Records show behind-the-scenes work on Iowa City schools' diversity policy

237 pages were provided to The Gazette under Iowa’s open records law

Gregg Hennigan
Published: January 29 2013 | 6:03 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:42 am in
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IOWA CITY – Hundreds of people have attended public meetings regarding the Iowa City school district’s controversial diversity policy proposal, but a lot of action also is going on behind the scenes, records show.

Officials from the school district and the cities of Coralville, North Liberty and Iowa City have sent and received hundreds of emails to each other on the diversity policy in the past two months, according to documents provided to The Gazette under Iowa’s open records law.

The documents, totaling 237 pages, do not provide any explicit examples of political pressure being exerted on the school district, but schools Superintendent Stephen Murley said in an interview that he has spoken with elected and appointed officials in the district’s three largest cities: Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty.

“They’ve shared pros and cons, things that they like and don’t like,” he said.

The diversity policy would require more socioeconomic balance between schools. It also sets capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools.

The policy has been generally popular in eastern Iowa City, where several of the schools with the highest poverty rates are located, and unpopular in Coralville and North Liberty, were the belief is their students will be sent to new schools and a new high school those communities want will be delayed.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange in the documents was between Murley and Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek on Jan. 2. Murley said that a community member claimed Hayek had told her that the city would not support the Feb. 5 special school election on a new Revenue Purpose Statement that would let the district borrow ahead up to $100 million in sales tax revenue. Murley reported that the woman said the city wanted the diversity policy to be approved prior to that vote.

Board members supportive of the diversity policy later said they wanted the final vote on the policy before Feb. 5, but public outcry caused them to pull back.

Hayek replied to Murley that he told the woman that the city considers the diversity policy important to school district planning and for neighborhood stabilization in Iowa City.

Murley told The Gazette that no Iowa City Council member or official has ever suggested there was a quid pro quo regarding the diversity policy and city support for the RPS, as the Revenue Purpose Statement is commonly called.

“I never felt any pressure from them,” he said.

Hayek, in an email message to The Gazette, said much the same.

“As you know, we endorsed the RPS prior to adoption of the diversity policy,” he wrote. “Ideally the diversity policy would have passed before council adoption of a resolution supporting the RPS. When it became apparent this would not happen, the council chose to proceed with endorsement of the RPS.”

The City Council last week approved a resolution supporting the RPS and the diversity policy.

The Jan. 2 email made its way west, with Coralville City Council member Bill Hoeft writing of Hayek, “This guy is something else!” in a Jan. 3 email to three other council members.

Hoeft said in an interview that in his three years on council, he’s never had any issue draw as much of a response as the diversity policy, and he believes that’s because it involves people’s children.

The North Liberty and Coralville emails show a group of parents were sharing information and thoughts on their opposition to the diversity policy with each other and Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth. He forwarded some of those to North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar.

The documents also reveal that Murley asked city officials about their use of law enforcement at city council meetings. Though his email referenced the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, Murley said in an interview his inquiry was in response to a specific incident at a public meeting on the diversity policy when a person made a comment overheard by other people about something potentially happening at a board meeting.

Two non-uniformed police officers were at the school board’s Jan. 15 meeting at which the diversity policy was voted on. There were no problems at that meeting.

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