Iowa City schools to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday

District cites "Dillon's rule" in decision to not cancel

March 29, 2014 | 1:00 am

Iowa City Community School District students will spend the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in their classrooms.

During a meeting Tuesday evening, Superintendent Stephen Murley announced that correspondence from the Iowa Department of Education showed that the school board does not have the authority to cancel classes on Jan. 20, 2014, the federal observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service.

Citing the fact that Iowa school districts operate under Dillon’s Rule, which means that they only authorized to do that which state law explicitly allows, Murley said the department communicated that nothing in state law allows a district to alter its current calendar once the school board and department have approved it.

“We presumed there was a mechanism in place to change the calendar,” the superintendent said. “Honestly, I think the (department) was as surprised as we were.”

The information arose in exchanges between the district and the department in order to find out the process to potentially cancel school on the Dr. King holiday, following community criticism of the 2013-14 calendar which includes holding classes on Jan. 20.

The news did not receive a positive reception from some of the approximately 20 community members who attended the meeting.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Iowa City resident Royceann Porter, who has been vocal about the issue in the past but did not speak at Tuesday’s meeting out of fear she’d say the wrong thing. “There’s no excuse. It could’ve been done.”

Porter is a member of the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice and does work with the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. Representatives from both groups attended Tuesday’s meeting and were among the 10 or so individuals who voiced concern during time set aside for public comment.

Many of the speakers, who took to the microphone following Murley’s announcement that class would be in session on Jan. 20, expressed disappointment. Some residents questioned the whether the district had to obey the department while others encouraged the school board to still move forward and cancel classes on the Dr. King holiday.

The district has come into conflict with the department before; earlier this year when the board approved its plan to more evenly distribute among schools the district’s population of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

“We can’t go against an Iowa law,” said Board Vice President Marla Swesey, who called the Dr. King Day situation “a real sticky wicket” for the district. “It wouldn’t be the right time to buck the (Iowa Department of Education) with the diversity policy or they’ll be watching us even closer.”

“I think that the board and superintendent could’ve done more,” said Alecia Brooks, a Coralville resident and Coalition for Racial Justice member who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting but did not encourage the school board to ignore the Iowa Department of Education. “I sincerely hope, since they are holding school on Martin Luther King Day that they do teach that message and they do reinforce the importance of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Because the Iowa City district’s calendar does not include inclement weather make-up days throughout the year but rather at the end, Murley said the school board can’t use a snow day to keep students out of school on Jan. 20. In early 2013, public outcry led the Des Moines Public Schools’ school board to cancel a weather make-up day scheduled for the Dr. King holiday.

“We don’t have the right to declare a day an inclement weather day unless there is inclement weather,” Murley said.

Following discussion and further public comments, board members voted 4-2 to designate a board liaison to community committees. Absent Tuyet Dorau, the board unanimously appointed members Jeff McGinness and Brian Kirschling to serve in these roles. They will attend meetings with the Coalition for Racial Justice and the Center for Worker Justice and report to the board at least once each quarter.

McGinness linked the importance of the positions to the controversy over the district’s handling of Dr. King Day, and he and his board peers failed to engage with the black community on the issue.

“I think we need to at this point make a better effort at doing that in the future,” he said. “I think this is avenue we should explore, that we haven’t explored.”

Patti Fields and Board President Sally Hoelscher voted against creating the liaison positions, which are an attempt to improve outreach between the board and certain underserved constituencies in the district.

“I am wary of beginning to appoint liaisons to every community organization that asks us to,” Hoelscher said, noting that members of the aforementioned groups as well as all in the community are welcome to contact board members and attend board meetings.

The school board has already voted to recommend that the calendar committee not schedule classes on Dr. King Day from 2015 onward, but that’s not enough for at least one community member.

“Moving forward should be 2014, not 2015,” Porter said.

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