School board decision a victory for students, community


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West High students Josh Fortman, Alex Spragle, and Kevin Lam don’t usually attend School Board meetings, but on Tuesday evening, they joined the crowd spilling out the doors at the Iowa City School District’s administration building to show support for their teachers and their programs. The board eventually voted on the budget issue that drew the large crowd: whether to slash teaching positions to compensate for budget shortfalls.

The board’s vote to reserve 3 percent for the unallocated, unobligated funds instead of 5 percent as a way of freeing up money, instead of terminating positions and programs, does Iowa City’s schools a great service — and it’s in part thanks to an engaged community.

Iowa City public-school students, parents, administrators, and teachers came together at the Tuesday School Board meeting and made the right decision to defend the quality of education in their city.

Fortman, Spragle, and Lam are all involved in arts programs at West High, programs that are perpetually first in line on the chopping block during budget crises. They and their peers, some of whom spoke before the board, should be commended for their efforts in preventing cuts in the classroom.

The potential cuts are not a response to local phenomenon; rather, they were guaranteed by Gov. Terry Branstad when he chose to cut business taxes in half. The revenue lost in Branstad’s budget was paid for partially by cuts to education budgets, including allowing zero growth in Iowa City’s public schools’ budget. Next year, the School District will have zero allowable growth in its budget, which is the cause of the projected budget shortfall. “Every year, regardless of state funding, our costs go up 4 percent,” said school Superintendent Steven Murley. That means that the loss in funding from the state has to be absorbed somewhere, and it was looking like the cost of putting more money in the pockets of corporations was 22 teaching positions in Iowa City.

Although the district has to respond to the financial reality, cutting teachers is the wrong option. Teaching is a job that requires enormous dedication and skill, and it is impossible to replace the effects of a passionate teacher in an adolescent’s life. The speakers and supporters who attended the meeting helped to accentuate this. Students stood at the podium and talked about the effects larger class sizes have had on their educational experience; teachers spoke about how difficult it is to be forced to educate larger and larger numbers of students. One teacher from City High talked about numerous classes containing an excess of 33 students.

Murley proposed a different option Monday that would allow the district to keep teachers in Iowa City classrooms. Under Murley’s proposal, 3 percent of the budget for the 2011-2012 school year would be designated for the district’s savings account, a “rainy-day fund.” This would be a 2 percent decrease from the usual amount allocated, which would give the district an additional $2.4 million.

Along with several million dollars available for the School District’s use from stimulus and EDJOBS funding, the proposed budget alternative enables the district to avoid wildly wielding the ax, chopping at the quality of Iowa City’s classrooms.

To prevent this from happening, students at both City and West High organized on Facebook and staged a letter-writing campaign, circulated a petition, protested, wrote opinions for local papers, and created online videos that showed the power of citizens engaged in civil society.

For now, in spite of a shortsighted governor with misplaced priorities, the teachers, parents, students, and administrators of Iowa City took a large step forward in protecting Iowa City education. The next challenge is for that progress to continue.

A possible next step? Encouraging the state government to keep education a priority.

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