Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Board inches toward changing school boundaries

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 20, 2009)

During Tuesday's meeting of the Iowa City School Board, administrators outlined a possible transition plan to alleviate overcrowding at West High and to use available space at City High until a planned third comprehensive high school opens for the 2014-15 school year. The proposed transition plan would require moving about 35 graduates from west-side elementary schools to South East Junior High and, starting in 2011-12, changing Northwest Junior High into a 7-9 school with about 150 ninth-graders.

Lest anyone mistakenly think the Iowa City School Board already has made up its mind about the plan, every page of the document has the word "DRAFT" scrawled across it. Yet only a few of the five boundary-change scenarios offered in the document seem to fit best within the district's "Secondary School Attendance Area Parameters."

That long list of parameters -- in addition to minimizing disruptions in students' educational experience and trying to ensure that students attend the school closest to their homes -- includes:

• Using current capacity in order to be fiscally responsible,

• Addressing immediate, short-term and long-term needs,

• Balancing socio-economic and ethnicity demographics,

• Keeping schools from growing either too large or too small,

• Considering transportation boundaries and

• Ensuring equity in education opportunities for all students.

We're already on board with the suggestion that the board and administrators need to fundamentally change the way they think about boundaries. Rather than consider attendance areas as static entities that should be largely left alone except for an occasional tweaking, it's time they start thinking about boundaries as being more fluid and update them more regularly.

If the school board is going to start the process with redrawing the boundaries between the district's two comprehensive high schools, then it makes sense to start with some elementaries on the boundary line. The proposed plan breaks up the school attendance areas for Lincoln, Hills and part of Roosevelt into six different neighborhoods or "building blocks":

• Block 1: Manville Heights;

• Block 2: North Lincoln, east of Dubuque Street;

• Block 3: North Lincoln, west of Dubuque Street;

• Block 4: Roosevelt/Hills south of Highway 1 up to and including Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane;

• Block 5: Hills south of Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane and east of Highway 218; and

• Block 6: Hills south of Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane and west of Highway 218.

Redirecting students in Blocks 1, 2, 4 and 5 is the scenario with the fewest number of "con" bullet points in the document. But there is still a lot of room to argue about which of the parameters should have more priority: Proximity? Crossing boundaries like Interstate 80? Moving at least 35 students per grade level? Balancing ethnicity and poverty levels?

Likewise, we've called on the board to begin the process of redrawing boundaries between the district's elementary schools -- which are disturbingly out of sync with each other in terms of poverty, mobility and achievement statistics. Any short-term changes to the high school boundaries must be made with an eye to the long-term changes to the elementary boundaries.

As school board members continue to debate these controversial issues, they need to keep in mind some of the other recommendations of the High School Enrollment Task Force:

• They must actively and publicly solicit input from the affected schools and families, and

• They must demonstrate that they fully understand the consequences of whatever decision they make.

Our View - Empathy is an essential part of a judge's role

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 19, 2009)

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week ended with a pretty clear indication that the committee would recommend to confirm Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the third woman and first Latina to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Even some Republicans on the committee started introducing their questions with phrases like, "Once you're on the Court, I hope you will ..."

University of Iowa Law Professor Todd Pettys, in a phone interview Friday, said the weight of Sotomayor's long, balanced judicial record clearly overpowered the effect of the relatively few controversial examples her Republican critics kept pulling from her speeches.

"When the White House nominated her, they knew what was in those speeches and how often she uses some of the phrases," said Pettys, who live-blogged about the hearings for The Des Moines Register last week. "If she had only been on the bench for a short time, her critics could have said, 'These speeches are an indication of how she is going to rule.' And that would have been quite a strong argument. ... But considering how voluminous her judicial record is, it's remarkable how little they spoke about it."

The Republican senators did use the hearings to repeatedly criticize President Obama's statement that he considers "empathy" to be an essential quality of judicial temperament. But Pettys observed that, even in their attempts to equate "empathetic judge" with "activist judge," some Republicans seemed to be seeking reassurance themselves that Sotomayor could empathize with her critics.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, sounded very much like a Republican leaning toward voting in favor of Sotomayor but wishing she could make it easier for him, Pettys said. That came across when the senator from South Carolina asked if Sotomayor could understand why some people become so afraid when they read some of phrases in her speeches.

"A lot of us are concerned from the left and the right that unelected judges are very quick to change society in a way that's disturbing," Graham said Tuesday. "Can you understand how people may feel that way?"

Sotomayor's reply was simply, "Certainly, sir." But she could have proven her point even more emphatically if she had answered something along lines of, "If you mean, 'Can I empathize with them?', then, yes, I certainly can, sir."

Sotomayor often answered questions about the role of empathy in her decisions with a variant of the statement, "My life experiences help me to listen and understand." Yet she also suggested judges not only need to pull from their personal experience to empathize with people like them, they also need to be able to empathize with people unlike them. Without such ability, judges are at equal risk of letting either their unexamined prejudices or their unexamined affinities obscure their application of the law.

Pettys understandably said he was disappointed in how this more dynamic understanding of the role of judges became lost in the political theater that is the confirmation hearing process.

"It showed how in this nation -- at least in political circles -- we have an orthodox, simplistic view of what judges do," Pettys said. "The nominee still has to pay homage by saying, 'We don't make law; we only apply law.' That may be true, strictly speaking, but it's very misleading."

The Republican senators seemed to imply that judges should be robots -- or in Chief Justice John Roberts' overused phrase, "umpires" -- that mechanistically evaluate cases based on the specific instructions and parameters provided by Congress. But the instructions provided too often prove to be either contradictory or insufficiently specific. A robot can't evaluate how broad Constitutional phrases such as "freedom of speech" should apply to issues ranging from pornography to schools monitoring students' Facebook accounts. And lawmakers themselves often disagree on the intent behind a law.

"In the written texts that judges have to read, the legal words are so vague and -- especially in terms of the Constitution -- written at such a high level of generalization, judges by necessity play a powerful rule in shaping the content of the law."

And no robot could provide assurance to Lindsay Graham and his supporters that she both understands and can empathize with their fears.

Our View - City of literature moves forward with organization

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View" July 18, 2009)

With the incorporation of a new non-profit organization, local leaders have reached the next stage of planning in terms of how the community should build on UNESCO's decision to recognize Iowa City as an international City of Literature. International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill, who will serve as the new organization's president, will provide an update during his talk at the Iowa City Book Festival at 2 p.m. today in the University of Iowa Main Library.

The most important feature of the new organization is that its board of directors will include representatives from the local major stakeholders who stand to benefit from the organization's success -- a list that includes UI, Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Johnson County, the Chamber of Commerce and the Conventional and Visitors Bureau.

There had been some concerns early on that Iowa City would try to claim this honor solely for itself. Besides creating an unnecessary turf war with the university and other local governments, devoting this non-profit organization solely to Iowa City's interests would have missed the broader vision -- not to mention potential federal grant money -- opened up by the UNESCO designation.

"We're looking forward to doing something on a bigger scale," said Iowa City Public Library Director Susan Craig, who will serve as the organization's vice president for the first year. "The ideas that are coming out of people are not just regional in scope -- and by regional I mean 'Midwest.' We want to build an organization that attracts attention around the country and around the world. The plans are very ambitious, but I think they can be fulfilled."

Unlike the other two UNESCO-designated cities of literature -- Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia -- Iowa City doesn't have enough of a donor base to support these projects on its own. Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Conventional and Visitors Bureau, said the organization already has $100,000 committed -- more than a third of its goal of $250,000. So far the public-private mix is lopsided by the money committed by the cities and UI, but the organization is aggressively going after more private donations and foundation grants. And to quality for those grants, the organization needs to look far beyond the local area.

"This is not only a brand that Iowa City should run with and celebrate itself," Schamberger said, "it's also something the state should take ownership of."

If the value of the UNESCO designation is going to be appreciated by people outside of the Iowa City area, Iowa City needs to avoid territorially viewing it as a mere pat on the back for our little Athens of the Midwest.

"It's an honor for the state as a whole," Craig said. "The designation and the intensity of literary effort, accomplishment and celebration that happens in Johnson County reflect very well on the state of Iowa. People are starting to take notice of Iowa after our role in the presidential election and the recent ruling about marriage equality. I'm not putting the City of Literature status on same level as those other two factors, but people are noticing that interesting things are happening in Iowa."

With one book festival under its belt, the organization's leaders now need to focus on hiring a director capable of providing clear evidence of progress over the next two years.

We do want this organization to hold successful events that help sustain and market the remarkable combination of resources that have made Iowa a site of great writing for nearly a century. But we also want those events to provide tangible benefits to the local economy by helping to put heads on pillows and butts in seats.

Our View - Quagmires in criminal justice, mental illness

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 17, 2009)

Overwhelming communication problems have plagued relationships between law enforcement agencies and hospitals in Iowa long before Mark Becker allegedly shot Ed Thomas last month. But those problems have raised a number of very difficult and high-profile questions since Becker, who had been recently released from psychiatric care at a local hospital, allegedly walked into Aplington-Parkersburg High School and shot the school's beloved football coach.

Officials from the Black Hawk County Sheriff's department want to know why Waterloo's Covenant Medical Center didn't contact them before the release so they could charge Becker with other crimes.

Officials from the hospital want to know, if law enforcement officers thought Becker was a danger to himself and others, why they didn't fill out the proper paper work or seek a court order to ensure the hospital could notify them before Becker was released.

Court documents show Becker, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder, intends to use insanity and diminished responsibility defenses in his trial. At the same time, Iowa Ombudsman William Angrick has launched an investigation to determine what happened with Becker's release and whether policy changes are necessary.

Similar questions were raised in Johnson County after a homeless man, Sonny Iovino, froze to death underneath the Benton Street bridge in the early hours of Nov. 7, 2007. The reports of Iovino's belligerent and erratic behavior in the days before his death made it difficult for agencies to help him. He had been released from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He refused to stay at Shelter House. And the Sheriff's Department didn't take him into custody, in part because he had a note explaining he was in need of medical attention.

Both cases -- Iovino's and Becker's -- provide worst-case examples of the quagmires that open up nearly everywhere mental illness crosses paths with the justice system. And those quagmires get even deeper in the more rural areas of the state where Iowa's shortage of psychiatrists is even starker. Smaller sheriff's departments are stretched dangerously thin when they have to devote officers to monitor people waiting for hours or days for an evaluation. And smaller hospitals are ill-equipped to provide security for patients facing criminal charges.

"The jails and the prisons are still the largest mental health care givers and providers in the state," Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said. "It shouldn't be that way."

Even with Johnson County's mental health diversion program, Pulkrabek said, the jail still has to house the mentally ill who are such a danger to themselves and to others that the local hospitals can't handle them.

"The jail is the dumping ground," Pulkrabek said. "Even if we can't manage them very well, we don't have the option to say, 'No, weren't not going to take them.'"

Some progress was made during the recent legislative session to show lawmakers how dysfunctional the system has become. The Iowa state Sheriffs and Deputies Association lobbied for a bill that would have set a specific amount of time a hospital had to evaluate a patient under court order and would have imposed penalties for institutions or individuals who failed to comply. The provision didn't get far, but it spurred representatives of the association to agree to meet with the Iowa Hospital Association next month to see if the two groups can find some common ground.

Hopefully law enforcement, hospitals, mental health providers and lawmakers have learned just how important it is for them to find more common ground. Otherwise, far too many people will find themselves sinking in more and more quagmires.

Our View - McDonald put a sense of trust in city government

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 15, 2009)

"At one time, most of my brothers and sisters worked in the business. ... There is a certain element of trust when you have family members working with you."

That's what John McDonald said back in 2006 when McDonald Optical, the business begun by his father and then overseen by him and some of his siblings, celebrated its 50th anniversary. And ever since the Iowa City businessman died at home July 8, friends and colleagues have been explaining just how far John McDonald extended his family's sense of "trust" throughout the community.

Thomas Scott, who managed McDonald's council campaigns in the 1980s, said McDonald's legacy will be his amazing ability to bring together people.

"In his 12 years on the council," Scott said, "he served with a number of different individuals with very different personalities. I think, without exception, regardless of the differences of opinions or the differences in political philosophy, they all would tell you that he was a superb leader."

Novelist Larry Baker, who said he lost to McDonald in a 1981 election but who eventually served on the council from 1984-87 and 1994-97, said McDonald's success came through all the hard work he did outside the council meetings.

"John had a retail personality," Baker said. "Retail is one-to-one. He always made you feel that he was talking to you. Listening to you. And not just to a constituent or to a voter or to a council member, but to Larry Baker."

Karen Kubby, who served on the Iowa City Council from 1989-1999 and who often voted differently than McDonald did, said McDonald was the perfect person to be mayor at the time because he had everyone's respect and thus could lead the city effectively.

"He instilled a sense of trust in the people he served," Kubby said. "There isn't that sense of trust in local government right now. Certainly times are different, but I think there was something in his way that helped instill trust. Something we could all learn from. It was real -- very genuine."

We hope our city leaders will learn from McDonald's example. And we also hope the Iowa City area will learn an additional lesson from the McDonald family's sense of trust: How to keep members of the next generations connected to this community. Many of John McDonald's siblings, children, nieces and nephews continue to work with the family business and, along with his parents, help make Iowa City seem a little more like a family. We're glad they are on hand to comfort one another and their friends during this time of loss.

"He was just a good, good person," Scott said. "And he was a damn good friend."

Our View - City Council should rename Sand Lake Recreation Area in honor of Terry Trueblood

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 11, 2009)

For a brief glimpse of how Terry Trueblood approached his job as director of the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department, watch the October 2008 interview he did for "The Community Voice" (

You'll see a little bit of the patience and thoroughness he brought to every aspect of his job.

You'll see the quiet, thoughtful demeanor that made it so easy for him to negotiate among different departments and between city staff and the public.

You'll see a man who not only loves his job but who also knows it well and who has performed it exceptionally and without fanfare for more than two decades.

But you'll also see a man who already has faced two bouts with cancer (prostate and colon) and who soon will have to take an extended sick leave for a bout with pancreatic cancer that eventually will take his life on July 3.

"We've had seven months to prepare for this, but we just didn't think of it like that," said Mike Moran, who has spent 23 of his 26 years with the department under Trueblood's leadership. "I fully expected him to come walking through that door like he's done before."

Moran said that he knew of Trueblood by reputation long before the Colorado native first arrived in Iowa City in 1986.

"When I heard he was going to take the job in Iowa City, I thought, 'What a coup,'" Moran said.

Finding the department in some financial trouble, Trueblood began implementing the meticulous standards that he had become known for. Soon, he not only had helped the department out of its financial troubles, but he began spearheading efforts to fund Mercer Aquatics Center, Scanlon Gym, the Kickers Soccer Complex, Waterworks Prairie Park and Thornberry Off-leash Dog Park.

"Our previous director had everything running about 99 miles per hour," Moran said. "Terry slowed things down to 50 and made sure things got done and got done well. ... He didn't do anything half-baked."

Even a partial list of the projects Trueblood helped to fully "bake" in the past 23 years proves the old adage, "Slow and steady wins the race."

John Westefeld, University of Iowa psychology professor and chairman of the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Commission, was so impressed with Trueblood's leadership style that in 2007 he nominated the public servant for the Press-Citizen Person of the Year.

"He had an amazing ability to bring groups of people together for the common good," Westefeld said. "He was one of the unsung heroes of city government."

Although Trueblood is gone, his vision for parks and recreation will continue through the recently released master plan for the department. Producing a master plan had long been a priority for Trueblood, and the final report relies heavily on his insight. (To view the plan, visit

Not surprisingly, the master plan is both ambitious and expensive. It will require a huge commitment from the community if it is going to be implemented over the next decade. But Moran said Trueblood didn't want the department to be "a burden on the taxpayers" and was working on a plan to make the department less dependent on property tax dollars.

"He knew we would never be able to fund ourselves totally," Moran said, "but we could fund ourselves at a higher level ... through getting people to cooperatively do things for us that wouldn't cost as much."

That's why Trueblood's vision will require more than just city tax money. It will require the types of intergovernmental partnerships that allowed for the construction of the Grant Wood gym -- what Moran called an ideal blend of school district and Community Development Block Grant money. And it also will require the type of public/private partnership that enabled the construction of the city's dog park.

Given today's economic conditions, Iowa City's elected officials must view park development as of lesser priority than public safety, and they must make their budget decisions accordingly. But they also should follow Trueblood's example of working cooperatively and creatively -- at a slow but steady pace -- to enhance the city's recreation areas.

In the meantime, the council at least should approve the recommendation of the Parks and Recreation Commission and rename the Sand Lake Recreation Area in Terry Trueblood's honor.

Our View - Flood insurance still available for homeowners

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 10, 2009)

When a tornado ripped through Iowa City's downtown and some historic neighborhoods in 2006, the devastation was large from a local perspective but relatively minor from a national perspective. The city received no federal reimbursement for its disaster cleanup efforts.

Iowa City Public Works Director Rick Fosse is rightly concerned that a similar imbalance might occur if Ralston Creek ever floods to its so-called "100-year" or "500-year" level. Although many creekside homeowners would be devastated after such a flood -- especially those whose lenders did not require them to take out flood insurance -- the local disaster is unlikely to attract the same amount of federal assistance that poured into the area after last year's flood.

Plus the very nature of creek flooding would make it difficult for creekside homeowners to prepare. Because creeks are more susceptible to flash flooding caused by sudden downpours, homeowners probably wouldn't have time to sandbag or to otherwise secure their property.

That's why we agree with Fosse that homeowners who live in the Ralston Creek floodplain should get flood insurance for their property. Otherwise, they may face personal devastation as bad -- or possibly even worse -- than what uninsured residents of Parkview Terrace and Idyllwild have experienced for the past 13 months.

At the very least, we hope the flood of 2008 has put to rest the widespread mistaken notion that some people aren't eligible for flood insurance. Everyone is eligible, but not everyone is required.

Creekside homeowners, however, also need to recognize that they are as at-risk as riverside homeowners are. The same odds -- and same misleading chronological terminology -- apply to the so-called "100-year" and "500-year" floodplains of creeks as they do of rivers. Although detention basins constructed at Scott Park and Hickory Hill Park in the 1970s have reduced the risk of flooding along Ralston Creek, the risk of flooding has not gone away entirely.

Fosse said flooding along Ralston Creek in 1993 reached levels much less than a 100-year event, but he recommends homeowners to take appropriate precautions:

• Purchase flood insurance and

• Keep valuable items in safe places.

The city, likewise, is performing regular maintenance to ensure that the channels remain unobstructed and the basins don't fill with sediment.

"That's a true statement of any flood control works," Fosse said. "The flooding doesn't go away, it just becomes less frequent. ... We've got 30 years of good experience with the basins. But it is just 30 years."

There also is a flooding risk associated with Willow Creek on the city's west side. But Fosse said because residential development there is more recent, better stormwater drainage has reduced the risk.

Any local residents with questions as to whether their home is in the floodplain should:

• Contact their insurance company and find out what their risk is and how much their premiums would be;

• Visit the National Flood Insurance Program Web site at; or

• Come down to the Public Works Department or the Housing and Inspection Departments at 415 E. Washington St. and look through the detailed floodplain maps.

No one -- especially homeowners and city officials -- should fool themselves into thinking that the local structures built in floodplains are completely safe.

Our View - Boosting UI as a pop-culture research center

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 6, 2009)

J.J. Abrams' re-imagining of the "Star Trek" universe opened earlier this year to nearly universal acclaim -- receiving much more positive reviews than any of George Lucas' three Star Wars prequels. Variety called Abrams' film a "new and improved Star Trek" that will "transport fans to sci-fi nirvana." The New York Daily News wrote that Abrams, offering much more than "a coat of paint on a space-age wagon train," managed to blend successfully "the hip and the classic." Even Chicago Reader's negative review noted that Abrams failed primarily when he kept too much of the classic 1960s TV show's formula: "A relatively mindless thrill ride that would have made the old NBC execs grin from ear to ear."

But if long-time "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fans are looking for a sure-fire way to revive their interest in how sci-fi has evolved over the past four decades, they should check out University Libraries' recent acquisition of the Mariellen (Ming) Wathne Fanzine Archive Collection. Not only does this collection of more than 3,000 science fiction fanzines represent an important accumulation of fan-created work, it also is a significant addition to the pop-cultural archive being amassed at University Libraries.

A UI news release said the Wathne Collection contains thousands of fanzines focused on popular television shows and films -- including some important early pieces related to "Star Trek." The 'zines related to "Star Wars" were originally collected by Lucasfilm Ltd., producer of the Star Wars series, and offered to fans in the 1990s. Wathne, a California fan, accepted it and began a lending library to distribute 'zines among fans.

In this light, Abrams' recent film can be seen as merely the big-budget version of how fans have been updating and personalizing sci-fi storylines for decades. Rather than remain passive consumers of the products produced by the film and television industries, fans have used their favorite characters, settings and storylines as the basic building blocks for their own creations. As technology has improved over the decades, so has the quality of these fan 'zines, Web sites and independent short films. To some, these products might seem the epitome of copyright infringement; to others, the copyright infringement is offered as the sincerest form of flattery.

"In many ways, fan culture pre-dates and anticipates our modern remix mash-up Internet culture," Greg Prickman, assistant head of Special Collections at University Libraries, said in a news release. "And there is a great deal of scholarly interest in this type of activity today."

The collection was acquired with the help of the Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to preserving and protecting works created by science fiction fans. University Libraries is working with the organization to establish the Fan Culture Preservation Project, which will help identify important collections and bring them to UI.

The recent acquisition of the Wathne Collection is just one more example of how libraries need to adapt to the opportunities presented in the 21st century or risk losing the cultural authority they've enjoyed for centuries. This archive of participatory culture will provide scholars and fans alike with a treasure trove of what helped make these shows and films into such cultural phenomenons.

It also will help in University Libraries' efforts to become an important research center for the study of 20th-century popular culture.

Our View - Board should continue with open discussions about boundary changes

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 3)

During the March 30 forum and later task force meetings on high school enrollment, the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be: It's not a question of if the Iowa City School District will build a third comprehensive high school; it's a question of when.

After all, a third high school is what many people understood they were voting for when they approved the school infrastructure local option sales tax in 2007. And the district has put aside the capital dollars each year that would allow for the construction of a new high school when the board -- and the community -- decides to move forward. (It's important to note that the Iowa City School Board never explicitly said the SILO money would go for a northern high school. During the campaign, the board qualified any specific proposals with the possibility that finances and growth rates may change.)

On Tuesday, the school board took a step toward bowing to that overwhelming sentiment and approved the recommendations of the High School Enrollment Task Force as a guide for its future decisions. To view the exact wording of the recommendations, visit Here's our summary of what they mean:

• Move toward building a new comprehensive high school as soon as the district has "adequate student enrollment" and "it is financially feasible." (The board didn't approve building a third high school, but it backed the idea of heading in that direction.)

• Develop a communication plan to explain to the district's northern families just what they can expect from a new high school that will be smaller than either City or West. (Some families prefer a smaller school; others, when they learn what programming wouldn't be available, might want a different option.)

• Develop a communication plan to explain to families throughout the district what other programs and services may be reduced or cut at other schools to allow for a new high school to come on line. (Every school, at some level, will be affected by constructing a new school.)

• Create a specific short-term enrollment plan to better use open space at City High and alleviate overcrowding at West High. That plan "could" (we'd say "should") include changing boundaries and using junior high capacity for ninth-grade students.

• Realize that construction of a third comprehensive high school will not solve all the district's enrollment woes. (In fact, it will introduce a number of budgetary and programming challenges the board, administration and community need to be well prepared for.)

Changing boundaries

The task force didn't reach consensus on how the board should address its final recommendation. Instead, "a number" of the members "felt boundary changes are necessary" even with a new high school coming on line. And "several members of the group" wanted the district to fundamentally change the way it thinks about boundaries. Rather than consider attendance areas as static entities that should be largely left alone except for an occasional tweaking, "several members" argue, the district should start thinking about "boundaries as fluid and change them periodically, perhaps as often as every five years."

We think the recommendation from these "several members" has merit in a school district that includes such growing cities as Iowa City, Coralville and especially North Liberty. Over the past four decades, viewing attendance areas as static has led to the perception that the Iowa River is all but uncrossable for high school students and has heightened the district's east/west rivalry to a dysfunctional (even pathological) level.

In practical terms, changing boundaries districtwide every five years may introduce too much chaos into the mix. But reconsidering boundaries on a more regular basis might help the board population shifts and inequities from building up to the point that a massive overhaul is required -- and, right now, such an overhaul is long overdue.

The current board can start moving toward that goal as it discusses shifting the boundaries between the district's two fine comprehensive high schools. With pressure coming from some to change boundaries in time for the 2009-10 school year -- and from others to postpone changing boundaries until it's really needed in 2011-12 -- the board seems to be moving toward a compromise of changing high school boundaries for the 2010-11 school year.

The superintendent will have some scenarios drawn up for future board meetings, and there was some talk at Tuesday's meeting of having the board reach a decision by Aug. 25 -- two weeks before the Sept. 8 school board election.

School Board election

Whether the school board sticks to that schedule may depend on which (if any) of the three expiring board members -- Tim Krumm, Jan Leff and Mike Cooper -- decide to stand for re-election. Monday is the first day to file candidacy papers at the Central Administration Office (509 S. Dubuque St.), and the filing period will continue until July 30.

There's been a lot of talk about opposition candidates coming from Roosevelt parents (who are upset over the decision to close their 78-year-old school), the Mann community (who are worried about what's in store for their 92-year-old school) and C.O.P.E. (who want high school boundary changes as soon as possible). But no one has announced as an official candidate yet.

We encourage all qualified candidates to throw their hats into the ring and to help ensure that, over the next two months, the Iowa City School District has an energetic, thorough, critical and respectful debate about its future.

In the meantime, we urge the current board to start implementing the High School Enrollment Task Force's recommendations and to continue the open discussion process that began with the March 30 forum.

Our View - Prairie Lights readings return to radio on KRUI

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 27, 2009)

Having been raised in Iowa City, University of Iowa student Nathan Gould was shocked last year when Iowa Public Radio announced it was canceling "Live from Prairie Lights" after 16 years on the air. After all, the "Live from Prairie Lights" broadcasts were listed as one of the many reasons why UNESCO decided to recognize the vibrant literary life of Iowa City.

The 2006 Regina graduate -- who describes himself as being on the "nerdy side" in high school -- already was disappointed that WSUI had stopped broadcasting the readings live after it joined the other public radio stations as part of a statewide network. But, like many other local listeners, he thought the tape-delayed readings were better than no readings at all.

Yet unlike the hundreds of disappointed listeners who filled IPR's e-mail and voice mail accounts last year, Gould was in a position to do something productive about the canceled radio series. The political science and philosophy major was in the middle of his first year as the general manager of KRUI 89.7-FM -- Iowa City's student-run, sound alternative. He quickly realized how "great" it would be if KRUI could pick up where WSUI left off.

While IPR officials were busy explaining how they had redefined the term "local" for their member stations to mean "statewide" rather than "Iowa City area," Prairie Lights staff began exploring new ways to expand the reach of the in-house reading series. One way was to partner with UI's Writing University program so that all the university-associated readings could be streamed live at

At the same time, Gould began working with the KRUI's faculty adviser, Kembrew McLeod, and the Prairie Lights staff to figure out how best to transplant and to revive "Live from Prairie Lights" as a local radio staple. He and his staff decided to start slowly over the summer, and the radio station is now broadcasting the tape from one reading per week at 2 p.m., Sundays.

"We'll do a little post-production editing," Gould said. "But it will still be a live reading from the store."

Gould describes the summer broadcasts as "more than a test run." He said KRUI is fully commitment to broadcast programs for at least the next year.

"We're hoping to improve the product," he said. "The people at Prairie Lights have been very helpful and accommodating. And we're working together to figure out how the program should sound."

Gould said that, under his management, there has been a slight increase in the amount of talk programs on KRUI. And he stressed that, to him, "local programming" means providing quality conversation and music that isn't happening anywhere else in the Iowa City area.

Whether the next KRUI manager has the same vision for local programming is yet to be seen. Gould said he plans to graduate in 2010, and he already is in the process of applying to law schools.

But whatever the future may bring for "Live from Prairie Lights" as a radio show, we're encouraged that KRUI's staff of undergraduates, graduate students and community members are working hard to keep the "local" in "local programming."

Our View - Learning from Idyllwild's past, present, future

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 13, 2009)

On Jan. 23, 1990 -- 3½ years before a so-called "100-year" flood and 18½ years before a so-called "500-year" flood -- the Iowa City Council voted 5-2 to approve the preliminary plat of a then-proposed 20.8-acre, 68-lot subdivision called Idyllwild.

At the time, then-councilors Susan Horowitz and Karen Kubby voted against the measure because of the city's potential liability after a major flood. Then councilors John McDonald, Bill Ambrisco, Randy Larson, Naomi Novick and Darrel Courtney voted to move ahead with the subdivision because the plan called for all buildings to be at least one foot out of the "100-year" floodplain -- which meets all the requirements and floodplain ordinances.

"I think we have a responsibility to look at this information," McDonald said at the time. "But I also feel we have a responsibility to give these people (the developer and the builder) some answers."

The five councilors passed the measure with the understanding that they would deny final approval if new information indicated a danger to people's lives or property. But not enough of that "new information" seems to have arrived (although many experts were on hand to warn the council that predicting a "100-year" floodplain was an inexact science at best). And, almost exactly two years later, the council unanimously voted to rezone the tract to allow development of as much as 104 condominiums. Ninety-two units have been built, and the city now is in the process of buying out the undeveloped land.

A flood of "new information," of course, came in 1993 and 2008. The base elevation for the floodplain was raised after 1993, and the experts are still collecting and studying the data from last summer's flood before deciding how to change it again.

But those requirements didn't help the residents of Idyllwild who trusted the city officials, engineers and insurers who said the odds of catastrophic flooding outside of the 100-year floodplain were so small that they needn't worry about it. In the past year, many of those flood-displaced families have moved back into the floodplain -- not because they're not worried about future floods -- but because they think they have no other financial options.

Take Charlie Eastham, for example. As both president of the Housing Fellowship board of trustees and member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, he has a broad perspective on housing issues. But the retired university employee's perspective grew even broader during the time that he and his wife, Karen Fox, were displaced from their flood-damaged home at 37 Colwyn Court.

The couple didn't have flood insurance -- Eastham said they were told in 2004 that they didn't need it and couldn't get it -- and they don't qualify for any buyout program. Yet through a combination of additional loans and some state funds, they are able to move back into their home.

The Idyllwild Condominium Association Board is holding a Flood Reconstruction Celebration at 3 p.m. today to mark the progress made by Eastham and other residents. Board President Sally Cline said about half of the subdivision's units have been restored and about 30 units have been sold -- sometimes for less than a quarter of their pre-flood price. Cline hopes that 90 percent of the units will be restored by this fall, with about 20 units becoming high-end rentals.

"Compared to where it was six months ago, I'm amazed," Cline said.

We, too, celebrate what Idyllwild residents and other flood victims have accomplished in the past year. But we hope our city, state and federal leaders have learned just how foolish it would be to approve any future construction along the river.

Our View - Vote to close Roosevelt is just the beginning, not the end, of process

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 11, 2009)

When Roosevelt Elementary opened on Jan. 11, 1932, the students, parents and administrators were relieved. The opening had been delayed because of the poor condition of the road in the vicinity of the building, and the students had spent the previous few months being bussed over to then 14-year-old Mann Elementary. The new school continued to be the victim of planning problems, but soon became intrinsically tied to the growth, development, decline and revitalization of the Miller-Orchard neighborhood for the next 77 years.

On Tuesday, the Iowa City School Board voted unanimously to separate the elementary school from the neighborhood's future. The decision means that -- sometime after the close of the 2010-11 school year -- the Roosevelt building will cease to function as a K-6 school. Neighborhood advocates already have begun shifting from their attempts to "Save Roosevelt School" and are beginning to work to ensure that they play an important role in determining how the building will be "repurposed."

All the stakeholders seem to recognize that Tuesday's vote is just the beginning, rather than the end, of this process. There still is a lot of work to do before that day two years from now when Roosevelt's educational staff and student population moves on either to Horn Elementary or to the new school to be built off of Camp Cardinal Road.

The Iowa City area community needs to spend that time:

• Grieving the loss of Roosevelt.

Regardless of how the Roosevelt building gets repurposed, members of the Roosevelt community have begun grieving the loss of a school that will have served them for just shy of eight decades.

We're glad that, throughout the current debate over Roosevelt's future, both critics and proponents of the administration's plans have found at least one key piece of common ground: They both have praised Roosevelt's staff for overcoming barriers, defying the odds and managing to teach the students placed in their care.

Those Roosevelt success stories need to be remembered, retold and honored both before the last K-6 student exits the building in June 2011.

• Providing at least short-term fixes to Roosevelt's problems.

During the recent debate, the Roosevelt staff put together a long list of "Facility Barriers at Roosevelt." Although every school in the district shares some of the same difficulties, the sheer number of problems allowed to accumulate at Roosevelt is disturbing.

The list includes having:

• Many classrooms that are too small in terms of square footage;

• Grade-level rooms apart from one another;

• Only one room to serve as both gym and lunchroom;

• 10 teachers teach in outdoor portable classrooms;

• Multiple teachers share a room;

• Lengthy transition times to the outdoor classrooms;

• Inadequate electrical support in classrooms;

• No teacher workroom;

• No ADA-compliant entrances, sinks or toilets;

• Nine classrooms without sinks;

• Inadequate storage space and

• Only two sets of bathrooms for 326 students.

Addressing these concerns will be a difficult balancing act. District officials now need to ensure a safe and productive learning environment in a school building they no longer consider a good investment for continuing as a K-6 school.

To do so, district officials need to look well past the point at which the Roosevelt building is decommissioned and continue to address the school's resource and facility needs -- as they did with the recent projects to upgrade the school's media center and to tuck-point and weather-proof the building.

• Ensuring the same thing doesn't happen to other schools.

Because there are gross disparities between elementary schools throughout the district -- and because there seems to be a growing groundswell of support for addressing such disparities -- the school board has a rare opportunity to make a decision that should have been made by previous boards five, 10 or even 15 years ago.

Rather than limit themselves to redrawing boundaries only between the westside schools of Roosevelt, Kirkwood, Horn and Weber, the school board needs to initiate a districtwide redrawing of school boundaries at all levels.

There seemed to be a consensus from the board Tuesday night that such a process was long overdue. Board member Mike Cooper, for example, joked that he wished all the former board members who have been writing guest columns advocating for districtwide boundary changes would have actually implemented those changes back when they were on the board themselves.

We're happy to learn that the school board is interested in a serious discussion of boundary changes. Administration officials said they will be working with the University of Iowa to draw up several maps of what new school attendance areas could look like. Those models -- if used as teaching tools and not as actual recommendations -- will be an essential starting point for beginning what's sure to be a lengthy process of community input and tough decision-making.

There are no easy answers to how to redraw school boundaries, and boundary changes alone won't be a cure-all for the district's problems. But the Iowa City School District owes it to the Roosevelt community to make sure that the disruptions caused by Roosevelt's closing will help correct past mistakes and help even out student populations throughout the district.

Hopefully current school board members will make districtwide boundary change happen -- that way they won't be the ones writing guest editorials to future board members five, 10 or 15 years from now.

Our View - Development means changes for U. Heights

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 9, 2009)

Discussion about the controversial One University Place -- a residential and commercial development proposed to be located on land now occupied by St. Andrew Presbyterian Church -- reaches the University Heights City Council tonight.

Over the past few months, residents and the developer have gone back forth in three informational sessions about the project. On May 20, the University Heights Zoning Commission voted 3-2 against rezoning the property for the development. And now, because of significant opposition by the neighboring property owners, a supermajority of the council is required if the development is to go forward.

We think the developer, Jeff Maxwell, has proven responsive to the concerns raised by the city officials and residents. He seems to have recognized just how much his proposal would challenge the way the residents of University Heights view their city. And, after lengthy discussions, he has scaled back the project to a version we think the city council should approve.

Our main concern about the project -- the traffic it would add to the already congested Melrose Avenue -- has been addressed through plans to:

• Update the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Sunset Street to include more left-turn lanes and to straighten the north leg of the intersection to a more 90-degree angle and

• To add a left turn lane along Melrose in front of the new development.

John Yapp, executive director of the Johnson County Council of Governments, said those changes would "create a much safer situation from a traffic perspective than what is there now." We think the proposed changes also would help improve the traffic flow on this street enough to allow for the increased number of cars that a new commercial and residential development would bring.

And it's clear that increased traffic is an inevitable consequence of nearly any development plans for the St. Andrew's property.

Unless the church were to sell the land to another religious community -- or unless the church decided against relocating to the land it's already bought on Iowa City's western edge -- the traffic rate is going to change. Some projects might cause less of an increase than the residential and commercial mix offered in One University Place, but any feasible development of this property is going to bring more cars -- as well as alter University Heights' current mix of single-family homes, limited number of apartments and very limited number of public buildings.

It also seems the most likely way University Heights can survive as a distinct city is to alter its current character and allow for a development of this size:

• One big enough that tax increment financing might be a way to pay for needed infrastructure improvements on Melrose.

• One big enough that, after the period of tax incremental financing elapses, the development provides a needed infusion of residential and commercial property dollars into the city's coffers. Without such an infusion, University Heights may have to start cutting services or raising taxes to the point that residents wonder if they wouldn't be better off as an Iowa City neighborhood rather than as a separate city.

Other developers proposing a project of this size may not be as amenable to city and resident input as Maxwell has been. The University of Iowa, which already owns property adjacent to St. Andrew and has the right of first refusal on the church property, probably wouldn't be as cooperative in any development plans it might impose on the property.

Rather than view One University Place as a stark departure from what University Heights has represented in the past, the city council should recognize the proposed development as an example of what University Heights could be growing into if it is to survive as an independent city at all.

Our View - School poverty statistics need to be addressed

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 8, 2009)

Saturday's Press-Citizen reported that the number of students living in poverty in the Iowa City School District has increased more than 20 percent in just the past two years. Districtwide, 29.3 percent of all students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the Iowa Department of Education. That number is up 41 percent from five years ago, but it remains below the state average of 34.1 percent for the 2008-09 school year.

There are a number of possible reasons for why the numbers are increasing:

• The slumping economy.

• A low unemployment rate that attracts unemployed and underemployed families to the district.

• The eligibility requirements are flawed at either the local or federal level.

But we're most concerned in how these poverty statistics consistently cluster around certain schools. During the 2008-09 school year, five elementaries had more than half of their students coming from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch:

• Hills, 58.2 percent

• Kirkwood, 56.3 percent

• Roosevelt, 57.3 percent

• Twain, 66.9 percent

• Wood, 62 percent

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Lincoln and Wickham elementary had just 2.8 percent and 3.9 percent of their students, respectively, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The statistics demonstrate why the Iowa Department of Education earlier this year determined that Roosevelt, Twain and Wood were socio-economically isolated. And with the Iowa City School Board voting Tuesday whether to move forward with a proposal to close Roosevelt and to build a new school on the western edge of Iowa City, the debate over equity between the schools has reached a fevered pitch.

The district has been working for years to address the challenges faced in its higher poverty schools through programs like family resource centers and family literacy nights. And Peter Hlebowitsh, an assistant education professor at the University of Iowa, said the best way to make schools equitable is to allow students to transfer or open enroll at other schools in the district.

Unfortunately, while the Iowa City School District has such an open enrollment policy, schools become closed to transfers when there is no space available. Plus the transfer numbers show that far more students are transferring out of than into the poverty-clustered schools.

"If that starts to happen pervasively ... the school district would be wise to gerrymander some of the boundaries," Hlebowitsh said. "You could fool with the lines and still have schools that are quite convenient."

Superintendent Lane Plugge said there has been no serious talk on making any districtwide boundary changes. But we think it is well past time to begin serious discussions of redrawing boundaries between elementaries throughout the district -- especially given that the administration's proposal for closing Roosevelt would have the new elementary school start out with a well above average percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

Our View - Leach should be confirmed as NEH chairman

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 7, 2009)

Ever since Republican Jim Leach publicly announced his support for Barack Obama's presidential candidacy last year, rumors have been circulating about what role the Iowa City area's former Congressman would play in the new administration.

Since losing re-election to Dave Loebsack in 2006, Leach has taught at Princeton University and worked as interim director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before last year's Democratic National Convention, the rumors of possible offices for him reached as high as vice president. After Obama's election, the possibilities included secretary of state and, most recently, ambassador to China.

We don't know whether Leach was actually on the short list for any of those positions. His most high-profile role in the new administration came shortly after the election, when the then president-elect tapped Leach -- along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- to represent the incoming administration at an international economic summit. (And Leach's prospects surely weren't helped by the fact that his name is on a 1999 law that allowed financial institutions to act as both investment banks and commercial banks -- the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act.)

But the rumor-mongering stopped Wednesday when Obama nominated Leach to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- the independent agency that awards grants for humanities projects.

"I had not intended to return to government and had in fact declined several early offers," Leach said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "But the humanities are such an extraordinary field, and my sense is there's never been a more important time to work in this area."

The position -- though not as lofty as the earlier rumored possibilities -- seems an ideal fit for a man who has been heralded throughout his public career for his attention to and appreciation of scholarship, scholasticism and academia.

Christopher Rossi, director of Humanities Iowa, said he was optimistic about Leach's appointment. If confirmed, Rossi said, Leach's long-established good relations with Congress -- the principal funder of the NEH through the Department of the Interior -- would be a strong asset for the endowment, especially during the current financial downturn. About 40 percent of NEH funding gets filtered through state humanities councils like Humanities Iowa.

"The high water mark for funding was achieved in 1994, when the NEH received $177 million," Rossi said. "After some attacks against the NEH and the (National Endowment for the Arts) in the 1990s, funding was cut dramatically and hasn't yet been restored to that 1994 level ... and that's not even counting inflation."

If confirmed, Leach's biggest challenge will be to overcome a public and a Congress that sometimes views the NEH as being too dowdy, too traditional or too out of touch with public sentiments. Rossi joked that far too many people think the endowment only funds projects as preposterously dry as "yet another bound edition of the works of Millard Fillmore."

Although Leach himself has sometimes been described as being a little too dowdy or too scholastic for public office, his résumé shows that he clearly understands the importance of academia, scholarship and public education.

"At this point in his career," Rossi said, "I don't think he's disposed to do anything just to fluff up his pedigree. I assume he's (accepted the nomination) because he thinks there are challenges out there to be met and that he's the right person with the right temperament to do them. ... I think he'll do just fine."

We can't imagine the U.S. Senate would find any credible reason against confirming Leach's nomination to the NEH. And we look forward to seeing how the former Congressman puts his personal stamp on this very important organization.

Our View - Shelter overflow needs consistent space in winter

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 3, 2009)

Anyone involved with Shelter House's Interim Overflow Project -- which is overseen by the Consultation of Religious Communities -- has to be somewhere on the spectrum between a realistic optimist and an optimistic realist.

Begun in 2004 after the plans to relocate and expand Shelter House were stymied through lawsuits by the neighboring property owners, the program has organized dozens of churches and hundreds of volunteers to provide thousands of nights of shelter during the coldest months of the year.

Last year, the optimistic realists held out hope that it really might be the last year for this "interim" program. With the Iowa Supreme Court having ruled in the Shelter House's favor against the neighboring property owners, supporters wanted to see their long deferred relocation and expansion finally come to fruition. The staff and board worked to use as much as of the 2004 plans as possible and to figure out how to reignite a capital campaign during the worst economic downtown in recent history.

The realistic optimists knew it was a long shot, but they too were hoping Shelter House would defy the odds, raise the necessary cash, begin construction and have enough of a new shelter completed on Southgate Avenue that it could serve as this year's overflow for the North Gilbert Street facility.

Supporters -- including us -- hoped local religious communities would finally be let off the hook for providing shelter in facilities not expressly built for such uses. That they would be allowed to focus on other issues of social justice and economic need.

But the newest timeline for Shelter House's relocation and expansion shows that last year's hopes were more optimistic than realistic. Ground breaking for the facility is a scheduled for July 1, and the organizers already have raised $2 million of their $4 million goal. But construction of the new facility will be nowhere near complete enough to serve as a shelter overflow when the temperatures begin to dip down to dangerous levels.

The Consultation of Religious Communities once again is trying to coordinate overflow spaces in facilities that have an open room large enough to give volunteers a constant line of sight on the people seeking shelter for the night. Co-coordinating these facilities is even more difficult this year because space is limited in churches, such as Trinity Episcopal and St. Thomas More, because of construction projects, relocation and even housing programs displaced from the University of Iowa.

The consultation had hoped to approach Iowa City to use the St. Patrick Parish Hall after the church moves out to its new building, but that move won't take place until at least halfway through the winter. And there are no set plans that have been made for after the city takes possession of the hall.

The consultation likewise approached the Johnson County Board of Supervisors with the creative request of using an unfinished, open space in the county's new human services building. But that request was turned down for a variety of legitimate -- but still workable -- reasons. The county has suggested some other sites, but they don't offer volunteers and staff as clear a line of site as does the room in the health building.

We're glad Shelter House supporters remain both optimistic and realistic about the timeline for the shelter's relocation and expansions. Every study and anecdotal account confirms that Johnson County needs far more general shelter space than the few dozen slots available at the North Gilbert Street facility. And when the temperature drops during the worst of winter, anyone turned away from the shelter faces a life or death situation.

It's time for the community to stand up and support Shelter House at its July 1 groundbreaking. It's time to make sure the facility not only has enough money to meet its construction needs but enough to expand its programming needs as well.

In the meantime, we need our government facilities to offer their public-supported open spaces as readily as our local religious communities have been doing for nearly five years.

Our View - What and who gets to define a neighborhood?

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 30, 2009)

Many of the local issues filling recent Opinion pages have focused on the same question: What and who gets to define a neighborhood?

Are neighborhoods defined solely by governmental bodies? Are they pre-determined by the boundary lines drawn between public schools? Do each of Iowa City's neighborhood associations really represent a distinct neighborhood in the city, or do the people within those different areas see their community as blurring every line public officials draw.

And do neighborhoods gain their character through a sense of overwhelming similarity between their residents or should every neighborhood celebrate the diversity within it?

Historic districts

On today's Opinion page, supporters and opponents of a proposed Northside Historic District argue over which group of property owners should have more say in how a neighborhood develops: The people who live in the houses they own in the area, or the people who rent out their property and choose to live elsewhere.

A majority of the 119 property owners affected have registered opposition to the proposed district, but only about one third of the affected properties are owner-occupied. A majority of the owners who live in the district want the benefits of a being a historic district -- and their request has been approved by the Northside Neighborhood Association, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission.

Because the issue is so contested, approval requires a supermajority of the Iowa City Council (six of the seven members) to vote in favor at three different meetings. In the first two votes, Councilor Mike O'Donnell has been the lone dissenter.

We urge the other city councilors to continue to listen to the majority of property owners who live in the district and to give the final approval for the historic district during Tuesday's meeting.

Neighborhood schools

In today's Press-Citizen, Rob Daniel reports on whether elementaries in the Iowa City School District can and should be considered "neighborhood schools." The question of what constitutes a "neighborhood school" goes to the heart of the current debate over whether the Iowa City School Board should close Roosevelt Elementary. The parents and friends of the district's other older and smaller elementary schools are right to worry about what the decision means for their own school community.

With the district having so many elementaries in which more than 50 percent of the students live far enough away to qualify for busing, and with district officials talking about moving to larger elementaries to help improve district-wide efficiency, "neighborhood schools" may soon go the way of one-room schoolhouses.

Community building

On May 21, more than 200 residents of Grant Wood, Wetherby and other nearby areas gathered to argue against anyone who would dismiss or demean their neighborhoods. Starting from the common ground assertion that the safety of their children was their No. 1 priority, the participants filled the Grant Wood gymnasium with passionate discussions of crime, delinquency, personal responsibility, communal parenting, community policing, character-building programs and city policies.

We've called upon both the organizers and the participants to build on this productive discussion and to focus on turning their talk into action. The city has responded by creating a spreadsheet with the all the names and contact information from the people who signed up to help out. Using that information, city staff is working with neighborhood volunteers and Iowa City police officers to discuss how to provide more evening activities for neighborhood teens. If they can find enough adult volunteers, some of the options would include hosting neighborhood barbeques, keeping the Grant Wood gymnasium open and accessible during the summer nights and offering a Saturday night movies series for teens.

These solutions by themselves won't solve all the neighborhoods' problems, but they are a way to help begin rebuilding community and strengthening neighborhood ties.

And that community building is important because neighborhoods begin to thrive only when neighbors decide to watch out for one another.

Our View - 'Let's go to Iowa and make it official'

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 27, 2009)

Tuesday's 6-1 ruling by the California Supreme Court means that same-sex couples in that state can have all the benefits of marriage but can't claim the term itself. Although the California court ruled 4-3 last year that same-sex couples had a right to marry, it ruled Tuesday that Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment voters passed in November, "carves out a narrow and limited exception to these state constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term 'marriage' for the union of opposite-sex couples as a matter of state constitutional law."

The ruling was not unexpected -- the case was based on the process by which Proposition 8 came before the voters and not on the question of same-sex marriage itself. But the decision further highlights the importance of the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month to overturn Iowa's decade-old "defense of marriage" act.

While a majority of states have changed their constitutions to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman -- and while many have allowed for "civil unions" -- the April 3 Iowa Supreme Court ruling holds that any law or practice that discriminates against homosexuals as a class is now held suspect. That means calling same-sex marriage by any other name -- even "civil union" -- isn't possible under the Iowa Constitution as currently written.

As Rep. Steve King wrote in a guest column for the Des Moines Register on Tuesday, "Abiding by the amendment process of the Iowa Constitution may, at first, seem to hamstring believers in marriage (as traditionally and statutorily defined) and the rule of law. But using the rule of law to reverse the Iowa Supreme Court's decision by amending the Constitution is the only way to uphold it and confer legitimacy on the process."

While King views the Iowa Supreme Court decision as an example of illegitimate "judicial activism, we view the recent California decision -- and Proposition 8 itself -- as a frightening example of how civil rights, once recognized, can be still be taken away from U.S. citizens. While King writes about the Iowa Supreme Court "creating a 'right' to 'same-sex marriage,'" we're concerned that a basic civil right, once recognized, can be removed by any group -- even by the will of the majority population. (Some good news in the Tuesday ruling is that California will continue to use the word "marriage" to describe the legal commitments made by nearly 18,000 same-sex couples between the court's initial ruling last May and Nov. 4, when 52 percent of California voters passed Proposition 8.)

Of course, the California ruling may indirectly help add some more tourist dollars to Iowa coffers. We think local organizations like Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau are right to begin marketing our state and area to same sex couples throughout the nation. During the recent White House correspondents' dinner, for example, even President Obama joked about what "partners all across America are saying to one another right now: 'Let's go to Iowa and make it official.'"

But we'll be even happier when Iowa begins to lose some of its market share as a site for same-sex weddings and more and more state courts, legislatures and voters begin to recognize same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue.

Our View - Time to change boundaries for all elementary schools

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 23, 2009)

The nine options recently considered by the Iowa City School District Facilities Advisory Committee had one factor in common: They all required redrawing the boundaries between Roosevelt, Horn, Kirkwood and Weber elementaries.

Whether the Iowa City School Board were to decide to close Roosevelt as a K-6 school or to keep it functioning in its present capacity, the district still will need a new elementary school. Because the district already has the land for this new school in the new development off of Camp Cardinal Road on Iowa City's western edge, the boundaries between these four west-side elementaries will need to be shifted to address overcrowding and socio-economic equity issues.

But we agree with former board president Lauren Reece Flaum, who argues on today's Opinion Forum that the boundary changes shouldn't just stop with those four schools. Because there are gross inequities between elementary schools throughout the district -- and because there seems to be a growing groundswell of support for addressing such inequities -- this school board has a rare opportunity to make a decision that should have been made by previous boards five, 10 or even 15 years ago.

Although changing school boundaries won't be a cure-all for the district's problems, Reece Flaum is on the right track when she writes, "Convening a citizens' committee with the explicit charge of moving each elementary school toward the district average of 33 percent free and reduced lunch population would be a first step."

The district's policy regarding the families who live in Pheasant Ridge Apartments is the most glaring inconsistency in all the current talk about improving equity between schools -- especially in light of the Iowa Department of Education recently criticizing the so-called socio-economic isolation of Roosevelt Elementary. A previous Iowa City School Board implemented a policy -- one that many people now view as class-based, at best, or racist, at worst -- that bussed children from Pheasant Ridge past Horn (their nearest school) to Roosevelt. The map printed in today's Opinion Forum shows Pheasant Ridge as a lone island of purple, non-contiguous with the rest of Roosevelt's attendance area. Long ago, these few blocks should have been made part of either the Weber or Horn attendance area.

Some residents who have come to reluctantly support the administration's proposed plan to close Roosevelt often have consoled themselves with the thought that the plan would finally allow Pheasant Ridge students to walk to their neighborhood school. But even that small consolation is unlikely unless the board and the administration change their current goals of disrupting as few students as possible.

Although no boundary changes have been set in stone, district officials say they want to preserve Horn's existing attendance area as much as possible. The boundary is likely to be expanded eastward to include those sections of Roosevelt's attendance area within walking distance, but the Pheasant Ridge students are likely -- yet again -- to be bussed to the new school, this time at Iowa City's western edge. (No official discussion on proposed boundary changes will begin, of course, until the school board votes on Roosevelt's fate -- which is scheduled for the June 9 board meeting.)

There are no easy answers to how to redraw school boundaries, but if the board members decide to follow the administration's recommendations and to close Roosevelt, then they better make sure that the disruptions caused by this closing will truly help correct past mistakes and even out inequities throughout the district.

Otherwise this board risks merely passing the same old problems to future boards.

Our View - Does closing Roosevelt correct past mistakes?

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 19, 2009)

Months ago, the Press-Citizen Editorial Board provided a list of questions about the Iowa City School Board's proposed plans to decommission Roosevelt Elementary and to build a new elementary off Camp Cardinal Boulevard on the western edge of Iowa City.

Although the plan is not scheduled to be finalized until the June 9 school board meeting, Superintendent Lane Plugge has renewed his support of the proposal, and a majority of the school board members seem to back it as well. Critics of the plan have vowed to keep fighting.

In the weeks before the decision is finalized -- and in the two years until the Roosevelt building would cease to be a K-6 school -- the district needs to continue conversations on how best to meet the needs of the affected students as well as how to balance the needs of one school against the needs of the district as a whole.

Here are some of the answers we've found to our earlier questions:

• What constitutes a "neighborhood school"? Is it geographic proximity alone? Or should a school still be described as a "neighborhood school" when a large portion of students are bused in from homes that are closer to other schools?

If "neighborhood school" means one in which most students in the attendance area live close enough to walk to school, then the Iowa City district has very few "neighborhood schools." The boundary lines often include twists and turns that address democratic and socio-economic concerns of decades past. Of the 340 students who attend Roosevelt, for example, 100 live close enough to walk to school, 175 are bussed in and 65 have transferred in from other districts.

Although Roosevelt Elementary definitely is an asset to the Miller-Orchard Neighborhood -- a neighborhood that for decades has been struggling to stabilize and thrive -- many of the students who live close enough to walk to school would still be within walking distance of Horn, which is located just .7 miles away.

The district's future uses of the Roosevelt building -- especially the possibility of using it as a preschool site -- would lessen the blow to the surrounding neighborhood.

• How big is too big for an elementary school?

According to the recent reports, elementary student populations in the district range from 137 at Hills to 597 at Van Allen. The new school would absorb some of the 540 students at Weber, which is overcapacity, and several of the 438 Kirkwood students. The proposal calls for expanding Horn from 292 to about 400.

• At what point is it in the district's best interest to tear down an existing facility and to rebuild it somewhere else?

District administrators maintain that the main difference between Roosevelt and the district's other older schools -- Mann, Longfellow and Lincoln-- is that Roosevelt's classrooms are physically smaller than the district's standards. Because many of the walls between classrooms are load-bearing and cannot be shifted, any major upgrade to keep Roosevelt functioning as a K-6 school for another few decades would continue to cram students into spaces too small. (And if the district were to change the class sizes in Roosevelt to better fit within the school's smaller rooms, then it would have to increase class sizes in other schools to free up the money needed to pay the extra teachers.)

• How well is the school board living up to the promises made before the 2007 SILO election?

During the campaign for the 2007 SILO election, the district promised to conduct a facility study to determine the best way to allocate the money for new construction and maintenance of existing buildings. Its five-year facilities plan is based on that study.

School officials say that the proposed plan is better deal financially than other options because overcrowding at west-side elementary schools means that the district will need to construct a new school regardless of what happens with Roosevelt.

The proposed plan would cost about $13.8 million, while remodeling Roosevelt and building off Camp Cardinal Boulevard would cost about $16.6 million. Tearing down Roosevelt, leasing a facility for a year or two and constructing a new Roosevelt on the present site would cost even more.

• How might the decisions facing today's school board bind the hands of future school boards?

Because the district's facilities plan doesn't include any major upgrades for the district's oldest buildings, many critics have charged the board and administration with a policy of benign neglect. But the administration has addressed the facilities needs of Roosevelt in recent years, and Plugge repeatedly stresses that there are no plans to close any other schools. The current board, in fact, seems to be trying to correct inequities throughout the district that were left to fester by previous boards and administrators.

Our View - Some lingering questions about the sales tax

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 15)

The official canvass of the May 5 local option sales tax election took place on Tuesday. The measure passed in Iowa City by seven votes and failed in Coralville by eight votes. It was also approved in Hills, Lone Tree, Oxford, Shueyville, Solon, Swisher, Tiffin and University Heights; it was also defeated by North Liberty, West Branch and the unincorporated areas of Johnson County.

Here are some lingering questions about what the results mean for the area:

• Question: I thought the tax was a shoo-in in heavily flood-damaged Coralville and in danger in Iowa City. What happened?

Answer: It seems many voters thought the same thing. While some supporters in Coralville might have assumed their vote wasn't needed to approve the measure, anti-tax voters made sure to get out to the polls. The opposite seems to have happened in Iowa City.

• Question: Why do I hear talk about the possibility of re-votes only in the jurisdictions that voted down the tax?

Answer: The legislation allowing for an expedited local option sales tax election on May 5 specified the tax, if approved, has to be in place for at least one year. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors placed a four-year sunset on the tax, but any city can end the tax after the first year elapses. Ending the tax for a city would just take a majority vote of that city's council. If Iowa City, which represents a majority of the county's population, asks for the tax to be extended beyond the four years, then the measure will have to go before the voters again in 2012.

• Question: What happens if Coralville leaders decide to ask Iowa City to put the measure on the ballot for a re-vote in their city?

Answer: Any future local option sales tax won't include the special provisions for the May 5 election. That means Coralville voters wouldn't be able to decide for their city alone. Instead, because any contiguous areas that didn't pass the tax would be lumped into one jurisdiction, Coralville and North Liberty would be lumped together.

• Question: Shouldn't the unincorporated areas be lumped in with them as well?

Answer: In this case, the unincorporated areas would be treated as a separate jurisdiction. If they voted yes, the county could stand to collect as much as $4 million annually to use on property tax relief and road improvements -- money that largely would come from taxes collected in Iowa City and Coralville. Given the large margin by which rural voters rejected the measure on May 5, however, it's hard to imagine they would approve the tax in a later election.

• Question: Why can't Iowa City and Coralville just keep all the tax money collected in their city limits?

Answer: Local option sales tax money is distributed throughout the county by a formula that's based on 75 percent population and 25 percent property tax assessment. That pulls money from the areas of the county with a lot of retail and distributes it throughout the other jurisdictions.

For the May 5 election, state legislators temporarily changed the way the state computes the property tax assessment portion of the formula -- changing it so current retail centers, like Coralville, could keep more of the money collected in their city limits. But that change won't be part of any future election.

• Question: What does that mean if Coralville and North Liberty voters were to approve the local option sales tax in a later election?

Answer: That means Coralville would bleed more of its tax revenue to the other cities than it would have if its voters had approved the tax on May 5.

• Question: What if Coralville wants to put the measure on the ballot but Iowa City says no?

Answer: It's hard to imagine Iowa City would say no. If Coralville approves the tax, the distribution formula means that Iowa City gets even more tax revenue. If all the jurisdictions were to approve the tax, estimates show that Iowa City could get an extra $175,000 a year. If Coralville and North Liberty were to approve the tax and not the unincorporated areas of the county, then Iowa City could bring in much more.

• Question: Is it right for Coralville to ask for a re-vote after voters rejected the measure?

Answer: We still think this sales tax presents the best way for Iowa City and Coralville to afford the flood recovery efforts they've proposed. If such a tax isn't collected in Coralville -- and if its proceeds aren't distributed to other juridictions -- then Coralville and Iowa City residents are likely to see a rise in their property taxes and utility rates.

Our View - Torture, by any other name, is just as illegal

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," April 28, 2009)

The next time we hear a president of the United States say, "We do not torture," we'd love to be able to believe him. We'd love to able to trust that he is not playing a rhetorical game and trying to cover up interrogation techniques that, in any other time and situation, would be labeled as torture.

After all, from the vantage point of seven years, it's hard not to be shocked and dismayed when reading through some recently released 2002 memos that provided the Bush administration with the legal support it needed to allow for waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques.

Because much of the information already had been made public, the memos themselves only reinforce what we long knew: That in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration had a bad case of what University of Iowa law professor Tung Yin called "Jack Bauer Syndrome."

The Obama administration's flip-flopping since the release of the memos, however, suggests a new and equally frightening phase of that syndrome.

Last year Yin published an article, "Jack Bauer Syndrome: Hollywood's Depiction of National Security Law," in which he documented how many federal officials had referenced the TV show "24" -- a list that included then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former CIA Director James Woolsey and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Many officials defended the actions of the show's main character, Jack Bauer, an on-again/off-again federal agent who has tortured suspects to gain information deemed necessary for national security.

On the other side, Yin noted how the dean of West Point had contacted the producers of "24" pleading with them to stop depicting torture as a successful interrogation technique for fear that too many soldiers and officers in the field would think that it works -- especially if they've been given the legal green light through memos like the one recently released.

Before the memos were released, we already knew the problem with "Jack Bauer Syndrome" is that the fictional Jack Bauer never makes a mistake. He never tortures the innocent -- unless he needs to do so to get the bad guys to comply. In real life, however, government-approved torturers won't have the luxury of being right all the time, and any information provided under duress -- even from acknowledged bad guys -- would be highly untrustworthy in the short-term and most likely inadmissible as evidence later on.

But we now know a later consequence of "Jack Bauer Syndrome": Torture, when done under the proper legal cover, is all but nonprosecutable as long there is any chance that it provided information to save lives. President Obama isn't likely to prosecute the actual interrogators because they were just following orders (which is always a dubious defense) and because he'll need CIA support in the future. And Obama, rather than outline a clear course of action, has said he'll leave it up to the Justice Department to decide whether to go after the lawyers who wrote the memos: Jay S. Bybee, Steven G. Bradbury and John C. Yoo.

In discussing the memos Thursday, Yin said prosecutors probably won't be willing to prosecute unless they have proof that Bybee, Bradbury and Yoo were providing bad faith legal advice rather than expressing their actual opinions. And because the memos make legal arguments very similar to those found in at least Yoo's earlier academic writing, it would seem hard to make a case that Yoo et al were being sinisterly Machiavellian as opposed to just being staunchly ideological.

And even if prosecutors were to move forward with charges, it would all be for naught if one juror decided the information provided was worth the price to those interrogated, to those doing the interrogating and to the nation's moral authority.

"Jack Bauer Syndrome" seems to be one syndrome in which prevention is the only cure.

Our View - Questions about Lombardo before city can move on

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," April 22, 2009)

Back in August 2004, the Iowa City Airport Commission fired then airport manager Ron O'Neil and publicly said it was because of work performance issues rather than because of budget concerns. In February 2005, O'Neil filed suit against members of the commission as well as Iowa City government on the grounds of:

• Defamation,

• Slander,

• First Amendment retaliation,

• Violating Iowa's whistle-blowing law and

• Violating Iowa's blacklisting law.

In December 2007, the case went to trial. The defamation and slander claims were not submitted to jury but were thrown out by the judge at the conclusion of all evidence. And the jury decided O'Neil had not proven any of the other claims.

By that time, however, city government had spent a lot of money and a lot of staff hours proving the decision to fire O'Neil wasn't a wrongful termination.

So it's understandable that Iowa City officials don't want to risk going through that process again with the Iowa City Council's decision to fire Michael Lombardo on Friday. That explains why they've been tight-lipped about the decision and have offered little explanation for the firing other than, "He just wasn't a good fit."

The councilors are also in a tight spot because -- if they were right to fire Lombardo and to fire him as quickly as they did -- then they were obviously wrong to hire him in the first place. (And they were especially wrong to include an $80,000 severance package in his contract.)

Because the city councilors can't figure out how to perform this difficult task because responding to public's concerns and respecting Lombardo's privacy seem two mutually exclusive concepts to them the public has taken to offering its own wild speculation about the factors behind the council's decision.

The on-the-record factors we know of include:

• Lombardo publicly blaming his staff and not taking any personal responsibility for the failed efforts to move the Iowa City Farmers Market once a month (what Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson has called "Zucchini-gate") and

• The bizarre, meeting-long exchange in the April 13 council budget priorities setting session in which the council asked Lombardo to give them recommendations for budget cuts, and he seemed to fail to grasp why he should do that. (Video of that meeting is available at

But council's 7-0 decision Friday must have included many more (and more major) reasons for the firing. After all, this is a council that doesn't vote unanimously on any issue if it has even a hint of controversy.

On Monday, the Press-Citizen put in a records request asking for all e-mail exchanges between Lombardo and members of the council in the past few months. We also asked for any e-mails between councilors in which they mention Lombardo. The city has 10 days from then to respond to the request, and we will report anything that helps shed light on Lombardo's firing -- whether in terms of procedure or cause.

City isn't rudderless

During this time of confusion, Iowa City is lucky to have an experienced acting manager at the helm of city government. On Friday, Dale Helling began his third stint in that interim position. He performed the job well before Steve Atkins came on in the 1980s, he performed the job well after Atkins left two years ago and we're sure he'll perform the job well until the next city manager comes on board. (In fact, we're left wishing the council would've made his interim position permanent the last time around.)

Because the council had to pay Lombardo a severance package worth six-months of his salary, it seems unlikely the city's budget-cutting government could really begin searching for a replacement until at least October. And since that would put us just weeks before three council seats are up for election in November, the search probably shouldn't begin in earnest until January, after as many as three new councilors are sworn in.

So it's a good thing Helling knows the job, because his next interim period might be as long as Lombardo's entire tenure.

'Methland' could be any small town, anywhere

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 22, 2009)

A few years ago, the Sheriff's Office in Multnomah County in Oregon released a series of mug shots of meth addicts in an attempt to document the toll the drug takes on the human body over time. The photo series -- now called "The Faces of Meth" and available at DrugIssue/MethResources/faces -- has become iconic enough that Nick Reding references it several times in his recent study of Oelwein, Iowa: "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town."

Nearly always adding the adjective "infamous" to his description of the series, Reding uses the reaction to "The Faces of Meth" as an example of national media's belated obsession with meth problems in the heartland during the middle of the decade -- an obsession that seemed to dissipate almost as quickly as it began.

Wielding the observation by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett that Americans tend to seek psychological explanations -- rather than sociological or philosophical explanations -- for the world, Reding challenges the national media for ignoring the explosion of meth in the 1990s and failing to observe how the destruction of small town America provided the socio-economic fissures that allowed for the growth industry of meth production and distribution.

Long known as a working class drug -- one that offers enough of a boost to help workers clock in an extra shift for overtime pay -- meth use was common even back when meat-packing plants and other industries offered wages and benefits that workers could build a life upon.

When the nature of meatpacking plants changed in the 1980s and wages dropped drastically to barely more than minimum wage -- with little or no benefits for all the body-breaking work -- it's not surprising that workers began looking to make extra money by selling the drug they previously had consumed. Nor is it surprising that a growing number of these "Beavis and Butthead" producers would look to save costs by setting up small production labs in basements, cars and -- in Oelwein -- even bicycles.

As if that wasn't enough, then add the circuit created by out-of-work Iowans in the '80s and '90s who moved out West and sent back fresh meth supplies. And then add Mexican migrants who brought with them new supply and distribution routes from the south. And suddenly it becomes clear that all the sociological stars were aligned to push Oelwein past the tipping point to become better known as "Methlehem" or, as Jay Leno reportedly once called it, "the worst place in America."

It's this broader sociological convergence that Reding desperately wants his readers to grasp. (And for good measure, he also throws in how Big Pharma's lobbying efforts for decades have maimed effective federal regulation of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other basic components of meth production.)

Of course, this sweeping sociological perspective would make for very dull reading if Reding didn't explain how these forces bear down in individual people. "Methland" becomes such "must read" -- heralded in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal -- because Reding presents such a huge cast of well-drawn characters:

• Clay Hallberg, the Oelwein doctor who first turns Reding onto the sociological and philosophical cancer that meth represents for his patients and his community.

• Nathan Lein, the local prosecutor whose caseload is filled almost exclusively with meth-related crimes.

• Jeremy Logan, the Oelwein police chief whose aggressive "assume everyone is guilty and put the screws to them" methods basically ignore civil liberties while effectively closing down meth houses.

• Larry Murphy, the Oelwein mayor who bets his re-election on his redevelopment schemes for the town's dying downtown.

• Lori Arnold, the Ottumwa-based sister of actor Tom Arnold, who set up one of the largest meth production and distribution empires in the Midwest.

• And a secondary cast of addicts, sellers and customers who provide their own perspectives on the sociological morality play Reding describes.

Critics complain that Reding gets a little preachy at times. But Reding's detailed explanation of how what happened to Oelwein could happen to any small town -- indeed has happened to far too many towns that, unlike Oelwein, have yet to start reversing their decline -- makes it hard to image any tone other than exasperation when explaining why so little has been done for so long.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.