Martin Luther King Day and Dillon’s Rule

One of the great things about Iowa City is that people are willing to comment about issues that are important to them. The Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) decision to hold classes on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day this year generated extensive public comment against holding school on MLK Day. Interestingly, Superintendent Steve Murley cited Dillon’s Rule as a reason why school could not be cancelled this year. I’m skeptical. After all, the Des Moines school district reversed itself on an earlier calendar decision to use MLK Day as a weather make-up day last school year following public outcry. (See

School districts in Iowa are governed by Dillon’s Rule, which essentially means districts have powers expressly granted to them under Iowa statutes and powers that are needed to exercise these express powers.  Dillon’s Rule comes to us from a remarkable long deceased former Iowa Judge Dillon.  Among his writings, one can see that Judge Dillon was against municipalities being able to burden persons or property with taxes absent statutory authority.  I do not believe that he ever wrote about school calendars.

A public policy benefit of Dillon’s Rule is that it helps prevent local governments from engaging in corrupt actions by discouraging rogue actions.   If you were raised in Illinois like I was or are from Governor Christie’s state, you probably understand what this means.  My opinion is that amending a calendar to cancel school on MLK Day would not be corrupt.

Oddly, Dillon’s Rule was not brought up in 2012 when ICCSD Superintendent Murley’s administration had a policy (since revised following complaints) to guarantee open enrollment into West, Northwest, and Borlaug schools to purchasers of certain Cardinal Ridge lots in the Clear Creek Amana School District even though there is no state statute authorizing school districts to guarantee open enrollment to anyone and even though there is a statutory process for changing school boundary lines that was not followed. It appeared to me ICCSD attempted to enact a de facto boundary change without going through proper statutory channels. When I asked the Iowa’s Department of Education (IDOE) about this, below is the response I received. 

Hi Mary,

Please consult the local school board attorney or a local school attorney on these local issues.  The department does not get involved in local issues.

Thank you again for your inquiry,

Nicole M. Proesch


Nicole M. Proesch

Legal Counsel

Office of the Director

Iowa Department of Education

I did not agree with the IDOE’s legal counsel; however, the IDOE’s position is clear that it stays out of local issues [and apparently especially those with political undertones]. In my opinion, the school calendar is unique to a school district and inherently local, which remains the case even if the board has submitted the calendar to the IDOE for approval. While the IDOE understandably concerns itself when school starts and the amount of time students spend in schools (281 IAC 12.1(7)), I have never seen an IDOE official get excited about whether a school holds school on MLK Day.

The Iowa legislature does recognize that the requirement to have school for a minimum period of time over the school year sometimes creates problems for graduating seniors and permits an excuse from this requirement due to weather (see Iowa Code §279). Assuming that there are no other exceptions than the common one cited is ridiculous.  For example, a district might cancel school due to a heinous crime. 

Schools have a fair amount of power under Iowa law.  For example:

Each school district shall continue a body politic as a school corporation, unless changed as provided by law, and as such may sue and be sued, hold property, and exercise all the powers granted by law, and shall have exclusive jurisdiction in all school matters over the territory therein contained. (Iowa Code §274.1).

School boards have power also. 

The board shall make rules for its own government and that of the directors, officers, employees, teachers and pupils, and for the care of the schoolhouse, grounds, and property of the school corporation, and shall aid in the enforcement of the rules, and require the performance of duties imposed by law and the rules.  **** (Iowa Code §279.8).

I’m unconvinced Dillon’s rule would prohibit the ICCSD from amending its calendar to provide a holiday on MLK day. I don’t believe there was ill intent in attempting to schedule activities on MLK day, and there may well be valid reasons for leaving the calendar in place—e.g., it may be difficult for high schools to reschedule graduation ceremonies and still get the required amount of time in for graduating seniors and a forum large enough to hold graduates and their families. Why not cite this as the reason?

If I assume for a moment that Mr. Murley was correct and Dillon’s Rule actually does prohibit the district from cancelling school on MLK Day, I believe that school could still have been cancelled. After all, what government bureaucrat wants to have his or her name associated with requiring school to be reinstated on Martin Luther King Day? This would be a political nightmare and the type of story national news media might pick up on. I cannot imagine any public official being crass enough to get after a district and its board for cancelling school on Martin Luther King Day. 

To its credit, the ICCSD seems to have recognized that many community members don’t want to have school on MLK Day and consequently it will be cancelled in the future. Out of this, the school board and its head administrator will also seek more community input.  For that, I thank the district. 

For some more information about the Des Moines School District and MLK Day, see

For some more explanation about Dillon’s Rule see the following links (and you can find others online). 

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