(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 www.iccsd.k12.ia.us/district/HS_enrollment.html#HS_forums. 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.)
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.