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Board accepts $140 million proposed budget for FY2015

IOWA CITY– Support for the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) school board’s recently-drafted public comment guidelines collapsed among board members at its March 11.
Though there is a lot to celebrate in the district, dissent about public participation at board meetings followed the reports of accomplishments.
To begin, the board heard academic testing results in subject areas including reading, written expression, mathematics, social studies and science. With three years of data in the controversial, federally-mandated No Child Left Behind testing program for reading and mathematics, the results are not conclusive, but were still interpreted as positive news.
“Academic achievement of ICCSD students as measured by the Iowa Assessments indicates high levels of performance,” according to Pam Ehly, director of instruction, in her written report. “The performance is above the national average and student achievement increases from grade three to eleven.”
The board approved Superintendent Steve Murley’s recommendations for a $140,815,931 certified budget for Fiscal Year 2015 and set an April 8 public hearing. Dr. Craig Hansel, district CFO and board secretary, made a detailed presentation of the proposed budget, including an increase in the district’s property tax levy of 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, raising the rate from a current five-year low of $13.69 to $13.81. The board approved the budget on a 6-0 vote, with director Patti Fields absent.
Certified enrollment is expected to continue to grow to 14,762 by 2019, according to Hansel. There is a strong tax base, and despite the legislature’s failure to act as required by statute on the Fiscal Year 2016 state aid formula, the district is in sound financial shape, Hansel indicated.
The fly in the ointment was the way in which the school board engages with the public at its meetings. A second reading of the guidelines for public participation at board meetings drew opposition from board member Tuyet Dorau.
“I’m going to continue to renew my objection to this guideline,” Dorau said. “It makes the situation convoluted. We have a policy in place that says basically the same thing. I don’t see, if we’re not enforcing the current policy, how this guideline is going to make the situation any better. Nor do I see what the goal is of this guideline.”
Fellow board member Jeff McGinness also opposed the policy.
“My concern has always been empowering other people to speak and the notion that they should not be harassed,” said McGinness. “I have serious concerns about the constitutionality of this policy as an abridgement of free speech,” he added. “I will not be voting for this.”
Director Brian Kirschling said such a policy was not uncommon, and moved to approve the second reading of the guidelines.
“Going around to other major school districts in the state of Iowa, many of them have pretty significant clarifications or guidelines to accommodate the delineation of what goes on at board meetings,” said Kirschling. “I really appreciate the comments from every individual that comes up to the microphone.
“My biggest concern is these guidelines help to protect others in this room that wish to come up to the microphone and comment. Our current policy doesn’t necessarily spell that out. I see the guidelines as clarification,” Kirschling added.
McGinness asked if the school district’s attorney had offered a written opinion as to the policy’s constitutionality.
In response, Murley read part of a note from district counsel citing state law on comments at public meetings, but clarified, “We didn’t ask him to go through (the guidelines),” Murley said.
Five members of the public addressed the policy.
“First of all, thank you for giving us the opportunity to comment,” said Amy Neilson of North Liberty. “It is not a given right to open (the board meeting) up for us, so thanks for that. Thank you for wanting to preserve the environment here so that everyone feels protected and welcome and safe. I do lament the loss of voices that we don’t have here because it does not feel safe. Having said that, I don’t agree with those guidelines. I think that the policy that we have is enough.”
Dorau later asked who wrote the policy, and Murley said he didn’t recall.
“So it was written by administration?” asked Dorau.
Chace Ramey, ICCSD Director of Community Engagement, stepped in to say it was a group of people, including himself and Murley, that had written the draft.
Kirschling withdrew his motion to approve the second reading and on a 4-2 vote the board sent the guidelines back to the policy and engagement committee to be re-written, with Dorau and McGinness dissenting.
The next meeting of the ICCSD board of directors will be held on March 25 at 6 p.m., with the operations committee meeting directly following the business meeting. The policy and engagement committee will meet on April 1 at 5:15 p.m., when the education committee will also meet at 6 p.m. The public hearing on the FY 2014-2015 budget will be held April 8 at 6 p.m.