Cities seen as key in Iowa City schools' diversity debate

Critics: Poor planning has worsened disparity of distict poverty rates

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March 28, 2014 | 10:55 am

IOWA CITY – Opinions are mixed on the Iowa City school district’s proposed diversity policy, but one thing many people agree on is that city governments have a role to play in the issue.

The diversity policy would try to even out poverty rates between the district’s schools. Currently, there is a large disparity as measured by free or reduced-price lunch rates, and that to a large degree is a reflection of the neighborhoods in which students live.

Some people say the cities in the school district — Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, University Heights and Hills — not only should help with the problem but are to blame.

“Oh, yeah, there’s no question,” said Rod Sullivan, an Iowa City parent and member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. “Good planning is critical.”

That planning has been lacking, he said, leading to pockets of low-income housing.

The diversity policy has the support of a slim majority of the school board and is scheduled for a final vote on Feb. 5. On Thursday, however, the Iowa Department of Education said the policy as written would violate federal law.

The policy could be revised and still have a similar effect, the state said. And no matter what happens, there will continue to be calls to address the location of low-income housing.

Such a concentration of low-income is most evident in southeast Iowa City, where the two elementary schools there have the highest free or reduced-price lunch rates in the district. Also, South East Junior High has a higher rate than the other two junior high schools, and City High, in eastern Iowa City, has more poor students than West High.

The Iowa City Council two years ago adopted a model that prevents city-controlled money from going to rental housing projects that include new construction or property acquisition in areas where there already is a concentration of low-income housing.

Student mobility rates, standardized test scores and free or reduced-price lunch rates are among the data used by the model. The result is much of the southeast side is closed to that money.

City officials say the model has worked well and has attracted interest from communities nationwide. But the amount of money available for housing is less than $1 million a year. And Sec. 8 housing and privately owned housing are not subject to the policy.

“I don’t see the amount of funds we get having a huge dent on what the school district would like to see accomplished,” said Tracy Hightshoe, Iowa City’s community development planner.

Housing issues

City Council member Jim Throgmorton wants the city to do more. The professor emeritus of urban and regional planning said to blame the city is to misunderstand the issue. It’s the private sector regional housing market that is the primary force, he said. Affecting that are the cities’ zoning rules, transportation decisions and tax incentives, he said.

He wants the Iowa City Council to discuss how it could help the school district achieve better socioeconomic balance. He has asked colleagues in his field for information on affordable housing.

Throgmorton is not committed to anything yet, but said programs that would either encourage or require the construction of affordable housing are possibilities.

One of those is known as inclusionary zoning, which would require builders to include a certain number of affordable homes in new developments. A divided City Council chose not to pursue that in 2010.

Jerry Anthony, a University of Iowa professor of urban and regional planning who studies affordable housing, said that was a mistake because inclusionary zoning is one of the best ways to better distribute affordable housing.

The private sector has proved it won’t do this on its own, he said.

“I think cities bear a great deal of responsibility because cities control the location of where housing that is affordable to low-income people gets built,” he said.

This is seen as a regional issue, not an Iowa City one. Kirkwood Elementary in Coralville has the third-highest poverty rate among district schools, for example.

Iowa City school board member Jeff McGinness wants the communities in the school district to develop a regional housing plan.

“There’s got to be some meaningful regulation of growth, and some meaningful regulation of some of our low-income housing,” he said.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen. A countywide committee in 2010 recommended a regional approach to affordable housing but said individual communities ultimately are responsible for themselves. The committee’s top three recommendations have not been implemented to any significant degree. The committee chose unanimously not to recommend mandatory inclusionary zoning.

North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar said this week that he thinks there are some regional concepts that would be worth exploring, but he doubts any city would want to give another city a say in its housing decisions.

“At the end of the day, we’re all hired ... and elected ... to do what’s best for the community,” he said.

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said these are long-standing issues that cannot be changed in a short period of time.

“Unfortunately, there’s not real-simple answers,” he said.

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