IOWA CITY — Patti Fields has been stopped about it at the grocery store, Marla Swesey while sweltering in the receiving line at a recent outdoor retirement party and Jeff McGinness in spin class at the gym.
The topic that people keep bringing up with these and other Iowa City school board members is whether another high school should be opened.
“There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t have at least one person tugging on my ear to talk to me about what they perceive as the best decision for this district,” said McGinness, adding that people also share their opinions with his wife.
With the school board reconsidering a past commitment to eventually build a new high school, the advocacy has been intense in recent months.
There have been speakers at school board meetings, email messages, phone calls and even petitions.
North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm sent a formal letter to the school board calling for a new high school in or near the town. Elected officials in other communities — the district covers Iowa City, North Liberty, Coralville, University Heights and Hills — also have made their feelings known.
The district has two comprehensive high schools: City High in eastern Iowa City and West High on the other side of town.
While many Iowa school systems have been losing students, enrollment in the Iowa City school district has been growing, surpassing 12,400 students last school year. Much of that growth has occurred in Coralville and North Liberty. As a result, West High has been above its capacity in recent years, while City High has room to spare.
In 2010, the school board voted in support of building a new high school, likely in the North Liberty area, when certain enrollment numbers were hit and the district had the money to pay for a building. An enrollment report this spring showed those “trigger points,” as they are known, are near. But whether those are the appropriate numbers is now in dispute, as is the whole idea of whether a new school is needed in the near future.
The school board is divided on the issue, and some board members have inquired about other options. That’s frustrating for Tuyet Dorau, one of three members from the 2010 school board who are still serving.
“What’s the point of long-term planning if in two years a new board gets elected and throws out everything?” she said.
The community also is split.
There is a strong contingent of North Liberty parents, and some from Coralville, calling for a new school as soon as possible primarily because of overcrowding at West. “Let’s rock and roll. Let’s do it,” Jennifer Greer, a North Liberty mother of three, said at a June school board meeting.
Other parents, often from the City High area, argue open space at City should be used before building new. They also say a new east-side elementary school is a bigger priority.
Administrators say elementary schools are needed in Iowa City and North Liberty. But the district does not have the money to build two elementary schools and a high school.
Dan Shaw of Iowa City, who has two children, circulated a petition in March calling on the district to build an east Iowa City elementary school. He points to the local-option sales tax for school projects voters approved in 2007 as part of the reason for the current dissension.
School officials said at the time that the $102 million over 10 years the tax was projected to generate could go toward several building projects, including new elementary schools and a high school.
“I think people felt like they were promised something, whereas the conditions (enrollment increases) that have come along since then have made it very challenging to deliver on those ‘promises,’” Shaw said.
The cities have gotten involved, too, like with the North Liberty letter.
Mitch Gross, a Coralville City Council member. as well as a West High teacher and parent, said he’s shared with school board members his belief that the status quo cannot continue given the growth in Coralville and North Liberty. He also believes it is easier for a community to rally around one high school.
Iowa City Council member Jim Throgmorton said he didn’t like that Iowa City residents were helping to “subsidize” new Coralville and North Liberty schools with their property taxes “while we’re seeing our older schools be allowed to deteriorate.”
Swesey, the school board president, said she appreciates the input from the public and finds that it’s a vocal minority who take a parochial perspective, creating a sense of an east-west divide in the community.
Board members said that because school decisions involve parents concerned about their kids’ educations, emotion often is involved, but they’ll be guided by facts.
“Emotions are tied to it, but the decisions cannot be made on emotions,” Fields said.
Board members are weighing a request from Superintendent Stephen Murley to hire consultants to provide enrollment and building capacity data. Swesey expects the issue to be discussed again at an August meeting.
It’s not clear when the board will decide what it wants to do on the high school question.