Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Board chooses inequitable voluntary transfer plan that will create overcrowding

Two weeks ago, the school board majority voted to take two high-poverty areas and assign them to more distant secondary schools for the sake of achieving socioeconomic balance. Last night, that same majority supported liberally giving school choice throughout the district to families who have the means to provide their own transportation, regardless of its effect on socioeconomic balance.

The board also consciously chose to allow voluntary transfers into secondary schools even when the district knows that those transfers will worsen overcrowding in those buildings.

The plan that the board supported last night is outlined in this administrative proposal. The plan allows secondary-school transfers as long as they won’t push the receiving school’s enrollment over 95% of its future capacity, regardless of whether they overcrowd the building in the here and now. It allows transfers only if they don’t make enrollment at the departed-from school drop below a certain percentage of its capacity. Freshmen and sophomores will ordinarily not be allowed to transfer out of Liberty High in its opening year.

The plan would give the administration the discretion to permit exceptions to those rules on a case-by-case basis to students who could demonstrate that the boundary changes create a “hardship” for them. The board decided not (at least at this time) to adopt any criteria for what would count as such a hardship. (The longstanding policy of allowing health, safety, and security hardship transfers will continue.) Hardship transfers will not come with a bus, though, so they’ll do little good for anyone whose hardship is the transportation barriers created by the new boundaries.

In my view, setting the limit based on future capacity, rather than present capacity, makes no sense. For example, we have every reason to think that Liberty High’s enrollment will be well over its capacity by 2019-20. (This chart shows overcrowding just by projecting forward the number of students currently in the younger grades, and it does not account for likely growth in the North Corridor.) So if we allow freshmen and sophomores to transfer in to Liberty in 2017, we know that those students will put the building even further over capacity in 2019. But under the administrative plan, those transfers will be allowed, on the grounds that Liberty will someday have more seats—that is, in 2022, long after those particular students have graduated.

Similarly, the plan treats City High’s capacity as higher than it will actually be until it gets its addition five years from now. After months of trading arguments about how the boundary plan will affect overcrowding, the board seems to have decided that overcrowding isn’t so bad after all—at least when it accommodates families with means.

The plan makes a hash of the board’s rationale for its secondary boundary decision. The district will have succeeded in effectively taking school choice away from families who don’t have the means to get their kids to and from their preferred school, while providing it to everyone else. If you’re a well-off Manville or Shimek family who wants to transfer out of City and into Liberty—making the socioeconomic disparity between the schools worse—we’re fine with that. If you’re a well-off Wickham family who wants to transfer out of West into Liberty—making the socioeconomic disparity worse—we’re fine with that. But if you’re poor and have no choice but to rely on the school bus, you have to go to the more distant school, regardless of your judgment about what’s best for your child. And, by the way, if that school is Liberty, we hope you enjoy the overcrowding!

It’s harder and harder to see the board’s decisions as being driven by concern for kids from low-income families. I don’t know how we can look any Kirkwood or Alexander parent in the eye after these choices.

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). [Correction: The law permits, but does not require, the board to conduct the evaluation in closed session, but only if the superintendent so requests.]  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.)