By Gregg Hennigan
IOWA CITY – Last night’s Iowa City school board meeting was an eventful one, and there was a lot that didn’t make it into the story in the paper and online.
Superintendent Lane Plugge presented the board with a timeline for opening another high school and several proposals for boundary changes to address high school enrollment disparities.
Those are two of the biggest issues facing the growing district.
The district is supposed to put the proposals on its Web site.
Last night was the unveiling of these plans, so there naturally are a lot of questions that must be answered before the board makes a decision. After the jump are the ones that I can think of. Leave me a comment if you think of others.
1) Cost – How will the district pay to operate a new high school? The district is in the midst of cutting $6 million from its budget over two years, and Plugge has been saying for months that operating costs are one of the biggest hurdles to opening a third high school. Money was not mentioned last night, except for Plugge again saying the school shouldn’t open until the district can afford it. He was asked to bring a financial plan to an upcoming meeting.
2) Enrollment – Plugge also has been saying current enrollment projections don’t support building a new school in the next few years. One concern has been the ramifications of having one high school much smaller than the other ones. His plan projected the third high school would start with 600 students and grow into 800. Compare that with City High and West High, which have capacities of 1,600 and 1,800, respectively.
Enrollment disparities are also a big issue between City and West, and the driver behind calls for the boundary changes also discussed last night. Some parents and school officials say City High students are at a disadvantage in the number of course offerings and in extracurricular activities. City and West are much closer in enrollment than the new school would be to them. I have, however, talked to North Liberty parents who say they want their kids to go to a smaller school. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
(An interesting aside, I’m off the rest of the week and do not have the numbers in front of me, but I would guess that a 600- or even 800-student school would be in Class 3A for sports. City and West are 4A schools. There are only a few districts with multiple public high schools, and I’m not aware of one with public schools in different classes.)
3) Boundary changes – Plugge presented six plans to shift West High students to City to even up the enrollments. The board will have to decide what it wants to do.
Also, Plugge suggested temporarily assigning 150 West High freshmen to Northwest Junior High. I did not see or hear anything about how it would be decided which students would spend their freshmen year at the junior high, if this is done. Plugge said the 150 figure was chosen because that’s what there is room for at Northwest and it would make a big enough dent in West’s overcrowding.
More boundary changes will be needed before the new high school opens, he said.
4) Timeline – The board previously had said it wanted to make a decision on high school boundaries by late August. Last night, board members talked about holding public forums after school starts.
Board President Toni Cilek previously told me she thought this board would want to make the decision before the Sept. 8 school board election, when three seats are up for election. I’m not aware of any challengers filing papers to run yet, but during the Roosevelt Elementary controversy, some parents threatened to make their displeasure known in the polling booth and there was talk of trying to find candidates.
Last night, board member Mike Cooper suggested slowing down and taking the time to also look at boundaries for all schools to better distribute students by race and economic status, another issue that has gotten a lot of attention.
But other board members said that would take too much time and they needed to act on the high school enrollment disparities now.