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.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Update on Liberty High enrollment projections

As I wrote about here, the board has been debating whether to assign the Kirkwood Elementary area to the Liberty High zone or the West High zone. The board recently voted 4-3 to assign Kirkwood to West High. One question that arose was what effect that assignment would have on enrollment at Liberty. Some were concerned that without Kirkwood, Liberty would not have the two hundred kids per class that the district saw as its initial goal. Others (including me) were concerned that sending Kirkwood to Liberty would cause Liberty’s enrollment to exceed its capacity as early as 2019, the first year it will have four full classes in the building.

(During Liberty’s first year of operation, the district is allowing juniors and seniors in the Liberty zone the option of staying at their previous high school; the same is true for seniors during Liberty’s second year. So it will not have four full classes until its third year, which is 2019-20.)

Projecting the enrollment at Liberty is not a straightforward task. The district’s most recent set of enrollment projections is of limited usefulness, since it makes projections based on our old set of elementary boundaries, which will not be the boundaries when Liberty opens. So the board asked the administration to make projections for Liberty based simply on moving forward the current cohorts of kids who are in the Liberty zone. For example, the kids who will be Liberty freshman in 2019 are this past year’s fifth-graders, so we can simply count the outgoing fifth-graders in Liberty’s zone and use that as an estimate of the 2019 freshman class.

Notice that that kind of projection is incomplete and inherently conservative, because it does not account for the expected population growth in the North Corridor. It also does not account for voluntary transfers into the Liberty zone, which could boost its attendance in the early years. (Under our current rules, voluntary transfers are not permitted once a building’s enrollment exceeds its capacity.) It also does not account for the possible decrease in open enrollment out to other districts (such as Clear Creek Amana) once Liberty is open.

This weekend, the administration provided those projections. The first one shows Liberty without Kirkwood included (click to enlarge):

The next one shows Liberty if Kirkwood is included (click to enlarge):

The projections show that Liberty will meet and exceed its goal of having two hundred kids per class as soon as it opens, even without Kirkwood being assigned there. (Any Liberty projection, however, is subject to the fact that there is no way to predict the junior and senior class enrollment in Liberty’s first year, or the senior class enrollment in its second year, because students in those years have the option of remaining at their previous school.)

The projections also show that if Kirkwood is assigned to Liberty, Liberty will be over capacity as soon as it has four full classes (in 2019). (Liberty's initial capacity will be 1000 students.) By 2021-22, the year before Liberty gets its 500-seat addition, the school would be at least 21% over capacity if Kirkwood is assigned there, plus whatever additional enrollment is attributable to population growth in the Corridor.

That said, the projected overcrowding is not as bad as I had anticipated in my previous post. My fellow board member Brian Kirschling argued that I had not accounted for the fact that enrollment in the North Corridor schools is currently disproportionately in the early grades, and you can definitely see that effect in these projections. Nonetheless, Kirkwood does put Liberty over capacity for three of its first five years—and again, these are conservative estimates.

The projections also give some idea of how much Liberty’s free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) rate would go up if Kirkwood is assigned there. (FRL is the district’s proxy for low-income status.) FRL status is hard to project into the future because it can vary with the economy and with housing patterns, and because it can change from year to year even as to any particular student, but it’s safe to say that when Liberty opens, its FRL would be closer to the district average, though still probably several percentage points below that of City High, if Kirkwood is assigned there.

Do these projections mean that Kirkwood cannot possibly be assigned to Liberty? No. The facilities master plan has always assumed that we can’t eliminate overcrowding overnight and that short-term overcrowding is a necessary evil—though it may be particularly hard to justify overcrowding when capacity is available elsewhere. What the projections do highlight is a tension between the goal of FRL balance and the goal of bringing enrollment in line with capacity. I continue to think that the main argument against assigning Kirkwood to Liberty is that we shouldn’t burden kids from low-income households with additional transportation barriers, as I wrote about here. But the capacity issue at Liberty is one more factor tilting against assigning Kirkwood there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

School board agenda for May 24

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

We’ll discuss the process for filling the vacancy on the board created by the departure of board member Tom Yates. More information here; see also this post.

We’ll vote on approval of an amended certified budget, receive our annual asset protection review, and hear an update on the district’s Wellness Policy.

At our work session after the board meeting, we’ll continue our discussion of secondary attendance areas. Information here.

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

How does the school board fill a vacancy?

UPDATE 5/25/16: Last night, the board voted to move ahead with an appointment process to fill the vacancy. I supported the motion, simply because the state statutes appear to require us to at least begin such a process, and because there is no harm in talking about an appointment. I’m still inclined, however, to think that an election makes a lot of sense. Some other board members also recognized the potential value of filling the seat through an election.

We scheduled a special board meeting for June 7 to decide whether to make an appointment. Applications for the appointment are due by 4 p.m. on June 1; the application form is here. See the timeline here. Again, applicants should understand that the board may end up letting the seat go to election rather than appoint someone. Failure to submit an application for the appointment will not affect your eligibility to run as a candidate if there is a special election; that is a separate process.

As I mentioned below, it is also possible that people could file a petition to skip the appointment process and go straight to an election. That petition would have to be filed by June 2. If such a petition is filed and validated, we would cancel our June 7 special meeting.


Because of the resignation of one of our board members, Tom Yates, the school board now has a vacancy to fill. As I understand it, this is how the law handles school board vacancies.

State law says that the school board “shall” fill a vacancy by appointment. However, there are two potentially applicable situations under which the vacancy may be filled through an election. First, if the board does not agree on an appointment within thirty days of the vacancy, then there has to be a special election to fill the vacancy. The vacancy occurred on May 13. That means that if the board does not fill it by June 12, there will have to be a special election. Our only scheduled meeting before that date is on May 24.

Second, even if the board intends to appoint someone, there will be a special election if voters petition for one. The petition would have to be signed by eligible voters totaling thirty percent of the votes cast in the last school election—which, in this case, means 2,190 signatures. (As I understand it, “eligible” voters means anyone who is eligible to register to vote, even if they are not actually registered.) The petition would have to be filed with the board secretary within two weeks after the board notified the public of its intention to fill the vacancy with an appointment. The board published that notice on May 19, so any petition to trigger an election would have to be filed by June 2.

Any special election to fill the seat would have to be held between sixty and seventy days after the vacancy occurred—which means Election Day would be either July 12 or July 19.

An election would fill the seat for the remainder of the term, which expires in September 2019. An appointment would fill it until the next school election, which is in September 2017 (unless the district schedules any bond vote sooner). [This is a correction from the initial version of this post; see the comment, below.]

Again, this post reflects my understanding of how the process works, based on my reading of the statutes. Please do not take it as the official word of the district, the school board, or the Auditor’s Office.

The board plans to discuss how to fill the vacancy at its meeting tonight (May 24). My initial inclination, especially given that the election would fill the seat for over three years, is that an election makes more sense than an appointment, for the reasons I wrote about here in 2014.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Update, Thursday, May 12

As I mentioned in my last post, there were some preliminary estimates of the free and reduced-lunch (FRL) that would result from assigning both Kirkwood and Alexander elementaries to West High. This has led to some erroneous information finding its way around. The district has now posted more finalized calculations of those rates. They show a 36% FRL rate at City High, a 34% rate at West High, and a 20% rate at Liberty High, under the enrollment we have today in the three secondary zones that have been drawn, assuming that both Kirkwood and Alexander are assigned to West.

There will be disagreement about whether that range of numbers is acceptable, and the updated information raises some legitimate concerns about capacity usage. My own view is that we still need to make additional changes to the secondary boundary plan.

Again, the board is still working through this issue and has scheduled a work session to continue its discussion of it. Under state law, we simply can’t discuss these issues as a group except in our scheduled board meetings and work sessions. As a result, the process does not always proceed as quickly and linearly as we would all like. On a difficult and controversial issue, that can understandably make people anxious, but it’s just part of the process that has to occur to reach a conclusion.

The board members have some disagreement about how to weigh the value of parity in the FRL rates against the concrete realities of assigning high-poverty areas to schools that are farther away and harder to get to, as well as about other aspects of the issue. (See this post.) But I don’t doubt that all of my fellow board members—including those I disagree with—are trying to reach an outcome that is best for the district’s kids and especially for the kids who need the most help.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Update on elementary and secondary boundaries

Last night the board voted 4-3 to change the secondary feeder plan to assign the Kirkwood Elementary area to North West Junior High and West High. I voted in favor of the change, for the reasons I wrote about here. We did not reach a conclusion about the secondary path of the Alexander Elementary area, and we scheduled a work session to continue the discussion. I favor assigning Alexander to the Southeast/City path.

During the meeting, there was some suggestion that if both Kirkwood and Alexander were assigned to West High, West’s FRL (free and reduced-price lunch) rate would be 55%. This is almost certainly inaccurate, as started to become apparent before we ended the discussion. The board (including me) should not have been asking the superintendent to estimate those numbers on the fly. I assume we will get a more finalized calculation of the relevant FRL rates before our next meeting.

The board also voted 4-3 to adopt a set of elementary boundaries, most of which are to take effect in 2019. I voted against that decision. I believe the adopted boundaries are very likely to change, possibly considerably, when the board gets updated enrollment projections and reviews the facilities master plan. The adoption of those boundaries just gives people a false sense of certainty about where their kids will go to school, and it will cause people to be that much more upset when necessary changes are made. I don’t think we’re doing anyone a service by announcing boundaries when there’s a good chance those boundaries will change within a year. (I also have disagreements with specific aspects of the boundaries the board adopted; that’s a topic for another post.)

It was a pretty contentious meeting, as they go. There is wide range of viewpoints on our board and in our community, and there is sometimes vigorous disagreement in our meetings. I’m not bothered by that; I think that’s just how democracy works, and I’d rather have the disagreements hashed out openly so we can hear all the arguments. Community comment last night was particularly valuable and at times outright moving. As contentious as our meetings can be, there’s always a part of me that just feels privileged to be there and to experience the democratic process in that way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Secondary boundaries

One of the issues that the school board is discussing at its meetings is whether to stick with the secondary feeder plan that the previous board approved last May. It’s a big topic that’s hard to cover comprehensively in one blog post, but I wanted to post some of my thoughts about it here so people would have some idea of where I’m coming from on it.


The district is opening a new high school, Liberty High, in 2017, so the board has to establish that school’s attendance area, which will have to be drawn from the attendance areas of City High and/or West High. Rather than draw actual secondary boundaries, the previous board settled on a “feeder plan,” identifying which elementary schools would go to which secondary schools. The idea was that the next board would then finalize the elementary boundaries, but the feeder plan itself would remain unchanged.


The feeder plan that the previous board adopted put a high value on “balance,” which is shorthand for minimizing disparities in the precentage of kids at each school who are from low-income households, are receiving special education services, or are in the English-language-learner program. To pursue that goal, the plan has to bus kids from some elementary schools to junior highs and high schools that are relatively far from their homes, when closer alternatives exist. Specifically:

  • Kids in the Alexander area in the southeasternmost part of Iowa City would be bused to Northwest Junior High in Coralville, which is as much as seven miles away for some of them, instead of going to Southeast Junior High, which is well under two miles away for many of them. They would also go to West High instead of City High, even though City is significantly closer for most of them.

  • Kids in the Kirkwood area in Coralville would be assigned to Liberty High (about five miles away) instead of West High (about three-and-a-half miles away and accessible via public transportation). They would also be assigned to North Central Junior High (about three miles away) instead of North West Junior High, which is literally right next door to Kirkwood Elementary. Kirkwood-area students would be given the option of attending North West for junior high, but they would be the only students there who would then go on to Liberty High rather than West.

  • Wickham-area students would attend North West Junior High and West High, rather than North Central Junior High and Liberty High, even though the latter are closer than the former, in some cases significantly so.


When the board voted to adopt the current feeder plan, the administration’s estimates showed a very close FRL percentage at each of the three high schools—31%, 28%, and 29% at City, West, and Liberty, respectively—but those estimates gave a misimpression of what the actual rates would be, because part of the board’s plan was to carve out an area from City and West’s territory that would go to the planned Grant Elementary in the North Corridor, and thus would eventually go on to Liberty High. The site for Grant is in the current Wickham attendance area, which means some portion of Wickham (which the estimates showed going to West High) would naturally become part of Grant and go to Liberty. It also seems very likely that all or part of the “North Lincoln” area (which the estimates showed going to City) will be assigned to Liberty, either because it will become part of Grant, or because it will stay at Lincoln but be assigned to Liberty anyway.

Wickham and Lincoln are both very low-FRL areas, so sending portions of them to Liberty changes the FRL distribution under the current feeder plan considerably. Assuming that about a quarter of Wickham and about half of Lincoln end up at Liberty, my best estimate of the FRL rates in each high school’s zone, if we measured them using this year’s numbers, would be:

City High: 34%
West High: 33%
Liberty High: 20%

As we have discussed the issue this year, an alternative proposal has developed that would keep the Kirkwood area at West High and the Alexander area at City High, but would move other parts of City High’s zone into West and Liberty. (See below.) My best estimate of the resulting FRL rates, if we measured them using this year’s numbers, would be:

City High: 36%
West High: 33%
Liberty High: 15%

(Again, those are ballpark estimates; see below for how I made them. [Update: On May 10, the board adopted new elementary boundaries and began to make changes in the secondary feeder plan. See this post. The resulting FRL rates, under this year's numbers, are 36% at City, 34% at West, and 20% at Liberty. See this post for a follow-up.]

As we debate whether to change our secondary feeder plan, we are choosing between something like the first plan and something like the second one. Although the current feeder plan will not result in as close a socioeconomic balance between the three high schools as it initially seemed, it still provides somewhat more balance than the alternative.


At least four rationales have been offered for choosing the plan with more socioeconomic balance. The first is that students from lower-income households will perform better academically if they go to schools that do not have high poverty rates. There has been a lot of empirical research on this topic, and I’m pretty easily convinced that, all other things equal, it’s true that low-income kids benefit academically from not being in high-poverty schools.

It doesn’t automatically follow, though, that the current feeder plan is better than the alternative. The FRL differences between the two are not particularly large, and the resulting FRL rates do not appear to be so high as to raise academic red flags. (In fact, according to the state Department of Education, the proficiency rate of City High’s low-SES students is higher than that of West High’s low-SES students, even though West High’s FRL rate is lower.) More importantly, the plan puts concrete transportation burdens on many kids from high-poverty areas, so those burdens have to be weighed against any potential benefit of being in a lower-FRL school.

Every indication is that the great majority of families at Kirkwood and Alexander—which are two of our highest poverty schools—do not think that the plan is what’s best for their kids. For example, our district recently surveyed the parents of Alexander sixth-graders about which junior high they’d rather go to if they know that they’ll end up at West for high school. Twenty out of thirty-three said they wanted their kids to attend Southeast. If they had been given the Southeast-City option, that number probably would have been even higher. That same preference has been reflected in the great majority of comments made by Kirkwood and Alexander parents at board meetings, in emails, and at PTO meetings.

These parents aren’t just expressing an attachment to their current schools out of history or loyalty or familiarity. Those can be real concerns for people, but we can’t possibly draw new districts without asking some families to leave schools they’re fond of. The Kirkwood and Alexander parents, by contrast, are identifying concrete hardships that going to a more distant school imposes on them. Kirkwood parents point out, for example, that there is no public transportation between the Kirkwood area and North Liberty, which will make it hard for kids to get to and from school at times not served by a school bus, especially if they come from one- or no-car households. Alexander families make a similar point, and also point to the sheer quantity of time their kids will have to spend on a bus. “I don’t own a car,” one Kirkwood parent said to me. “If my child is at Liberty and gets sick during the day, how will I get him home?”

I’m certainly not arguing that we should let every neighborhood choose which attendance area they’re in. Of course that’s impossible. I’m also not arguing that no one should ever be asked to make a sacrifice for the greater good; I’m fine with that in many contexts. I’m arguing that we should not make kids in high-poverty areas worse off for the sake of achieving balance, especially since one of the whole reasons we’re pursuing balance in the first place is to benefit those very kids. So it’s important to assess whether the feeder plan makes them worse off or better off. In doing that, my inclination is to give a lot weight to what those families think.


The second rationale that has been offered for the current feeder plan’s pursuit of (relative) balance is that schools with high FRL rates face a lot of challenges (both academically and behavorially) that make it harder for teachers and staff to give all the kids the attention that they need.

I’m sure there is truth to that. But if that’s the concern, it’s not clear why we should devote our resources to pursuing balance at the secondary level, where the FRLs are relatively low compared to those at our elementary schools. Our district has five elementary schools with FRL rates of over 70%. If there are challenges associated with high-poverty schools, those are the schools most facing the challenges.

Proponents of the secondary feeder plan would probably argue that they would like to see balance at the elementary level too, but that it is not currently politically achievable or sustainable. I think that’s probably true; there would have to be much more broad-based support to bring about the kind of redistricting that would result in balanced FRLs at the all the elementary schools. But what makes the secondary plan any more politically achievable, other than the fact that the burden of it falls mostly on high-poverty areas whose residents are less likely to organize in opposition to it? Again, if Kirkwood and Alexander families were supportive of the feeder plan and thought it would benefit their children, the issue would be much easier to decide.

One way to address some of the challenges teachers and staff face at higher-poverty schools is to devote more resources to those buildings. The current feeder plan, because it spend additional money on school buses, is in tension with that goal. (On that, more below.)


The third rationale that has been offered for the current feeder plan is that any substantial disparity between the FRL rates at the high schools will lead, over time, to a gradual migration of middle-class and wealthy families toward to the area around Liberty High, at the expense of Iowa City, and particularly the east side. City’s FRL rate may not look so high now, the argument goes, but over time it will climb higher and higher, and all the kids there will be worse off for being in a high-poverty school.

This is an argument I feel a good deal of resistance to, for a number of reasons. First, it invests an awful lot of explanatory power in our boundary decisions; if such a migration does actually occur, it will probably happen for many reasons in addition to the secondary school FRL rate differential. Second, it is essentially unfalsifiable; even though there is no current indication that the FRL rates at City or West will be considerably higher (see note below), this argument just asserts that they will inevitably spiral upward.

Third, though I believe this argument is made with good intentions, it has a tendency to shade into a kind of alarmism about the presence of poor people in Iowa City that is hurtful to those in low-income neighborhoods and ultimately does not help City High. We have been hearing for years now that the east side is on the verge of a “tipping point” because the number of poor families (and therefore the high school FRL rate) has risen. Yet the east side has continued to grow, people continue to choose to live here, new homes (including high-end developments) continue to be built, and City High remains one of the best high schools in the state. There are a lot of reasons to see Iowa City and City High as at least partly success stories, rather than as being on the precipice of a downward spiral.

Fourth, this argument has an all-or-nothing quality to it. Under its logic, any noticeable difference in FRL rates between the high schools will lead to the inevitable decline of one into a high-poverty school. But even the current feeder plan is likely to have about a 14-point FRL difference between high schools, and so could be objected to on the same grounds. To bring all three high schools to a roughly equal FRL rate would take even more extensive redistricting, would require more money spent on buses, and would create even more transportation burdens for kids from low-income families.

Fifth, no matter how carefully it is made, this argument is bound to be experienced as unwelcoming by families in high-FRL areas. I can only imagine what it is like to be a student from the Alexander neighborhood and to hear that if there are too many kids like you at City High, people will no longer choose to move here. Or to be a Kirkwood student and hear that the kids in your area have to attend Liberty High to keep it from becoming too appealing to people.

Finally, there are countervailing concerns about what will happen to the areas around Kirkwood and Alexander under the current plan. More than one Kirkwood parent has told me that if the district goes ahead with the current plan, “Kirkwood’s FRL will be 90%”—because anyone who can afford to move will move. The ongoing development of single-family housing around Alexander has the potential to help bring down Alexander’s FRL rate, but a feeder plan that would send kids to junior high seven miles away is not exactly a selling point. The claims about what will happen to the neighborhoods around those schools are as hard to evaluate as the claims about what will happen on the east side, but they seem at least as worthy of being taken seriously.


It’s also true that the current feeder plan costs money, and that expense is in competition with funding that could put more resources into our higher-poverty elementary schools. The board was initially told that the feeder plan would require spending about $250,000 annually above what we would spend under a plan that put a higher value on proximity to school. (Kirkwood-area kids, for example, would not need busing to go to North West Junior High, and much of the Alexander area would not need busing to go to City High.) Under the current plan, the board might also choose to run after-school activities buses to areas such as Kirkwood and Alexander, which would make the cost even higher.

It is hard to justify spending money to pursue balance at the secondary level when we have elementary schools with much higher FRL rates that could benefit from those same resources. There is also a good argument that it makes more sense to invest that money in the early grades and in early childhood education, in hopes of putting kids on the best footing at the beginning of their school years. When I recently met with a group of Kirkwood families, none of them thought the current feeder plan was anything other than a burden to them. They were very enthusiastic, though, about the prospect of having more resources (for example, smaller class sizes) at their elementary school.

Will the money “saved” actually be redirected to the schools that most need it? And will it add up to enough to make much difference? Those are fair questions. But the first step toward redirecting resources has to be identifying resources that could be redirected. In my view, there are uses for the money that will be spent on busing that are likely to be more beneficial to kids in higher-need schools. (It is also true that we need to find a way to tilt resource allocation to higher-need schools no matter what we do with secondary boundaries. That issue is on our agenda for tonight’s meeting.)


A fourth rationale for the current feeder plan is that if the FRL rate is higher at one high school than at another, the curricular offerings will not be the same. There is probably some truth to this, since curricular offerings are at least to some extent driven by demand. However, we’re talking about high schools that will have over a thousand students each. There will still be lots of demand for college prep and Advanced Placement courses, for example, and the high schools will still accommodate that demand.

We have also heard arguments that balance is necessary because lower-FRL schools win more athletic championships and have more successful extracurricular activities, and that the whole school benefits from those successes. I find it hard to give much weight to those arguments. Again, the high schools will still have large and diverse enough student populations to offer lots of athletic and extracurricular opportunities. Athletic championships are nice, but raising the odds of winning titles doesn’t justify the burdens we’d be putting on kids from low-income families under the current feeder plan.

I don’t blame anyone for wishing that our high schools all had similar demographic profiles. But I’m not willing to pursue that outcome no matter what the cost. I guess it is also true that I am just not that alarmed by the prospect that the high school on the east side might look like the east side’s population and seek to serve that population.


As you can tell, I come to this issue from the perspective of someone living on the east side in a City High household. All of my kids will attend City High; one is already there. I live next door to the school. If I were to argue for the current feeder plan, I would in effect be arguing that we need to have fewer poor (and black) students at my kids’ high school. To make that kind of argument, I’d have to feel very confident that I was doing what’s best for those kids. I just don’t have that confidence.

I realize that my personal perspective should not affect my conclusion about the issue—if I lived in North Liberty, the potential moral hazard would be reversed—but I can’t deny that that perspective informs my thinking about the issue.


I do think that it’s important to acknowledge that when we talk about FRL rates, we are talking not just about poverty but also about race. Though of course not all black people are poor and vice versa, students receiving free or reduced-price lunch are disproportionately black. There is a strong argument that anything we do with redistricting or with resource allocation has to be accompanied by a sea change in the way that the district engages with black students. Our district has taken steps in a good direction—for example, by developing a comprehensive equity plan—but still has a ways to go.

Not everyone in the affected communities believes that spreading the poor and black population out evenly across our schools is an unmitigated good. There are multiple perspectives on what the district’s approach to engaging with poor and minority students should be. I certainly don’t know all the answers, but I do know that what I hear from the families affected by our decisions does not always match my preconceptions. In general, I think the district needs to be more open to perspectives beyond those coming from within the institution.


There are also capacity issues underlying the entire secondary boundary discussion. It is unavoidably true that once Liberty is open, some areas currently assigned to City High will have to end up elsewhere. City cannot continue to enroll 44% of our high school students when we have three high school attendance areas. So the hard thing is determining which areas it makes the most sense to re-assign. There, the balance and proximity issues are in direct conflict. The kids who are closest to the other secondaries are in many cases the ones from the most affluent areas, while the higher-poverty areas are often very convenient to Southeast and City.

At the same time, there are issues about how many students we can put at Liberty High, which will have a capacity of only 1000 students until its sixth year of operation, when it will get a 500-seat addition. As I wrote about here, assigning Kirkwood students to Liberty High will put that building significantly over capacity by its third year of operation. Given that there is room for Kirkwood at West High, it is very hard to justify sending them to Liberty. If Kirkwood is kept at West, though, it becomes even harder to justify sending Alexander there.


What, then, is the alternative to the current feeder plan? This board is not discussing what the previous board identified as Plan 5C, which tried to assign areas purely on the basis of proximity and available capacity. That’s partly because Plan 5C assumed that we would keep a “clean” feeder system, with elementary populations staying together all the way through high school. All things being equal, I think most people would prefer a clean feeder plan, but because of the locations of our schools (and especially our junior highs), having clean feeders greatly complicates the districting process, and is in direct tension with concerns about proximity and capacity. As a result, I do think it makes sense to consider departing from a clean feeder system.

Even the current plan, which took clean feeders as a given, departs from the principle in practice, since Kirkwood students have the option of attending North West Junior High before going on to Liberty (and it is likely that many would choose that option). In theory, we could offer a similar option to Alexander students (though the current plan does not). But most of the feedback I have heard from families in those areas is that they are not happy being put to that kind of choice, because if they choose the more convenient junior high, their kids will be the only kids at the junior high who will end up at a different high school than all of their classmates. If there were a way to send roughly half of a junior high to one high school and the other half to another, splitting the feeder after eighth grades might be more palatable, but there is no scenario I can imagine that would have that result.

Instead, it is possible to consider splitting some feeders after sixth grade. For example, the North Lincoln area could remain at Lincoln Elementary, but after sixth grade, all or part of that area could attend North Central and Liberty. The “North Mann island”—i.e., the Peninsula neighborhood and its surrounding area—could remain at Horace Mann, but then attend North Central and Liberty. The “Twain west side island” could stay at Twain, but then attend North West and West High. In each case, splitting the feeder would take a relatively large group of kids—roughly half of Mann and Lincoln, about a third of Twain—and move them together to a different secondary path. It would also be a way of reducing the City High population without re-assigning kids who are very close to Southeast and City. All of those areas are currently bused to their elementary, junior high, and high schools, so redirecting them would not add busing costs (and might well reduce them, since much of North Lincoln is not within busing distance from Liberty). And it would also make the best use of our existing elementary capacity; we have more elementary capacity on the east side than in the North Corridor or on the west side, so keeping those areas at east side elementary schools makes sense.

Splitting feeders is never an ideal choice, but given the other feasible options—which involve putting real transportation burdens on families in low-income areas—these ideas seem like the least bad option.


There are more aspects of this issue that I could discuss, but I should bring this particular post to a close. My main goal was to provide an explanation of my thinking on this issue to the many people who have contacted me about it. As with all blogging, though, I am also using this space to think out loud to some extent. I am not sure any of us will ever succeed in mastering all the aspects of this issue, and I’m sure I still need to be educated about additional perspectives on it. Please chime in with comments.


Note on calculations: To estimate the FRL rates under the different possible secondary boundary plans, I took the current number of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch at City or West this year (1086) and reallocated that number among the three secondary zones in the current feeder plan and in the alternative plan. To do that, I assumed that the secondary enrollment from each elementary attendance area would be proportional to each area’s share of the total elementary enrollment. I ended up with the following FRL rates under the current plan: Liberty: 222 FRL out of 1100 students (20%); West: 435 FRL out of 1319 students (33%); City: 429 FRL out of 1277 students (34%). Under the alternative plan: Liberty: 153 FRL out of 1000 students (15%); West: 449 FRL out of 1342 students (33%), City: 483 FRL out of 1355 students (36%). I assumed that the FRL rate of Tate High, the district’s alternative high school that does not have an attendance zone, would remain at roughly 64% under either feeder plan.

It’s not a perfect way to estimate, but it’s the best I could come up with, and I think it yields pretty good ballpark figures. Again, it is based on what the numbers would look like this year under the different scenarios. Will the numbers change in the future? Almost certainly they will, but is very hard to project FRL rates into the future, since they hinge to some extent on changes in the economy, on changes in the location and availability of affordable housing, and on the degree to which eligible families actually enroll in the free- and reduced-price lunch program. (The company that makes our enrollment projections does not attempt to project FRL rates.)

Some have argued that FRL rates at the secondary level will continue to rise, and have cited the higher rates at the elementary and junior high level. There is probably some element of truth to that, but it’s hard to quantify, because historically FRL rates have consistently been higher in the early grades and lower in the later grades. On average over the past ten years, the high school FRL rate has been about four percentage points lower than the junior high rate, and that difference has been even larger (eight points) at Southeast and City. So even though Southeast’s current FRL rate is higher than City’s, it’s not safe to assume that City’s will rise to that same level.