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.