Iowa City School Board officials defend diversity policy


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Despite concern from the state Education Department, Iowa City School District officials defend their stance on the hot-button diversity policy currently before the School Board.

In a letter obtained by The Daily Iowan, Iowa City School District Superintendent Steve Murley was informed Jan. 31 about the Iowa Department of Education’s concerns with the proposed diversity policy.

Specifically, the Education Department determined that the district’s plan to use free and reduced-price meal eligibility data is illegal.

“It’s perfectly fine for school districts to use that data internally, but they cannot use it in a way that potentially identifies students …” Staci Hupp, the department’s director of communication, wrote in an email. “The risk in Iowa City’s proposal was that it uses the data to physically move students to particular schools.”

The diversity policy currently before the School Board seeks to better distribute students who participate in free- and reduced-lunch programs in the district. The diversity policy defines minorities as “students who are receiving free or reduced-price lunches offered under the district’s nutrition program” and the non-minority students as those not receiving them.

School Board Vice President Karla Cook said the district has no plans at this time to revise the current policy, but shecautioned that such changes can be adjusted or changed in some way in the future if needed.

“It’s my feeling that the letter we got from the state of Iowa doesn’t really apply to our policy,” she said. “We had attorneys set the policy in December. We’ve established aggregate and average free and reduce numbers, and I don’t think we want to target individual students based on their free and reduced lunch status. I’m sort of scratching my head on this.”

Calls made to the Department of Education Director Jason Glass for comment were not returned Sunday evening.

The most recent vote on the diversity policy passed 4-3 at the last School Board meeting.
Iowa City city councilors endorsed the policy as well, passing a resolution at their meeting on Jan. 22.

The letter to Murley, written by Ann Feilmann, the department’s bureau chief of nutrition and health services, indicates that department officials met Jan. 15 to review the district’s plans.

“Additional review has determined that the plan would not be in compliance with the regulations covering the release of student fee or reduced status,” Fieilmann said.

Department officials are asking the School Board to revise the plan to “remove all reference to the free or reduced eligibility status.”

Feilmann cited Section 9(b)(6) of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which limits the amount of information schools can release without prior parental notice or consent.

“Local education programs are not approved to receive individual information unless there has been prior parental notice and consent,” the letter went on to say.

Hupp indicated that the department’s concerns with the policy do not necessarily mean the proposal is a no-go.

“We are confident that the School District can make adjustments to its plan using different economic indicators, but those decisions would need to be made locally,” she said.

School Board member Sarah Swisher said that the district has no intentions in looking at a child’s free-or-reduced lunch status to determine what they could or could not do in regards to school activities, and she said the current policy is in no violation of a child’s privacy.

“I don’t see how you could be in violation of federal law when federal law itself measures aggregate and average free and reduced status in buildings and districts,” she said.

Metro Editor Kristen East contributed to this story.

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