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A minor adjustment

New attendance boundaries set for Christine Grant Elementary
ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley answers a parent’s question about elementary school attendance boundaries during a public information meeting Monday, Feb. 19, at Liberty High School. The district is realigning boundaries ahead of the August 2019 opening of Christine Grant Elementary. About a dozen people turned out for the meeting, the last of five community meetings. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– The Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD) Board of Directors was set to vote on and approve new elementary school attendance boundaries, in North Liberty, on Tuesday, Feb. 27.
The changes were prompted by the addition of the new Christine Grant Elementary, which will be built across from the South Slope Cooperative Communications headquarters in North Liberty this year, with an anticipated opening in August of 2019. The fifth of five community meetings seeking input was held Monday, March 19, at Liberty High School, in North Liberty, with Superintendent Stephen Murley updating roughly a dozen attendees on the process.
The new school sits in what is currently the Penn Elementary attendance area, which Murley said the board realized could cause a ripple effect on students in the area. In addition, the district needs to eventually address students assigned to the future Scanlon Farms Elementary, which will be built across the street from Liberty High as funds become available. Funding for the Scanlon Farms school is dependent on the Iowa Legislature extending the SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) sales tax levy for an additional 20 years. SAVE, also known as SILO (School Infrastructure Local Option tax), is currently scheduled to sunset in 2029.
The board met in a work session Tuesday, Feb. 13, to discuss the boundaries and incorporated changes proposed during a Thursday, Feb. 8, community meeting, at Liberty High.
“By and large, they green-lighted everything,” Murley said, with the exception of one small change on the west side of the Penn Elementary area. The change involves a small area north of Cherry Street and west of Front Street, originally to be in the Penn Elementary area, which will now send students to Grant. The rationale behind the change is rooted in pedestrian safety, particularly avoiding having students attempting to cross a future roundabout on always-busy Front Street. The board’s enthusiasm led to moving up the vote from an original date of Tuesday, March 27, to the Feb. 27 meeting, he said.
Under the current plan, Garner doesn’t change, Wickham doesn’t change, Van Allen, Lincoln, Kirkwood, Coralville Central (all elementary schools) stay the same, Murley said. “We’ve had conversations about them as we’ve moved through this process, and they all remain the same as they were approved (enrollment numbers) by the board for 2019-2020,” he noted.
Board member Phil Hemmingway was present at the Feb. 19 meeting and, while he was not speaking on behalf of his fellow board members, he did offer some comments on the process the district undertook in reshaping the attendance areas.
The board, he said, looked at a number of issues with student safety at the top of the list, along with ease of walking to the schools with short travel distances, as well as limiting the number of moves (transitions) from one school to another while maintaining a smooth feeder system.
Murley cited parents desiring to stay on a North Central (junior high) to Liberty feeder track or a Northwest (junior high) to West High track, rather than starting on one and shifting to another, as an example.
Hemmingway acknowledged any time a school district shifts boundaries, somebody will ultimately end up close to one school while being sent to another.
“Anytime you draw a line, there’s always somebody who’s just on the other side of it,” Murley said. “But this discussion has been going relatively smooth that way. There’s been some questions, and we’re doing everything in our power to try and accommodate these concerns.”The big challenge, Murley added in a post-meeting interview, came with not being able to build the Scanlon Farms school right away.
“We had to go to the board and find an alternative location (for a new elementary school), and we were able to find the location out there on Front Street.”
However, the board had already created an attendance area for Scanlon Farms.
“Now, we don’t have that option for us, the new school is inside the Penn attendance area, so we knew we would have to make some changes to the Penn attendance area and we knew we were going to have to accommodate the kids that were going to go to the Scanlon Farms Elementary school,”
Murley said. The district met with the community during five public input meetings in total, he added.“We left it wide open the first couple of meetings, and it became apparent we were looking at the current Penn attendance area and the Scanlon Farms area. It quickly narrowed down to just those two areas,” he said.
The final adjustment was based on student safety and demographics. The district put great emphasis on evening out socio-economic status (SES) across the schools.
“A board member suggested, ‘Hey, if you take the area south of Penn Street, west of Front Street and north of Cherry Street that was assigned to Penn Elementary, and if instead you shift it north to Grant, that might better balance the demographics between the two schools.’ We went and ran that, and sure enough, it did.”
According to figures provided by the district, once Grant is open, the new school will have 15.9 percent of its students considered low socio-economic status while Penn will be at 13.4 percent.
“The board said, please take that back to the community, see if there are any major objections, and if not bring that one (revised draft plan) forward to us on Feb. 27,” Murley said. “So this is the map we’ll take in (for a likely vote of approval).”
Murley added, “Safety was a factor because we know there’s a couple roundabouts, one at Penn and Front and then one right up in front of the school, across from South Slope, so one of the concerns parents had in the earlier meetings was how safe it is to cross a roundabout, and whether they thought it was a good or a bad idea.”
People came down on both sides, he said.
“But one of the things they said was, if we can avoid having people cross a roundabout, we think kids are better off,” Murley said. “So looking at the map now, Penn Meadows crosses Penn Street, they don’t have to go across the roundabout. The area north of Cherry Street can cross at Stewart Street and Dubuque Street. There’s a crossing guard there, and they’re not at the roundabout.”
The bottom line, he said, is, “Nobody has to cross a roundabout.”
He acknowledged some kids live closer to Penn but will be attending Grant instead. He said the district had not received any pushback in regards to proximity.
“One of the things that’s a challenge for us in North Liberty is the proximity of the schools,” he stated.
Grant, Penn and Garner, he pointed out, are all within about a half-mile of each other.
“And that’s partially due to the density of the population there. There’s so many young families there, there’s so many kids that our schools end up pretty close together.”
Those schools, although so close to each other, also end up full and Murley noted not long after Christine Grant is open, the district will need another building.
“Within four or five years, we’re going to need another elementary school up here,” he said.
Grant will have a 625-student capacity, Penn’s capacity is 633 and Garner’s is 525. The district tries to keep elementary schools around 600 students, in grades kindergarten through sixth grade, for three-sections per grade level. The district also tries to provide pre-kindergarten education in the schools, he said.
“For the most part we’re able to accommodate that, we do have a few buildings that are challenged in terms of their enrollment, they’re awful full, so we’ve had to shift pre-k off-site.”
Murley described the process as smooth.
“It’s been a back-and-forth, me with the community, me with the board; get input from both, draw some new maps, come back, meet with the community, meet with the board, draw some more maps,” he said. “We’ve gone through that cycle, and hopefully we get to the point where everybody’s in agreement.”
Having the boundaries set before ground is even broken for the new school was a goal, Murley said.
“Kids will know where they’re going.”