Iowa City schools revenue vote passes despite controversy over diversity policy

Only Coralville and Hills precincts voted no; school board also approves diversity policy

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March 28, 2014 | 11:02 am

IOWA CITY – In the end, the geographic divisions in the Iowa City school district and accusations of a lack of details were not enough to defeat a request for $100 million for building projects.

In a special election Tuesday, voters approved the district’s request for a new revenue purpose statement, or RPS, by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

The RPS received majority support from nine of 11 precincts, according to results from the Johnson County Auditor’s Office. Only Hills and Coralville voted against it, and Coralville just by 16 votes.

Click here to view a precinct by precinct map of the results

The RPS determines how the district spends sales tax revenue. Tuesday’s vote will allow the district to borrow on up to $100 million in future sales tax money.

School officials made a big push for the RPS, and many people agreed that the district needs the funds to build new schools and to make renovations. The outcome was perhaps more in doubt than otherwise would have been expected after a series of disputes in recent years, most recently over a diversity policy the school board adopted Tuesday night.

Many of those issues – including the debate over whether to build a new high school, redistricting in 2010 and the 2009 decision to close Roosevelt Elementary – have further driven a wedge between the east and west sides of the district.

The RPS did get its strongest support from central and eastern Iowa City neighborhoods, but North Liberty also went for it, 58 percent to 42 percent.

There was some talk, particularly in North Liberty and Coralville, of the RPS vote being a referendum on the diversity policy.

Superintendent Stephen Murley said he was happy the diversity policy debate did not lead to the defeat of the RPS.

“Fifty-six to 44 (percent), I’m pleased with that margin,” he said.

School board member Jeff McGinness said that while he was glad the RPS received broad support, it fell short of the 67 percent approval garnered by the school infrastructure local-option sales tax vote in 2007, which was a countywide election.

“If you look at it that way, we actually lost ground,” he said.

The school board voted 4-3 Tuesday night in favor of adopting the diversity policy.  It will use free or reduced-price lunch rates to try to achieve better socioeconomic balance across the district’s schools and sets capacity requirements on secondary schools.

The Iowa Department of Education said last week the diversity policy would violate federal law on the use of free/reduced-lunch data, but the school district’s attorney disagreed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture told The Gazette on Tuesday that the policy would violate the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which it said prevents “the disclosure of this data for placement purposes by local school districts without prior parental consent.”

On the RPS, some opponents said there wasn’t enough detail on how the district would spend the money. Although the district released a spreadsheet in December listing specific projects and costs on things like new schools, building additions and repairs, the district is awaiting two consultants’ reports on enrollment projections and building capacities. A long-term facilities plan won’t be done until those studies are complete.

Parent Phil Hemingway of Iowa City, a member of the People for All committee opposing the RPS, said it was a mistake for the school board to hold the election before those reports were done.

“We’re not making data-related decisions,” he said. “We’re making decisions putting out fires for different constituents and different factions in our district to keep them appeased.”

Jean Jordison of Iowa City, a member of the committee advocating for the RPS, One District Yes, said she thought people voted for the RPS because they trusted that they would have input in the district’s plans, recognized the “desperate needs of many schools in our district” and trusted that the board would support the diversity.

Turnout was 8 percent, with 6,079 votes cast. Turnout in the 2007 SILO vote was 15.5 percent. Results are unofficial until the canvass of votes Feb. 11.

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