Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our View: A primer for discussing how to redraw boundaries in the Iowa City School District

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 27, 2010.

As the redistricting process continues for the Iowa City School District, we thought our readers would benefit from some quick definitions of the terms being thrown around by district officials and committee members.

Capacity issues

Capacity is simply the number of students that can be served within a single facility. What constitutes a "capacity issue," however, depends on whom you're talking with. Everyone agrees that overcrowding is an issue, but under-use of available space also seems, at best, a waste of resources and, at worst, an excuse to cut back the number of programs and educational services available.


The district has pulled together a 38-member committee to deal with redistricting issues. (Some people, amazingly, wanted the committee to be even larger.)

The committee is charged with coming up with two or three recommendations for changing boundaries among elementary and secondary schools. The committee members are scheduled to present their recommendations to the board Feb. 23.


In the November and December meetings with the redistricting committee, the district's consultants introduced a number of "concept" maps to gauge the committee members' gut-level reactions. These concepts have been described as "views from 50,000 feet" rather than attempts to draw lines where the new boundaries will be.

In order to be open about the process, the district has opted to make the concept maps available on its redistricting Web page ( But those early concepts are not to be confused with the "scenario" maps that the committee is beginning to discuss and eventually will be presented in public forums on Feb. 4 and 5.


The school board hired Kansas-based consultants RSP and Associates to help it through the redistricting process. The school board members say the consultants are well-experienced in working on redistricting issues and are necessary facilitators for this local discussion. Some critics worry that the consultants are pushing for a pre-arranged final scenario. Still others wonder whether the consultants are "snake-oil salesmen" hawking a process only they understand.

But as Executive Editor Jim Lewers writes today, "There are so many moving parts -- or possibly moving parts -- involved that this process could be overwhelming without the consultants."


The board determined that the 38-member committee would discuss redrawing boundaries based on the following criteria: demographic considerations, finances, keeping neighborhoods intact and projected enrollments. The board hopes that, by delegating to the committee at this stage of the process, it is providing an effective means for community input. Critics accuse the board of abdicating its ultimate responsibility for developing a redistricting plan.


Too many local residents seem to be in a state of denial as to whether redistricting is actually going to happen. It is. And most likely, it is going to affect every family in the district in some way.

Hopefully, by the time the public forums roll around on Feb. 4 and 5, more residents will have moved out of denial and into the next stages: bargaining, anger and acceptance.

Free and reduced lunch

Free and reduced lunch rates -- as the main indicators of poverty -- are the most important "demographic consideration" to be considered by the redistricting committee. Much of groundswell behind the call for redistricting came because the district's elementary schools have such widely divergent rates -- from 2 percent at Lincoln to 62 percent at Wood. School board members stress that they are working to improve the balance of rates among the elementary schools. They are not trying to achieve a perfect balance among the schools, they say, because that would require too much busing.


"Isolated" is the euphemism the state Department of Education uses to describe lopsided statistics for race, ethnicity and poverty among schools. It's a label the state used when describing Roosevelt Elementary -- isolated both racially and socioeconomically -- which was one of many reasons why the board chose to close Roosevelt and redraw boundaries among several west-side elementaries. That discussion led directly to the current redistricting discussions.

Magnet schools

Schools that highlight specific types of curriculum -- music and art, math and science, foreign language immersion, etc. -- often attract students from beyond their local geographic area. In the early discussions of redistricting, there was some talk of addressing lower-achieving schools by transforming them into such magnet schools. And Superintendent Lane Plugge has said the planned third comprehensive high school would exert some magnetic attraction to students throughout the district who may prefer attending a smaller school.

Throughout recent history, however, the district has been committed to the idea of providing equal opportunities for comprehensive learning in each and every school. Talk about developing magnet programs has not moved much beyond mere talk.

Neighborhood schools

Geographic proximity and keeping neighborhoods in tact are among the criteria for the redistricting committee to consider when recommending how to redraw boundaries. The problem is that those criteria are at odds with the committee's emphasis on improving the balance of demographic factors.

The problem is made worse because no one can agree on a definition for "neighborhood school." The common sense definition of the phrase would be "schools located in and serving specific city neighborhoods."

Even if the redistricting committee comes up with a plan that corrects past injustices and makes some school boundaries more contiguous or coherent, people still will react emotionally to being assigned to a different "neighborhood school" -- even if their previous school was located nowhere near their neighborhood.


District officials stress that numbers used in planning documents are only "projections" and not crystal-ball predictions. As such, the numbers are subject to change and reevaluation. Since the early 1980s, the board has relied on the projections offered by University of Iowa geography professor Gerard Rushton and his graduate students. During the redistricting discussions, those projections are supplemented with data from the district's consultants, RSP and Associates.

Public forums

On Feb. 4 and 5, the redistricting committee will hold a public forum in which it will explain the different scenarios under consideration and give the public a chance to weigh in. The committee then has a few weeks to process the public input and make changes to the proposals before bringing two or three recommendations to the board.


The redistricting committee discussed its first possible "scenario" during its Jan. 21 meeting. Prior to that, the maps and data presented to the committee were mere "concepts" for provoking discussion and for helping the consultants begin developing scenarios.


District officials are unsure how provisions of the No Child Left Behind law will affect their final decisions on redrawing boundaries. Schools that have been labeled "Schools In Need of Assistance" will continue to bear that label for at least a year, if not longer, depending on future test scores.

Under the law, the district is required to provide transportation to any students who want to opt out of the SINA schools they've been assigned to. But the district can limit which non-SINA schools the students will be transferred to. And with so many schools having capacity issues, there might be a very limited number of options for schools accepting such SINA escapees.


In order to better gauge public input, the district contracted out a random phone survey of hundreds of district residents, offered an online survey to which nearly 2,400 community members and more than 700 staff members responded and had more than 2,600 high school students fill out their own surveys. The overwhelming consensus is that the board needs to make sure the process is fair to everyone. The many other preferences identified in the surveys, unfortunately, offer the committee and board somewhat contradictory advice.

Third high school

For years now, we've been advocating for the district to move toward building a third comprehensive high school somewhere in the northwest growth area. And during last year's public forums and task force meetings, the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be: It's not a question of "if" the district will build a third comprehensive high school; it's a question of "when."

Although current economic conditions may have pushed back the "when" by a year or two, we agree with the school board that any discussion of redistricting must start with viewing the third high school as a "given" and not as a mere possibility up for discussion.

With so many other factors already in motion, the redistricting committee shouldn't waste time coming up with scenarios and recommendations that don't include a third high school.

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