Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 12, 2009
Our View - Lessons to learn before redrawing school boundaries
On Monday, the Editorial Board met with the school board president and key administrators to talk about changing school boundaries in the Iowa City School District. During that discussion, it was very clear that school officials are trying not to repeat the mistakes made during the six-month discussion about the future of Roosevelt Elementary.
We hope some of the more important lessons learned by district officials and the broader community include:
• Don't offer a specific plan as a starting point for discussion. In fact, don't even have anything resembling a final plan until soliciting and collecting "input, input, input" from a variety of sources in the district.
Throughout the Roosevelt debate, Superintendent Lane Plugge and board members repeatedly said that the scenarios outlined in the district's facility plan were just options -- proposals, recommendations -- and not anything close to done deals. But those statements consistently fell on skeptical ears.
And when the board members finally did vote to close Roosevelt as a K-6 school before the 2011-12 school year, their critics felt justified in viewing the original proposal as a fait accompli.
This time, the board will rely on a consultant group to ensure that the redistricting proposals come out of dialogue with the public and the 30-member committee.
• Set clear parameters and metrics on how public input will be qualified, evaluated and presented.
During the Roosevelt debate, some of the members of the Facilities Advisory Committee complained about the method by which committee members were asked to evaluate the different options for the school. They went through a "forced choice exercise" in which their preferences were tallied and the resulting ranking was used to endorse a course of action (closing the school) that a majority of the committee members would have voted against.
Although people may disagree with the final result, they need to agree that the result is an accurate reflection of the consensus of the group.
On Monday, Plugge said that he hopes the clear criteria and standards set by the board will make the evaluation process more clear from the outset and thus avoid some of those problems. And on Tuesday, the board charged the boundary committee with developing two to three scenarios while keeping in mind demographics, finances, keeping neighborhood schools and neighborhoods intact and projected enrollments and building uses.
• While the criteria need to be clear from the outset, all options need to be on the table when considering initial proposals.
In this case, the list of possibilities include:
• Year-round schools.
• Magnet school programs.
• Re-designating some K-6 schools to become K-3 and 4-6 schools.
• Building new schools and (though no one likes to hear it) closing existing schools.
The final decision, in fact, may include some new use for the Roosevelt building.
• As important as it is to establish a transparent process that provides opportunities for productive public input, it's equally important to push the process forward to reach a decision.
At some time long before the board's official vote on June 9, the Roosevelt debate reached a point when it was clear that a majority of the board had reached its decision and that the further public forums were only dragging out the process. Unnecessarily prolonging the discussion by weeks (if not months), gave false hope to people working "to save Roosevelt" and basically added insult to injury.
During the redistricting discussion, it will be impossible, of course, for the consultants and the committee to present the board with a proposal that will please every group. Yet we think it is very important that everyone keep moving along in the process so that the consultants and the committee can present the board with two or three workable, affordable and equitable proposals by March.
• It's better for the public to get involved earlier than later in these decision-making processes.
Now, as the proposals are still being shaped, is the best time for local residents to share their thoughts, concerns and personal stories. The district has a page on its Web site devoted to the redistricting process (www.iowa-city.k12.ia.us/district/redistrict/index.html). And anyone at any time can submit their thoughts via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.