer, or because all of his friends go there, or because he’s got his heart set on being on one of the sports teams.

Fairness problems like that seem inevitable under a discretionary case-by-case system. Parents who want transfers for their kids will have an incentive to generate “hardship” arguments, and no matter what the district has done with other kids, there will always be a way to say that this next student’s circumstances are somehow different—and what will really end up making the difference is which kids have the parents who are better able to advocate.

If we think there are other categories that merit special treatment—even if it’s “the team needs me!”—let’s write them down so the process is transparent, consistent, and fair.

That’s why I keep working at trying to write specific rules, even if it gets a little complicated. I’ve now boiled that effort down to the following, which I’ll offer at our next board meeting. It’s an attempt to list some rules that I think we might be able to get consensus on, though we could always add or subtract as we discuss it. (For the explanations behind some of these rules, see this post.) Let me know what you think in the comments.


The board should direct the administration to incorporate the following rules into our voluntary transfer policy:

Students may apply for voluntary transfer into an ICCSD school other than their assigned school.

Capacity rules. As the secondary students, the district will approve the transfer only if it appears likely that there will be capacity available at the receiving school for as long as the student is entitled to remain there. As to elementary students, the district will approve the transfer only if it appears likely that there will be capacity available at the student’s particular grade level for as long as the student is entitled to remain there.

If there are more transfer applications than there are spots available, the district will award transfers by lottery, except it will give first priority to students who finished their previous year at the receiving school, and second priority to students who will have a sibling attending the receiving school in the year of the transfer.

Transportation. The district will not provide transportation to students on voluntary transfers, except as law or other district policy requires.

Newly opening schools. Except as provided in any of the sections below, students who are redistricted into a newly opening school may not voluntarily transfer out of that school during its first year.

Capstone rules. Juniors and seniors will be entitled to voluntary transfer, not subject to the capacity rules, into any high school at which they completed their previous year. This rule will apply to sophomore as well, unless they have been redistricted into a newly opening high school.

Eighth graders will be entitled to voluntary transfer, not subject to the capacity rules, into any junior high where they finished their seventh grade year.

Sixth graders will be entitled to voluntary transfer, not subject to the capacity rules, into any elementary school where they finished their fifth grade year.

North Lincoln. Students from the “North Lincoln” area who voluntarily transferred into South East Junior High no later than the 2016-17 school year will be entitled to voluntary transfers, not subject to the capacity rules, enabling them to remain on the SEJH-City path through high school graduation.

North Lincoln students who are sophomores in 2017-18 will not be subject to the newly opening schools rule.

Van Allen. Students from the small portion of Van Allen that will become part of Wickham in 2019-20 will be entitled to voluntary transfers, not subject to the capacity rules, enabling them to be on the NCJH/Liberty path through high school graduation, as long as they complete their sixth grade year at Van Allen no later than the 2019-20 school year.

Eighth and ninth graders formerly in City High zone. Students who are in eighth or ninth grade in 2017-18 will be entitled to transfer voluntarily onto the SEJH/City path, not subject to capacity rules.

Multiple rezonings. An elementary school student will be entitled to voluntary transfer, not subject to the capacity rules, to remain at the school he or she was assigned to in the previous year if that student has already changed elementary schools at least once because of a change in school zone boundaries. Such a student will be entitled to renew that transfer through sixth grade, not subject to the capacity rules.

Siblings. A student will be entitled to transfer onto a secondary path, not subject to the capacity rules, if he or she has an older sibling who will be on that secondary path during the year of the transfer and if he or she is no more than three years behind that older sibling. This rule is limited to students who start seventh grade no later than 2017-18.

Hardship. Students will be entitled to voluntary transfer, not subject to the capacity rules, if the district determines that a transfer is necessary for health, safety, or security reasons. The district will apply the same standard to these requests as it does to requests for open enrollment out of the district for cause.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Voluntary transfers, continued

Last week, the board started discussing what exceptions we should make (if any) to our usual voluntary transfer rules as we transition to new boundaries and the opening of a new high school. I think it’s important to lay out a clear set of rules, so the administration will know who is and who isn’t subject to an exception. Since there are conflicting value judgments involved in deciding where to draw the lines, I think it makes sense for the board to decide the rules.

Some board members seemed doubtful that we could anticipate in advance all of the situations that might merit special treatment. I think it can be done, and I think it’s better to have clear rules than to rely on a discretionary case-by-case approach. But this is definitely an enterprise where multiple heads are better than one, so I’m looking for reader input here.

If you’re not directly affected by this issue (and maybe even if you are!), you will find this a long, boring discussion. But if you have any thoughts about what follows, and especially if you can think of other categories of student that might need to be addressed, please chime in with a comment. I express my own opinion in some places along the way; but sometimes I am just identifying multiple approaches that the board could consider.

I’m linking to the remainder of this discussion, since I had trouble duplicating the formatting here on blogger.

Previous post here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Board reinstates secondary boundary plan

As expected, the board voted tonight to reinstate the previous board’s secondary feeder plan, which would send Kirkwood-area students to Liberty High and Alexander-area students to West High. At the junior high level, Kirkwood will be assigned to North Central but students will be allowed to choose Northwest instead; Alexander will be assigned to Northwest but will be allowed to choose South East instead, though they will not receive a bus to South East. Board members LaTasha DeLoach, Brian Kirschling, Chris Lynch, and Paul Roesler voted for that plan; board members Phil Hemingway, Lori Roetlin, and I voted against it. My reasons for voting against it are stated more fully here, here, here, and here. Here are my comments on this issue at the meeting tonight:

Well, I think we all know how these votes are going to go, more or less. We had an election this summer in which this issue played a big role, and I’m happy to let the democratic process take its course and decide this issue. And we need decide it now and move forward.

That doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, though. Once upon a time I was elected too, and when I ran I said: “We should pay special attention to the needs of disadvantaged students and their families. In my view, those families are the best judges of what those needs are. We should seek out their advice and bring it to bear on district policy.”

I don’t think we’ve done that on this issue, and I don’t have any confidence that the kids in the Kirkwood and Alexander areas will be better off as a result of the board’s decisions tonight. I also think the board has its head in the sand about the capacity problems at Liberty that this decision will cause. It’s only a matter of time before someone suggests we move Van Allen back to West High because Liberty doesn’t have enough space—which would entail even more busing costs at the expense of class size.

I’m not a person who thinks there are no benefits from creating socioeconomically diverse environments in our schools when we can do that without creating hardships for families that are struggling economically. The strongest evidence for those benefits is at the elementary level, but I don’t doubt there are benefits to some degree at the secondary level as well.

But to me it’s a bad sign when many—not all, but many—of the people arguing that we need to diversify our high schools—including some of the people sitting up here—happen to live in elementary attendance areas that are very white, largely well off, with very low-free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates, but don’t seem to think we need to do anything at all about that, even though we have much, much larger socioeconomic disparities between our elementary schools than we do between our high schools. Many of those people didn’t object at all—or even expressed support—this past May when this board adopted elementary attendance areas that made those disparities even bigger.

There are things that we can do to create more socioeconomic balance in our elementary schools—things that wouldn’t even require more busing, which wouldn’t create the kind of burdens that these secondary boundaries will create, and which would probably even save the district money over time and help prevent outlier class sizes. For example, the paired schools concept, which could help lower the FRL concentrations we now have at schools like Twain and Mann by pairing them with lower-FRL schools. There are also boundary alterations we could make to even out FRLs without much disruption—for example, keeping the Breckenridge trailer court at Lemme, where they’ve gone for years, instead of redistricting them to Hoover East, and then moving the part of Lemme that’s east of Scott Boulevard to new Hoover instead.

Many of these relatively straightforward opportunities for elementary balance are on the east side of Iowa City, which, in the election, most strongly supported the candidate who argued for socioeconomic balance at the secondary level.

If the board goes ahead with a plan to bus kids from low-income families around to create balance at the secondary level, but shows no interest or urgency about the less burdensome, less costly ways of generating some balance at the elementary level, where it probably matters more, people will have every reason to think that this vote isn’t about diversity or equity, it’s about “Send those kids someplace else. Someplace other than the school where my kids go.”

And if we say, “those elementary changes are too controversial to talk about right before a bond vote, we should wait until a better time,” when we didn’t say that about busing Alexander and Kirkwood, that should bother us. Let’s put those topics on our agenda now.

Monday, September 12, 2016

School board agenda for Tuesday, September 13

Some of the items on this week’s board agenda:

1. The board will discuss (and probably resolve) the issue of secondary boundaries, which has been pending since the process was interrupted by the resignation of board member Tom Yates in May. I’m guessing that there will now be a majority for reinstating the previous board’s secondary boundary plan that would send Kirkwood-area students to Liberty and Alexander-area students to Northwest Junior High and West High. (I don’t support that plan, for reasons I wrote about here, here, here, and here.)

2. We’ll consider two busing appeals from parents who argue that their kids should receive a bus to West High because they live just beyond the three-mile mark.

3. We’ll hear an update on the district’s response to the State Department of Education’s audit of our special education practices. Info here.

4. At the work session after the meeting, we’ll discuss our request to our demographer to get updated enrollment projections. Info here.

5. We’ll discuss a proposed process to get community input on possible changes to the district’s facilities master plan. Editorial comment: I have a lot of doubts about the ability of our ThoughtExchange platform to provide a representative sample of community sentiment, and I wish it did not advertise itself in that way. (See this post.) But what I’m most interested in is hearing all the arguments and counterarguments on any proposed changes, and ThoughtExchange is one way of gathering those, as are emails, community comment at board meetings, etc.

6. We’ll discuss our voluntary transfer process and whether we should change it or make any exceptions to it as we transition to new boundaries and the opening of a new high school. Long, boring post on this topic here.

7. We’ll review a proposed timeline for preparing for a bond proposal to appear on the September 2017 school board election ballot, to fund projects in the district’s facilities master plan.

8. We’ll discuss the district’s weighted resource allocation model, under which schools that have higher rates of free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) (which is the district’s proxy for low-income status) receive additional resources. The district has already begun phasing in this model—by, for example, trying to tilt teacher allocation toward high-FRL elementary schools. I asked for some further discussion of just how this model would function at the secondary school level.

9. We’ll get a quarterly report on the board’s strategic goal to “annually improve the educational experiences for all children through culturally inclusive and responsive school environments and classroom instruction, as measured by various student assessments including the Biennial Youth Survey, with a focus on equitable outcomes for students in protected classes.”

All that and more. The full agendas are here and here; chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Superintendent evaluation, contract extension, and pay

This is just a quick post in response to questions I’ve gotten about the process for superintendent evaluation, contract extension, and pay.

The superintendent evaluation process is a personnel process that legally has to happen in closed session if the superintendent so requests (which, quite reasonably, he has). It leads to an evaluation that the superintendent receives which is designed to identify both strengths and areas for improvement. The evaluation is not a public document. The board has had several closed session meetings as part of that annual process.

The contract extension process is a separate process. The previous board approved a three-year contract for our superintendent in July 2015. Ordinarily, when there are less than two years remaining in the contract, the board considers extending it back out to three years. The board can discuss that issue in an exempt (non-public) session, but any vote to extend the contract would have to occur in a public board meeting. The board has an exempt session for “superintendent contract” scheduled for this Tuesday.

As part of the contract approval process, the board must also determine the superintendent’s salary. That decision is separate from the salary approvals for other administrators and staff. The board can discuss that issue in an exempt session, though any salary decision would have to be approved at a public board meeting.

Voluntary transfers and transition rules

UPDATE 9/18/16The board made some headway discussing this issue at last week’s work session. Follow-up discussion here.

One of the topics the board will be discussing in this week’s work session is the district’s voluntary transfer process. Earlier this year, I proposed that the board consider making some changes and clarifications to that process as we transition to new boundaries and to the opening of Liberty High. This post is to update and summarize that proposal and ask readers for input. (Warning: prepare for a long post.)

Monday, August 22, 2016

School board agenda for August 23

Some of the items on this week’s board agenda:

We’ll consider whether to change our policy on open enrollment and voluntary transfers at our secondary schools. Our current policy prohibits voluntary transfers into Southeast Junior High, City High, or West High, because of capacity concerns. The opening of Liberty High in 2017 will relieve some of those concerns and so is an occasion for reconsidering the policy. More info here.

We’ll also hear a “Start of School Update,” and we’ll review the board’s work session decision to ask an administrative committee to examine the issue of activity buses at the high schools once Liberty opens.

We have an exempt (non-public) session before the regular board meeting to consider whether to extend the superintendent’s contract for an additional year. (As I understand it, the standard practice is give the superintendent a three-year contract. When there are only two years left in the contract term, the board can choose to extend the contract back out to three years.) After the regular board meeting, we have a closed (also non-public) session to continue the superintendent evaluation process.

The full meeting agenda is here. Feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

District buys news elementary school site in North Liberty

New school site is outlined in orange; click to enlarge.

The big news at the board meeting tonight was that the board gave a unanimous go-ahead to the purchase of land in northern North Liberty to use as the site for an elementary school. (We could not talk about the purchase in advance, for fear of derailing the purchase negotiations.)

Though the board did not make any decision about how the site would fit in with its long-term facilities plan, my own strong preference (and, I think, the likely outcome, though I can’t speak for the board) is to open Grant Elementary School on this newly purchased site in 2019, instead of on the site in northern Coralville (the “Scanlon site”) that the board initially identified.

There are several reasons why it makes sense to alter our plans in that way. Under our most recent information, there are currently 10 elementary school students within a mile of the Scanlon site. Go out two miles and you’ll find over 200, but many of those are very close to our existing elementary schools. The area around Scanlon is being developed, but the growth won’t happen overnight. So to fill that school in 2019, we would have to run many buses to it, which would require scarce general fund money. Alternatively, we could run fewer buses but open the school at significantly less than full capacity, which means it would not serve its intended function of alleviating overcrowding at the other North Corridor schools.

By contrast, the North Liberty location would enable us to fill Grant largely with kids who live within two miles and so minimize busing costs. (The Cedar Springs and Fox Run neighborhoods alone contain hundreds of students.) Unlike at the Scanlon location, the developments (and thus the kids) near the new site are already there, not just anticipated in the future. That means that the new site will enable Grant to have the greatest possible impact in alleviating overcrowding at the other North Corridor schools.

And by opening Grant at the North Liberty location, we avoid having to move the Cedar Springs neighborhood twice. Under the elementary boundaries the board adopted earlier this year, Cedar Springs, which currently attends Garner Elementary, was reassigned to Penn Elementary as of 2019. But it would make no sense to move Cedar Springs to Penn if we anticipate eventually opening a school near Cedar Springs and having to move those families a second time.

Another advantage of the North Liberty site is that it already has utility infrastructure in place, while there is some uncertainty about whether the Scanlon site will have infrastructure in place to enable construction to start on schedule.

Finally, opening Grant at the North Liberty location would make it easier to persuade people to vote for the bond that will be necessary to pay for the construction of a new school. It will be hard enough to persuade people to vote for a bond that will close and demolish an existing elementary school (which I will continue to advocate against). It will be that much harder if we tell people that we’re doing it because we’re building a new elementary school in an area of very high-end development where there are currently ten kids within a mile, and where the cost of the busing that would be required to fill that school when it opens could be nearly what it would cost to keep Hoover open. It would be much easier to convince people to build a school in a neighborhood where hundreds of kids will be within walking distance and where many are currently attending a school (Garner) that is projected to be three hundred kids overcrowded by 2018.

What should become of the Scanlon location? The district will still own the land there. It makes a lot of sense to consider that the location of the *next* North Corridor elementary school, after Grant. There is a lot of growth expected in the North Corridor, and our enrollment projections may justify another elementary school there in the not-too-distant future. But by then, the developments will be further along and we will be able to fill more of the seats with walkers.

Changing the location of Grant would have domino effects, however. For example, in my view, the board would have to reconsider the wisdom of adding 175 seats to Garner and would have to think about whether we should add capacity elsewhere instead.

Opening Grant at the North Liberty location would also require that we change the 2019 elementary boundaries that the board adopted earlier this year. It would not make sense to send Cedar Springs and Fox Run to Penn, since Grant would now be their walkable neighborhood school. In my view, it would also not make sense to send the North Lincoln area to Grant, and the same may be true of the northern part of the Wickham zone that was slated to become part of Grant.

I remain mystified by the board’s decision to approve those elementary boundaries. Not only did we do so over three years in advance of the opening of the new schools and without updated enrollment projections, we did so just hours after the closed session at which we agreed to pursue the North Liberty purchase. I still don’t understand why the board majority chose, on that very same night, to tell hundreds of people that they would be zoned for Grant Elementary—or why, as recently as six weeks ago, board members were saying that the elementary boundaries were “final”—when we all knew that we were pursuing a significant change. We were bound to keep the property negotiations confidential, but nobody forced us to rush elementary boundaries through in a way that would mislead so many people.

But this property purchase is great news, and I hope it will demonstrate that yes, the facilities master plan can be changed without the sky falling. In my view, we should continue to look for ways to improve the facilities plan as we head into the 2017 vote on the bond proposal (which is now estimated to be for approximately $190 million, unless the state approves an extension of the SAVE tax).

Please chime in with any comments about the property acquisition. Are there counterarguments to moving the location of Grant to the new site? If the location is moved, what changes would you suggest to other aspects of the facilities plan and to the elementary boundaries?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

School board agenda for Tuesday, July 26

At tonight’s meeting, we’ll swear in newly elected board member Paul Roesler, and we’ll discuss our legislative priorities for the coming year. At the work session afterward, we’ll start our discussion of activity buses, and we’ll be joined by staff of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency to discuss our district’s relationship with the agency and our recent interactions with the agency that led up to the state’s report about our special education practices.

The full agendas are here and here; feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

School board agenda for Tuesday, June 12

I’m afraid I got too busy to post about the agenda before our last meeting, and I have time for only a brief post about tonight’s meeting, which has a relatively short agenda. It does include a discussion of the state Department of Education’s accreditation report on our district’s special education practices. (On that subject: there is also a candidate forum on special ed issues tonight; details here.)

The full agenda is here; feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A response to Chris Lynch’s guest opinion

My fellow board member Chris Lynch has a guest opinion in today’s Press-Citizen on the subject of secondary boundaries. As anyone who reads this blog knows, this is a topic that the board is divided on. Disagreement among the board members can be a healthy thing, especially if it means that people get to hear both arguments and counterarguments on important issues. In that spirit, here’s my take on the arguments Director Lynch raises in his article.

  • The first thing I noticed about the article is that it says nothing about the primary objection raised to Director Lynch’s proposal: the busing of kids from two of our most high-poverty neighborhoods, Kirkwood and Alexander, to more distant schools for the sake of pursuing greater socioeconomic parity at the high schools. The article does not even try to persuade the reader that the plan’s benefits outweigh its burdens for Kirkwood and Alexander families. I take the article to be implying that whatever burdens those families have to bear are justified by the other benefits of the proposal, but I would have liked to hear the main counterargument to the proposal more explicitly addressed.

  • Much of the article is arguing with a straw man: Director Lynch compares his favored proposal with a plan that would assign both Kirkwood and Alexander to West High. But in fact, neither side of this debate wants to leave both Kirkwood and Alexander assigned to West. The real alternative proposal is to assign Kirkwood to West and all or most of Alexander to City High. As a result, many of Director Lynch’s arguments falter. For example, he argues that his proposal—to remove Kirkwood from West—will keep West from becoming overcrowded, but the alternative proposal—removing Alexander from West—will also keep it from becoming overcrowded. Basically, West with Alexander looks a lot like West with Kirkwood, so it’s hard to distinguish the two proposals based on their effect on West.

  • Director Lynch’s main argument is that his proposal is the only way to prevent “programming inequity” at the high schools. I’m not surprised at this focus. Despite all the talk about the need for diversity, much of this debate has been driven by a desire for uniformity in course offerings at the three high schools—which explains why the focus on “balance” has been exclusively at the secondary level, even though the socioeconomic disparities at the elementary level are far larger. (Many of the people arguing against having fifteen- or twenty-point FRL (rate of free- and reduced-price lunch) differences at the high schools were supportive of the board’s adoption of elementary boundaries that had FRL differences of over seventy percentage points.)

    What are the programming differences that will result if we keep Kirkwood and Alexander at their nearest high schools? Director Lynch does not say. He says only that “Liberty will not have programming equity with City/West due to low/lower student enrollment.” But it has always been the plan for Liberty to start with lower enrollment, because its initial capacity will be lower. (It will be a 1000-seat school until 2022.) The district’s curricular goal for Liberty is to have at least 200 kids per class, with the understanding that juniors and seniors will not be required to attend in its initial year. On the high end, it would be unwise to have more than about 250 kids per class, since that would push the building over capacity as soon as there are four full classes there. Based on what we know about how many students are in the pipeline, keeping Kirkwood at West is the plan that puts Liberty at between 200 and 250 students per class in its initial years—thus meeting its curricular goals while avoiding overcrowding.

    Director Lynch’s proposal, on the other hand, would result in enrollment at Liberty being significantly over capacity by 2019 (the first year it will have four full classes), even without considering likely population growth in the North Corridor. And the overcrowding would get much worse before Liberty gets its addition (scheduled for 2022).

  • Director Lynch asserts that unless his proposal is adopted, “The barriers to learning will be 2-4 times higher at City/West than Liberty.” I had to stop and read that sentence multiple times, since at first I had no idea what it meant. I’m assuming that the article is equating the rate of free- and reduced-price lunch or English language instruction with a school having “higher barriers to learning.” This strikes me as an odd way to talk about the presence of poor kids or second-language English speakers in our schools. It is also inherently alarmist language; “4 times higher” may mean that one high school would have 8% of its kids in English-language instruction while another high school would have 2%—but it sounds scarier to say that “barriers to learning will be four times higher” at the former.

    Certainly some kids do face greater barriers, but the article avoids any discussion of how those kids will be better off if they are bused to different schools. That would require a discussion of whether the likely FRL rate at any school is high enough to raise educational red flags, and whether the benefit of moving kids to a different, more distant school will outweigh the burdens. The article doesn’t attempt to make those arguments.

  • Director Lynch suggests that only under his proposal can a bond be passed that will fund the remaining projects in the district’s facilities plan. It’s true that no one is under any obligation to vote for a bond, and some people may choose to express their unhappiness with the board’s policies by voting “no” on any bond. But this kind of argument is circular: everyone likes to think that their plan is the one the community likes best. Director Lynch says that the community and the board “collectively spent thousands of hours” developing his proposal, but in fact there was a great deal of opposition to busing-for-balance at the district’s listening posts. What’s especially noticeable about the argument on bond passage, though, is the absence of any acknowledgement that Kirkwood and Alexander residents will also play a role in whether a bond passes. In the discussion of bond passage, those voters don’t seem to exist.

  • Director Lynch argues that “anything that looks like segregation” has “no place in the Iowa City Community School District.” There is no doubt that the housing patterns that make it harder to diversify some of our schools are the result of a history of discrimination. Whether our high schools need to have nearly equal socioeconomic profiles to avoid “looking like segregation,” however, is another question, especially if that goal requires treating low-income families worse than other families, by putting greater burdens on them and by being more willing to disregard their input. How best to improve the lives of kids from low-income families is a hard question that can’t be reduced to simply equalizing numbers—as Director Lynch has essentially acknowledged by supporting elementary boundaries that have enormous disparities in socioeconomic and racial diversity and that look much more like segregation than anything proposed at the high school level.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want socioeconomic balance at the secondary schools. Unfortunately, though, that balance cannot be achieved—at least not through traditional attendance zones—without busing hundreds of kids from low-income families every year to more distant schools. I remain unconvinced that those kids will be made better off through that kind of plan, and I do not see the likely socioeconomic differences at the high schools as being large enough to justify burdening those kids in that way.

Related posts here, here, and here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

School board agenda for June 14

Some of the items on tonight’s board agenda:

We’ll discuss the state Department of Education’s accreditation report on our district’s Special Education practices. You can read the report here.

We’ll vote on approval of the proposed 2016-17 school calendar.

We’ll hear an update from the district’s sustainability committee.

We have a work session scheduled to continue our discussion of secondary boundaries. My guess is that we will probably have to wait until the election of a new board member to settle the question of what our secondary school boundaries will be. I submitted a letter to the board listing some “grandfathering” issues that we could discuss. It’s hard to do any kind of extensive grandfathering in conjunction with our boundary changes, especially since we need to make sure we populate the new schools we are opening, but there are some limited circumstances where I think some exceptions to our usual rules would make sense.

The full agendas are here and here. Please chime in with a comment on anything that catches your attention.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Uncertainty about the length of a school board appointment

UPDATE #2, 6/7/16: The board voted unanimously not to appoint anyone to the vacant board seat. As a result, we will have a special election in July—most likely on July 19.

UPDATE 6/7/16: According to guidance issued by the Iowa Secretary of State’s office today, if we make an appointment tonight to fill the vacant seat on the board, that seat would have to go up for election this November 8 (that is, at the same time as the Presidential election). Unofficially, we’re hearing from the Auditor’s office that the cost of a general election is ordinarily shared by the entities that have offices on the ballot. Because the November election uses more polling places and requires more poll workers, the cost is relatively high, so the school district could expect to spend about $75,000 if the seat is on the November ballot (as compared to about $16,000 on a July special election), unless there is a departure from past practice.

Whatever we make of this information, we’re lucky to have gotten it in advance of our decision tonight. A number of districts elsewhere in Iowa have already made appointments to vacancies—and quite possibly did so in order to save the expense of holding a special election—and are only now learning that they will have to fill those seats this November at an even higher cost.


At this coming Tuesday’s meeting, the school board will decide whether to appoint someone to the board vacancy created by Tom Yates’s resignation. If the board does not appoint someone, there will be a special election in July to fill the spot. Seven people have applied for the appointment.

One question that has turned out to be unexpectedly difficult is how long an appointed board member would serve. The governing statute says that the appointee “shall hold office until a successor is elected and qualified pursuant to section 69.12.” Section 69.12 governs vacancies that occur “in any nonpartisan elective office of a political subdivision of this state,” and says, in relevant part:
A vacancy shall be filled at the next pending election if it occurs:

(1) Seventy-four or more days before the election, if it is a general election.

(2) Fifty-two or more days before the election, if it is a regularly scheduled or special city election. . . .

(3) Forty-five or more days before the election, if it is a regularly scheduled school election.
The statute defines “pending election” as:
any election at which there will be on the ballot either the office in which the vacancy exists, or any other office to be filled or any public question to be decided by the voters of the same political subdivision in which the vacancy exists.

(Emphasis mine.) One interpretation of the italicized language is that the vacancy would be filled at the next school district election, which would mean in November 2017 (or sooner if there were a school bond vote in the meantime). That’s how I read it, and that was the district’s working interpretation.

However, a 2011 Iowa Court of Appeals opinion interpreted it differently. The case arose when a vacancy occurred on the Bettendorf City Council in January 2010. The Council appointed a replacement, and then a dispute arose about when the seat would come up for election. One side argued that the “next pending election” was the next City Council election, which would have been in November 2011. The other side argued that the “next pending election” was the state legislative and gubernatorial election in November 2010.

The Court decided that the statute required the seat to be up for election in November 2010, even though that was not a City Council election. Otherwise, the Court wrote, the language in paragraph (1) above would be superfluous.

The Court’s decision is the authoritative interpretation of the statute that lower courts are required to apply to newly arising cases, unless there is a principled distinction that would justify a different outcome.

Further complicating the matter, this year’s legislature passed an amendment to the governing statute. The amendment essentially reverses the Court of Appeals’ interpretation and requires that a vacancy like ours would be filled at the next school district election. Governor Branstad signed the amendment into law last week. But its effective date is July 1, 2016. Since our appointment would be made on June 7, the amended approach probably does not apply—though there is at least room for argument on that point as well.

The upshot is that we can’t be entirely sure how long our appointee would serve. It’s a legal issue that could be settled with finality only by the courts. It’s quite possible—even probable—that if someone litigated the issue, a court would decide that the seat would have to go up for election this November.

It is interesting to imagine a school board seat being filled on the same ballot as the presidential election, and we would certainly set a school election record for turnout. On the other hand, I’m concerned about making an appointment without knowing how long the appointed term would be, especially if there’s any likelihood that litigation will result.

On balance, I see this legal uncertainty as one more reason to allow the seat to go to a special election rather than fill it by appointment. If the seat is filled at a special election in July, the law is clear that the winner of the election will fill out the remainder of Yates’s term, which expires in September 2019.