Faced with bulging high-school enrollment, board considers expanding, redrawing districts

BY DAVID GREEN | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

More kids need more space. More space needs money to build. There’s the rub.

With the Iowa City School Board having to cut $6 million from the budget, the question of how and when to approach these issues has become a hot topic in the community.

The board hasn’t voted on the issue and hasn’t set a timeline, but it expressed support for the High School Enrollment Task Force’s revised recommendations, released June 30. The task force expressed openness to the possibility of a new school — when there are enough students to occupy it — and to boundary changes.

“[The School Board] has to make a tough decision,” said Cheryl Richmond, the treasurer of the Districtwide Parents’ Organization.

According to the High School Forum Presentation, West High, 2901 Melrose Ave., has a capacity of 1,800, and a student population that is projected to rise as high as 2,000 by 2012.

School Board member Gayle Klouda said that based on input she’s received, an “overwhelming” majority of community members support the idea of a new high school.

However, she noted, the future is still unclear due to financial constraints. The cost of building and operating a new high school mean it won’t be a reality for “another five years or so,” she said.

Furthermore, it would be “foolhardy” to guess a definite date for the project simply based on projected student population, she said.

“[Student-population] projections are just projections, after all,” Klouda said.

But some are feeling the crunch already. Richmond’s daughter, who attends West High, has told her many students bring their own lunch because of overcrowding in the lunchroom.

Speaking as a parent, Richmond expressed concerns with the possible plans. If the district were to have “three medium schools instead of two large ones,” it would be much more challenging to offer special programs such as Honors and Advanced Placement courses.

But keeping two schools may not be a perfect solution either.

“I don’t think that just adding onto West will solve some of those issues [with the core facilities],” Richmond said.

Klouda agreed that adding onto West was not ideal.

“People don’t want the high schools to be much bigger than they are,” she said. “Before we get to the point of opening a new high school, we have to find some other way to hold these kids.”

Adjusting the school populations with boundary changes could help, and Klouda also mentioned the possibility of moving some high-school students into North Central and Northwest Junior High Schools. If approved, the move would occur after redrawing the boundaries.

But boundary redrawing can be a volatile issue.

“Changing boundaries is a political hot potato,” Richmond said. “No one wants to be the one who is moved, but they’re going to have to address it sooner rather than later.”

Superintendent Lane Plugge is scheduled to present plans for possible boundary changes at the next school board meeting on July 14.

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