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ICCSD school board holds listening post

“Why bus students to school when they could walk?”

By Paul Deaton
North Liberty Leader

NORTH LIBERTY– Members of the community suggested taking the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) diversity policy, approved in February 2013, off the table when redesigning school attendance area boundaries.
During the Wednesday, Aug. 13, listening post held, board president Chris Lynch and directors Tuyet Dorau, Patti Fields and Brian Kirschling indeed listened more than they spoke.
Lynch was hesitant to affirm or make a decision on community members’ comments during the meeting, repeating the phrases, “give us a month,” and “give us until mid-September,” referring to the upcoming Sept. 9 school board meeting when the results of community engagement will be discussed by the full school board.
Kirschling served as moderator.
Discussion of school attendance zone boundaries has been ongoing since March, when a series of organized cluster meetings were planned and held by school administration to engage the community in attendance zone re-design. The effort produced two series of maps reflecting potential new boundaries; the first sought to bring attendance zones into compliance with the ICCSD diversity policy, and the other intended to relax the diversity policy. The board has not accepted either set of maps, or made a decision about re-districting for the 2015 school year.
“I’d like to know why we are proposing busing kids to school who can walk to school,” asked Carol Joriman. “Because it doesn’t seem financially responsible, it doesn’t seem good for the kids’ health, and it doesn’t seem ecologically responsible.”
“First, I think we’ve heard from the community that neighborhood schools are important,” said Lynch.
“It’s not what I’m seeing here,” interrupted Joriman, referring to a boundary map displayed on the wall titled “Islands.”
“It’s a scenario, it’s an option,” Lynch replied.
Islands are schools to which students are transported from an attendance area with a disproportionate number of students who receive free and reduced price lunches. Busing to island schools serves to achieve balance in enrollment as defined by the diversity policy.
“Neighborhood schools are important, walk-ability is important. We are trying to strike balance as we do that,” said Lynch.
Kirschling talked through a PowerPoint presentation that represented various scenarios for adjusting school boundaries.
“The question came up, ‘what is the option?’” said Lynch. “There isn’t an option. These are scenarios. I think it could be any permutation, combination (of those scenarios). And that’s what this dialogue is about.”
No speaker advocated busing students to comply with the school board’s diversity policy, yet no school board member was willing to take busing off the table either, as the community engagement process continues.
Lynch elaborated on the role of the diversity policy in attendance zone re-design.
“How did we go from islands being the worst idea to the best idea?” asked an audience member.
“I think the short answer is within the diversity policy there is language about eliminating islands,” replied Lynch. “As the diversity policy is somewhat relaxed, the question came back in, are islands included or not?”
“So now that the diversity policy is relaxed,” the audience member continued, “how do we determine which parts get relaxed and which parts don’t get relaxed?”
“Yes. Right on. Exactly,” said Lynch. “We are trying to see what is possible and what is not possible.”
Lynch reiterated that adjustments are still needed.
“You’ve already seen some relaxing (of the diversity policy) to line up with the facilities master plan. And you’ve seen some relaxing just because of significant disruption, and maybe unintended consequences, and the boundaries look weird. In the end, we (ask) ‘what’s reasonable, what can be done now, what are the goals by when?’” concluded Lynch. “There’s no definitive answer because it’s in flux.”
Lynch crafted a list of the top priorities of attendees, which will be reported to the full school board as follows:
• Wait until the current facilities plan is executed through 2019, and then change attendance zone boundaries.
• Children should be able to walk to school, without islands created, to achieve balance in the percentage of free and reduced lunch students required by the district diversity policy.
• The approach to changing attendance area boundaries should be broadened to include other options.
• Do what is best for students.
The listening post concluded with a discussion on the lack of community buy-in to the district diversity policy. There was a request for the board to revisit the diversity policy now that its creators were no longer involved in the discussion.
A listening post was also held on Aug. 20, with two more scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 29, from 6:45 until 8:30 p.m. at The Spot in Iowa City, and on Monday, Sept. 8 from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library. The public is invited to attend.