Pushing boundaries: What you need to know about the ICCSD’s recent redistricting efforts

Redistricting woes
Redistricting efforts aim to level ‘reduced lunch’ rates at Iowa City schools. — photo by Juan Carlos Herrera

School redistricting—sometimes called the “R word”—can get ugly. New lines drawn on a map can change the trajectory of a child’s school career, friendships and opportunities, and challenge adults’ commitment to diversity in practice. Beyond letters to the editor, petitions, angry comments on message boards and to school boards, sometimes even lawsuits result.

Earlier this year, parents in Union County, N.C., sued the school board to stop a redistricting plan, citing concerns about the board’s secrecy, the negative impact on neighborhood property values and the disruption of students in the form of busing and being transferred to schools with lower test scores. In 2013, the school board of Greenwich, Conn., in spite of a clear trend of growing inequity and segregation within its school district, as well as warnings from the state’s board of education, voted to take redistricting off the table as a remedy for racial imbalance.

Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, the resolve to eliminate segregation “root and branch” has faded. As a recent ProPublica investigation reminded readers, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Supreme Court had lost patience with school districts that sought to limit integration through “race neutral” means or that drew attendance zones to cordon off racially distinct areas. The Court asserted that desegregation efforts were to be measured by how effectively they put an end to racially identifiable schools.

But more recent court rulings gradually weakened previous efforts to pursue integrated school districts. In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled in Dowell v. Oklahoma City that a “neighborhood schools” policy could be restored even if it meant a return to segregation. In 1997, Seattle ended busing designed to restore racial balance in public schools in favor of a neighborhood schools policy. In 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts authored the Supreme Court’s opinion in a 5-4 ruling against programs in Seattle and Louisville that explicitly used race as a factor in admissions or to maintain balance between schools in a district, deeming any consideration of race a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) never used the R word to refer to the series of recent community workshops about redistricting, nor did they ever explicitly mention race as a factor in redrawing those lines on the map. But the ICCSD’s “Attendance Area Development” meetings were contentious all the same.

On May 27, after several months of discussion, community comment and successive drafts of redrawn maps, the school board voted to downplay its diversity policy as the guiding principle for mapmaking and essentially start over. Under the policy, “minority” status is defined not by race or ethnicity but a student’s eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches (FRL), a common metric of poverty.

The goal of redrawing the boundaries under the rubric of the diversity policy was to arrive at a point where all schools’ FRL rates were within a certain acceptable range. Elementary schools would be compliant so long as they were within 15 percent of the average FRL rate. The average FRL rate for the district as a whole is 36 percent. Ideally, the ICCSD would also eliminate attendance zones that maroon students in isolated, geographically non-contiguous areas or “islands”—the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood is perhaps the most glaring example of this phenomenon. A recent statement from the ICCSD’s Board of Directors articulates the rationale for the decision to move away from the diversity policy:

“Based upon the feedback received and our shared concerns regarding various unintended consequences associated with some of the outcomes, we instructed the administration to go back to the table and develop maps that more carefully balance various factors that affect educational outcomes as well as the gathered community input. In doing so, the Superintendent and team were granted the flexibility needed to accomplish the difficult task of developing maps that can provide equity to our district while balancing many of these factors.”

This statement gives the Administration wide latitude to consider many factors to pursue an educationally optimal outcome, however it is defined, but success will not be measured primarily by adherence to the diversity policy. Earlier discussion at school board meetings and work sessions has suggested that magnet schools might help disadvantaged schools draw a more equitable mix of students with less involuntary busing, but things are up in the air.

While the following account is a fragmentary representation of the larger, more complicated and often confounding concerns and aspirations residents throughout the community are considering, as the administration restarts the process of developing maps based on some new—as of yet undefined—criteria, it is perhaps worth taking a look back at an earlier moment in the process to see how we got to this point, and how the diversity policy, controversial to begin with, lost favor as a guidepost for redrawing attendance boundaries.

On April 24, the ICCSD held a meeting at South East Jr. High to gather feedback from the community about the second draft of a map to determine new attendance areas for elementary schools to better comply with the diversity policy. It rained heavily that evening but the parking lot was mostly full for this third such meeting for “Cluster 2”—a subset of schools in the district which includes Lemme, Hills, Longfellow, Twain, Weber, Wood and the new South Elementary.

Attendance boundaries in the ICCSD have lagged behind demographic change—census data shows that the percentage of people of color in Johnson County increased from 11 to 17 percent between 2000 and 2010—and certain schools within the district have become racially isolated and imbalanced, which many academic studies conclude produces essentially separate and unequal educational experiences and outcomes. Census data also illustrates that there is more ethnic diversity among young people in Johnson County: Nearly 33 percent of students in the district are racial minorities. These numbers overlap with the FRL figures in the district, and the disparities are vast. Twain and Wood have FRL percentages over 75 percent, while three schools (Lincoln, Shimek and Wickham) have FRL percentages well under 15 percent.

An overwhelmingly white assemblage of about 100 residents sat in beige folding chairs at round tables and worked in 15 small groups in a large multi-purpose room with basketball hoops tucked up toward the ceiling. Color-coded “heat” maps stuck to the walls illustrating the density of student populations by neighborhood and the density of the FRL-qualifying students.

Superintendent Stephen Murley stood near the stage and explained the process and goals for the evening: each group should identify features of the second draft of the ICCSD elementary school boundaries that they like, something they would like to see modified and offer any other suggestions. One person from each group was responsible for documenting the group’s consensus answers on a worksheet, and a spokesperson from each table would report back to the group as a whole.

Talking with me after the meeting, Murley referred to Attendance Area Development efforts as an iterative process, where ICCSD officials learn what people want and “push it through the filter of the district’s mandate and diversity policy.” This feedback informs how the next map is drawn. After further feedback, there’s another iteration, which, he said, “is the beauty of the process.”

Not everyone at the South East meeting found the process beautiful. The recorder at table six wrote that meetings such as this were an “exercise to placate us.”

The unsigned recorder at table two, however, liked that the ICCSD is doing this and “asking our opinion.”

Draft two of the attendance area map would have placed many children currently attending Longfellow (which, full disclosure, I attended as a child) in the Mark Twain attendance area. Currently the Longfellow attendance area has a FRL rate of 18.5 percent, while Mark Twain is at 77 percent. In some cases the distance from home to school increased by 10 or more blocks. About two-thirds of the people at this meeting were from the Longfellow area and, beyond any other consideration, a desire for “walkability” and neighborhood schools dominated the comments spoken in the room that night and written on the worksheets. “Keep neighborhood schools as the number one priority with those living closest getting priority,” wrote one group’s recorder.

Katie Barreras, recorder for table three, wrote that the group liked that “students changed from Hills to Weber two years ago won’t have to move again” and that “schools are closer to capacity.” Among the table’s suggestions for improvement were: “don’t bus kids that aren’t bussed now” and, again, “maintain walkability and neighborhood schools.”

Chris and Emily (they did not want to give their last name) have two kids at Longfellow. They said their table was concerned about walkability as well. Chris also expressed frustration with the Administration’s division of the district into clusters.

“I understand the clusters were useful for matching small groups of people, but that’s really all they’re doing right now is managing us, and it’s an exercise in futility right now,” he said. “As you heard, a lot of people were kind of upset with a lot of the lines drawn, and they just want to be heard and to actually have action taken based upon their opinions, instead of somebody’s agenda.”

Jason Lewis, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Board in 2013, and has children who attend Twain and Wood, was at a table with a lot of parents and residents in the Longfellow area. They too were concerned about walkability and destabilizing their neighborhood.

“I get that,” Lewis said. “But part of the reason we’re in this process is that we’ve got schools that are really in crisis, that have free and reduced lunch populations at 80 percent, and we have neighborhoods that those kids live in that haven’t had the opportunity to stabilize in the way that other neighborhoods in the area have stabilized. And I would love to see those neighborhoods and those schools thrive in the way that some of these other places have done.”

He said ultimately the people at his table were at loggerheads between a concern for their immediate neighborhood and a concern for the greater community.

“We disagreed about the proposed solutions, disagreed about the overarching philosophies, and whether things needed to be done now or done later,” Lewis said. “There wasn’t a lot of agreement, and ultimately I think we just agreed to disagree.”

I suggested that at least the lines of communication were open.

“Well, maybe,” he said, then laughed. “You know it’s frustrating to see folks of similar backgrounds, similar values at such cross purposes, because there could be the opportunity to do a lot of good in the community. But it seems like Iowa City can never get out of its own way to move toward a better future.”

Marian Coleman, a former equity director for the ICCSD from 1995 to 2008, attended the meeting as an observer. “Right now I’m feeling a little bit in awe of the fact that this is happening, that there are opportunities for people to voice their concerns,” Coleman said. “I remember, back in the day, when decisions were made and community people didn’t have any option but to accept them.”

Coleman said the current process was encouraging, but she thought a wider range of people needed to be there.

“We need to consider having these meetings somewhere where folks who aren’t usually at the table feel comfortable coming,” she said, “and make a bigger effort to get them here. The whole focus is so intense that sometimes the folks we really need to embrace get lost in the shuffle.”

After nearly two hours of discussion and the official conclusion of the meeting, dozens of people stayed at their tables and continued to talk or approached Murley and Board members with questions. Whether at this meeting, or the often-fiery “community comment” portion of regular Board meetings, it’s clear ICCSD residents are invested in education. The unofficial discussion continued even after 5- and 15-minute warnings.

Finally, at 8:20 p.m., Chace Ramey, Chief Human Resources Officer, implored everyone to leave: “Let’s not make it harder for our hard-working custodians to do their jobs.”

The room cleared, but about a dozen people continued talking, huddled outside under a doorway overhang, looking out on the parking lot as the rain continued.

Another Attendance Area Development meeting was held on May 12 at Parkview Church. About 80 people made it through heavy rain, again, to address how attendance zones from elementary school, to junior high, to high school should best be arranged to accord with the diversity policy while minimizing disruption to students’ lives.

Jean Jordison’s three kids went to Hoover, South East and City High. She said some people at her table didn’t see much need to change boundaries or change much of anything, but she did not agree. “Every kid deserves a great school, and some people in this community don’t even think it’s important to have our facilities be equitable,” she said. “That bothers me a lot.”

“We have all these great resources in our community and all these great kids, no matter what their income level is, and they all deserve to be in schools where they can succeed. I think our school boards of the past have been really reluctant to make significant changes, and it just keeps compounding,” Jordison said.

While talking with Jordison and other people, I couldn’t help but overhear fragments of arguments and venting at nearby tables. “It never works when you force people together.” “It’s going to be like Boston in the ‘70s.”

Later, after waiting for him to finish talking with several parents after the meeting, I asked Murley if he thought this redistricting struggle had to do with an historical legacy that needed to be addressed?

“In a sense, yes, because we have not gone through this in a long time,” Murley said. “The district has grown very rapidly since the last time we went through it, since North Central Junior High opened up. And so, as we’ve grown and have not gone through that transition of attendance zones, it tends to exacerbate some of the conditions that are out there, so that makes it a bit more challenging as we go through.”

“Essentially, most districts, when they go through this, use a similar process in the sense that they define some parameters for doing it,” Murley said in reference to other school districts that have gone through analogous situations. “I think one thing that’s different about our district, I think the district’s diversity policy gives us a little less flexibility, but at the same time it really holds out an absolute standard for us to meet. There’s a little more pressure to meet that standard and a little less flexibility to get there, but the intent it is to come out the other end with better balance.”

Now, with the diversity policy apparently relegated from an absolute to an “aspirational” standard, the ICCSD administration has that flexibility, though—for the moment—few specific guidelines for drawing up new maps on an equitable basis. How that might affect socioeconomic balance and educational opportunity in the district is an open question.

The ICCSD administration is scheduled to present revised maps at the July 8 school board meeting, with another round of “community engagement” slated for August and September. The school board plans to discuss and adopt maps for the 2015-16 school year on September 9.

David V. Henderson lives and writes in Iowa City. 


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