ICCSD’s Isolation Boxes

The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) does many things well; however, the Iowa Department of Education Accreditation Final Report Iowa City School District  (Report), an audit of ICCSD’s provision of special education services, highlighted the need for improvement, including services related to student Behavior Intervention Plans.

With regard to behavior interventions, ICCSD board member, Chris Liebig, has written about ICCSD’s use of isolation boxes here and his post entitled Dismantle the boxes includes links to the articles written by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids’ newspaper). I would encourage readers to read board member Liebig’s blog post and The Gazette articles he links to.

ICCSD’s board’s December 13, 2016 Work Session Agenda  includes a spreadsheet describing and detailing ICCSD’s reported isolation boxes (see here and referenced as “timeout rooms” in this attachment) along with three additional documents on the same topic (including two documents contributed by board member Phil Hemingway from a constituent). For added support for Mr. Liebig’s position, consider the following quotation from the Report that some of ICCSD behavior “treatment procedures” made behavior worse. These findings speak for themselves and deserve immediate further attention and researched-based child-centered solutions. Thanks to board member Liebig for following up on the use of isolation boxes and for bringing them to the board’s attention and to board member Phil Hemingway also.

The team reviewed 50 IEPs that contained behavioral intervention plans. No discernable Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) was found for 29 of these (58%), substandard FBAs for another 7 (14%) and minimally adequate to moderate adequacy for another 14 (28%). Most of the Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) reviewed did contain at least one behavior of concern that related to observable events that were measurable. Most of the BIPs reviewed also contained research – based functions identified (i.e., escape, attention, etc.), however, in several instances the treatment procedures that were associated with the BIP would tend to reinforce the identified problematic behaviors. This disconnect is likely to lead to the increased risk of restrictive procedures. (Emphasis added.) (Report pp. 17-18).
Posted in Accreditation Report, Board, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, isolation box, Special Education, Special Education Accreditation Report, Time out room, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Free and Reduced Lunch Data & ICCSD

Who are these free and reduced lunch (FRL) households? Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) FRL data has been bandied about as board candidates and voters discuss whether to bus students to achieve more socioeconomic balance.

To put FRL data into perspective, a household’s eligibility for FRL is not always synonymous with poverty because some households eligible for FRL have incomes above the federal poverty level. See here.

To see free and reduced lunch guidelines for the 2016-2017 school year, see page 3 at this link and also see here.

2016-2017 free and reduced lunch

FRL Income Eligibility Guidelines for 2016-2017 School Year for 48 Contiguous States

Households can qualify for free lunch  if their household income does not exceed 130% of the federal poverty guidelines. So a family of four could make up to $31,590 annually.

Households can qualify for reduced lunch if their household income does not exceed 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. So family of four can make up to $44,955 annually and qualify for reduced lunch.

Sometimes all students in a particular school will receive free breakfast and lunch.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) …allows schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students….(See here.)

Homeless “children [are] automatically eligible for free meals or free milk.” (See here on pages 7-8 & 15.)

To put ICCSD’s FRL data into even more perspective, here is a link to the Johnson County Iowa Area Median Income Guidelines. So a family of four with a household income of $44,995 annually (the highest income a four person household could have and still qualify for reduced lunch) would be very near the bottom of the third quartile for the area median income in Johnson County, Iowa. Many local FRL households would be in the bottom quartile of Johnson County’s area median income.

A single parent who went back to school and became a new teacher in ICCSD and had three children with no other household income would have children who would qualify for FRL. Undoubtedly, a lot of FRL families have parents who work part or full time or perhaps are retirees living on a limited income or are disabled.

Schools’ participation in the National School Lunch Program is 1) necessary to help ensure hunger is not a barrier to learning, and 2) brings money into states and their school districts. See here and below.

Reimbursement FRL

2015-2016 “Payments to States and School Food Authorities” under the National School Lunch Program

There are likely many reasons FRL participation rates are increasing nationally, including that 1) schools have done a better job with public outreach and of identifying and getting eligible families to apply,  especially during the recession, 2) the application is more family friendly, and 3) the application is in many languages.

School board candidate, J.P. Claussen, pointed out that ICCSD’s high schools’ average FRL rate [31.2%] was below its average elementary rate [37.7%], and ICCSD’s own enrollment report (page 27) shows this to be so. As families age, incomes sometimes grow so that households may lose their eligibility for FRL over time. Also local demographics are changing, and the University of Iowa’s enrollment is increasing, which may result in more young parents with lower household incomes.

With ICCSD’s FRL rates among schools ranging from <10% to >70%, more balance among  schools would be desirable. To create more flexibility in school assignments, roads and rivers, absent compelling reasons otherwise, should not be used as artificial boundary lines. Additionally, now is the time to discuss whether additional balance could be achieved if junior highs were not strictly aligned to high schools and to take the next step toward enriched programming or magnet schools to drive some school choice. Whether ICCSD utilizes bussing as a strategy or not, ICCSD can do better.


Posted in ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

State Special Education Report of ICCSD Profoundly Disturbing

Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD’s) founded  and repeated failures to comply with special education law is a civil rights issue. The redacted Iowa Department of Education Accreditation Final Report Iowa City School District dated June 13, 2016 (Report) is profoundly disturbing, especially in its description of ICCSD’s noncompliance areas as “systemic” and its findings as “pervasive and substantive” (Report p. 32).

This Report is not an indictment of staff, teachers, paraprofessionals, and concerned Board members, all of whom the Report noted are a strength of the district (Report p. 5). Under its policy governance model, ICCSD’s board can hold one employee accountable–the superintendent. Good governance starts at the top.

Iowa City CSD educational staff are committed to providing the best educational services they can for learners in the Iowa City CSD. District procedures and practices, however, hinder their abilities to provide those services. This was evidenced by interviews as well as a large number of violations. (Report p. 32)

ICCSD board member, Phil Hemingway, was right when he expressed his concern that the district “lawyered up” instead of just complying. The solution is to comply.

A child with a disability often has many barriers to learning,  and the percentage of special education students who qualify for free and reduced lunch is likely higher than ICCSD’s overall percentage of 35.7%. Children with disabilities are a vulnerable population.

Among other requirements, the law  is clear parents are entitled to participate in meetings about and be involved in placement decisions concerning their child with a disability. Further, schools must provide prior written notice to parents before changing that same child’s Individual Education Program (IEP). Failure to comply with the law can result in a child not receiving services he or she is legally entitled to as each eligible child with a disability is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

One of the responsibilities of the implementation advisor will be to ensure that the district understands the substantive nature of the violations (Report p.7).

ICCSD’s recent enrollment report on page 44 shows over one thousand (>1,000) students are enrolled in special  education or about 9.4% of its weighted enrollment. State auditors did not audit each IEP.

The Report shows that the Grant Wood Area Education Association had initially identified 105 IEPs for children where new IEP meetings were required. [T]he Department of Education reviewed an additional random sample of 50 IEPs for compliance.  In those IEPs, 68 additional individual citations were identified (Report p. 7). Not good.

Eleven (11) pages of the Report addressed ICCSD’s special education Finance Status (Report pp. 21-31), including that ICCSD incurred the largest deficit in the state, exceeding those of the next highest district by over $1.2 million each year (Report p. 21) and that additional training is needed to ensure proper account coding (Report p. 30). So there may be financial repercussions that negatively impact ICCSD’s general fund although ICCSD may be able to claim additional reimbursement from Medicaid (Report p. 25).

ICCSD’s corporate culture did not escape rebuke (Report pp. 8-9).

Additionally, numerous interviewees described the district culture as “retaliatory.”  Several people interviewed expressed reluctance to express opinions or make requests that were known to be different than those of district administration.  We encourage the district to reflect on the message and method of communication to staff and effect on the district culture.

ICCSD’s Superintendent Stephen Murley noted this concern in this news report .

Murley said the district also plans to address those issues.

“Part of our concern is where that is coming from,” Murley said. “That may be very localized at a building level so we’ll be looking to see where that’s happening so we can correct that.”

If retaliation is occurring, it could be in contravention of ICCSD’s Superintendent Directions in its School Board Policies, which provide as follows:

The Superintendent shall (LEVEL 3b):
2. Allow any staff member to express an ethical dissent, without consequence. (Board Policy 401.1)
3. Allow staff members to communicate with Board members, either individually or as a Board, with regard to any matter, especially any assertions that board policies have been violated or that those policies do not adequately protect their human rights. (Board Policy 104, 401.1)
4. Inform staff of their rights under this policy. (Board policy 401.1)


Retaliation may also be illegal (see here and #6 here).

ICCSD must comply and audit compliance. Corrective measures must have credibility to be successful. Since these problems arose under the superintendent’s watch, Mr. Murley is not the proper party to further investigate or oversee  corrective action. Independent and transparent oversight is necessary. The state required “implementation advisor” (Report pp. 7-8), should report independently and publicly to the entire board at each future meeting.

Educating all children, including those with disabilities, is equitable and right, and these children deserve no less.

Posted in Board, General Fund, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Murley, Retaliation, Special Education, Special Education Accreditation Report, Superintendent, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Iowa City’s Gateway Project and its Growing Impact on Property Taxes

Iowa City’s Gateway Project cost estimate has escalated astronomically since 2009. The estimate for fiscal year 2011 was $32,940,000 and this year is $59,433,731. A quick glance at the picture below shows that Iowa City will spend far more than it will receive in federal grants to raise Dubuque Street to the 100 year flood level plus one foot and replace the Park Road Bridge with a new bridge built to the 200 year flood level plus 1 foot (see the Council January 21, 2014, minutes here on page 3). Further, there is no guarantee going forward that costs will not continue to increase and adversely impact Iowa City property taxes even more.

Gateway project from FY16-FY18 Fin Plan rev 160309

You can see from the above (found here on page 538) that much of the expense of this project will be the responsibility of those who pay property taxes in Iowa City, since it is these households and businesses who will bear the burden of repaying the $17.875 million in general obligation bonds. And with an Iowa City Community School District bond vote looming on the horizan, there could be a double whammy to the cost of owning property in Iowa City. Even those who rent rather than own their homes may take a hit to their pocketbooks as landlords may pass the cost of the property tax onto their tenants, and many business leases require the tenant, and not the landlord, to pay the property tax.

In addition to the above, $4.5 million of the costs of the Gateway Project will come from the Wastewater Treatment Fund. The money in this fund comes mostly from those who pay user fees. To put this amount into perspective, $4.5 million is about 35.8% of the Wastewater Charges for Fees and Services (revenues) for a year. See  on page 392 (here) under the column “2016 Revised.”

It is safe to state that, but for the federal grants (taxpayer money) and voter approval of a local option sales tax, there would be no Gateway Project. What support was there for the sales tax?–not much. Only 15.14% of Iowa City voters turned out to vote on the 1% local option sales tax on May 5, 2009, which passed with barely 50.05% of the vote (there were 7 more yes votes than no votes) and was to be 100% for remediation, repair and protection of flood impacted public infrastructure and local matching funds for dollars received from any federal or state programs to assist with flood remediation, repair and protection of flood impacted public infrastructure.

To illustrate how the projected costs of the Gateway Project have increased over time, consider previous years’ estimates.

$9,140,000 from the Iowa City July 2009 Capital Improvement Program. You can see below that raising Dubuque Street was not part of the published program (also see here on page 18).

The Gateway Project in its Infancy July 2009

The Gateway Project in its Infancy

$32,940,000 in the FY2011 Budget & FY2011-2013 Financial Plan found here on pages C-4 and C-15 (add totals for Dubuque Street Elevation and Park Road-Third Lane Improvement together).

$33,443,253 in the FY2012 Budget at this at this link on pages C-32-C-33/186/187 and shown below (add totals for Park Road-Third Lane Improvement and Iowa City Gateway Project (Dubuque St.) together.

$35,356,842 in the FY2013 Budget at this link on pages C-13-C14/463-464 (add totals for Park Road 3rd Lane Improvement and Iowa City Gateway Project together).

$40,137,858 in the FY2014 Capital Projects Fund found here on page 476/38 showing $8,680,000 in general obligation bonds (compare this smaller number to the $17,500,000 in general obligation bonds shown today).

Gateway project from FY2014 Capital Projects Fund

$51,308,434 in FY2016 Adopted Budget & FY2015-2017 Financial Plan (found here on page 533).

$59, 433,731 today.

Given the enormous increase in costs to local taxpayers of raising Dubuque Street, it is fair to ask 1) whether a scaled down project, perhaps only replacing the Park Road bridge, makes sense, 2) whether there is a better more reasonable use for the sales tax dollars, and 3) can every homeowner, business, and tenant afford the hit to their pocketbook? Surely, the enormous increase in dollar cost to the community is worthy of a follow up city council discussion, evaluation of alternatives, and vote?  After all, many communities get to vote on school bond issues smaller than the cost of the Gateway Project.


Posted in Bond, Budget, Gateway Project, Iowa City, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

If You Can’t Say Something Nice About Someone….

The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) recently launched its $107,000 ThoughtExchange program, an online communication tool by which a large number of participants can make their opinions known on various issues affecting ICCSD.1 Through ThoughtExchange, ICCSD asks participants to review and assign stars to the thoughts you value to help us [ICCSD] get a sense of the shared priorities in our schools and community. Participating stakeholders are informed of the following:

Thought Exchange City High 1A 160322

The major problem is that the “thoughts” shown on ThoughtExchange are controlled and censored by ICCSD. Indeed, the district informs participants of the following:

Thought Exchange City High 2 160322

So ICCSD does not show us critical thoughts about district officials and board members. On the other hand, complimentary thoughts about school officials are allowed.
For example, here is an example of an actual thought posted on ThoughtExchange, which illustrates that whomever submitted this thought had a positive view of  ICCSD’s Superintendent Steve Murley and two of ICCSD’s board members.


What are some things you appreciate about our school this year?


Thought Exchange City High 160322
The problem, of course, is that the district is a governmental body and public citizens have a First Amendment right to be critical, and even disparaging and rude, to and about public officials. Further, ICCSD promoted ThoughtExchange as a forum for community engagement so this censorship based upon viewpoint detracts from the robust and open discussion that should occur in a community engagement about schools. Also problematic is that the anonymous submitter of this thought could even have been one of the individuals named. This censorship of speech is an invitation to a lawsuit by a civil liberties group or others who protect First Amendment rights.
The bottom line is that removing a comment, positive or negative, about a public official or matter of public concern from a supposedly public forum is wrong.

So what should the board do about this mess? If it is too late to get our money spent on ThoughtExchange back and to instead  use the funds to better address children’s needs, the board should, at a minimum, adopt a policy and procedure to prevent the administration from curtailing or banning criticism about public officials. At the very least, the board should not allow those who are the likely recipients of criticism to have the authority to remove such criticism from the public view.


 1ICCSD’s board voted on a 4-3 vote to approve a “3 year contract with ThoughtExchange not to exceed $107,000” on November 24, 2015, with board members Brian Kirschling, Chris Lynch, Lori Roetlin, and LaTasha DeLoach voting in favor of it and board members Chris Liebig, Phil Hemingway, and Tom Yates voting against it. This vote came after a discussion where Mr. Liebig had expressed concerns about whether ThoughtExchange had been statistically verified for survey purposes, and Mr. Yates had expressed concerns that ICCSD “can have the filters do pretty much whatever we want them to.” You can view the ICCSD Board November 24, 2015, minutes here.



Posted in Community Comment, First Amendment, Free Speech, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, Murley, Open Meeting, Public Comment, Superintendent, ThoughtExchange | Leave a comment

The Proper Role of An Iowa School Board President

The contract between the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) and Stephen Murley, its Superintendent, has been in the news lately. Specifically, the contract (see here  at sections 13c and 15 has come into question because it allows superintendent Murley to have paid time off so that he can serve as a privately-retained paid consultant. The contract allows for this paid time off for activities that will contribute to the betterment of the district and which must be mutually agreed upon by the superintendent and the board president and more specifically, if the superintendent is paid a salary, fee or honorarium, must be approved in advance by the school board president.

This opportunity for paid time off was used in part by Mr. Murley to provide consulting services to The Supes Academy, LLC, owned by Gary Solomon, its CEO, and Thomas Vranas, its President, even though under Mr. Murley, ICCSD also contracted with ProAct Search, LLC, which was also under the control of Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, to hire an equity director for ICCSD (see here). And prior to Mr. Murley’s involvement with The Supes, ICCSD had also contracted with Synesi, also owned and operated by Solomon and Vranas. The relationship between Mr. Solomon and Mr. Vranas, their company–The Supes, and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has recently resulted in a criminal guilty plea by the former head of CPS, Barbara Bryd Bennett, and not guilty pleas by  Mr. Solomon and Mr. Vranas, whose federal criminal case is still pending.

Leaving aside the obvious possible “kickback” or other conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, what should the role of the school board president be in this situation? Should the president be solely authorized to decide for the district what leave should be approved and which outside consulting benefits the district or should these matters be decided by the board as a whole? Prudence suggests caution is in order.

Since Mr. Murley’s paid time off for outside work is supposed to be for the benefit of ICCSD, as well as for the benefit of Mr. Murley, one would think that the entire board should decide what outside consulting benefit the district. Specifically, whether or not a benefit occurs requires a policy judgment, and what the president considers to be beneficial to the district may be at odds with the board’s view.

There is also the basic concern that this sort of delegation of authority may not even be legally permitted. The Iowa Code states:  The affairs of each school corporation shall be conducted by a board of directors. . . . Iowa Code 274.7.  Arguably, allowing just the president to conduct the affairs of the district regarding approving outside consulting (or other substantive matters) violates this section.

Also, school boards in Iowa operate under a “weak president” model, whereby the president has no more say in substantive matters than do other members. In addressing this issue, the Iowa Association of School Board in its 2015 Guide for School Board Candidates states the following:

The board of directors of a school district operates as a corporate body. Individual school board members have no authority to act independently, and cannot commit or bind the board by their individual actions. Powers and duties of the board must be exercised by the board as a whole.

Finally, the ICCSD Superintendent in the past has acknowledged what is known as Dillon’s Rule (see here on pages 448-450), which provides:

It is a general and undisputed proposition of law that a [school] corporation possesses, and can exercise the following powers and no other: First, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in, or incident to, the powers expressly granted; third, those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any fair, reasonable doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved by the courts against the corporation, and the power is denied.

Iowa schools are governed by Dillon’s Rule and without the required clear authority, Dillon’s Rule suggests that the board president is not authorized to, on his own, act to approve the superintendent’s outside consulting or indeed, other substantive matters.

Given that there is no clear authorization for a school board president to alone exercise the function of determining what leave to approve and which outside consulting benefits ICCSD, the school board would be wise to, as a body, decide what leave is appropriate and to direct the president to only authorize what the board as a body determines in advance should be authorized.

The bottom line is that all school business, especially if it involves the very real possibility of a conflict of interest, is far better conducted in a public forum than by just one member in a closed process.

Posted in Board, Board President, Conflict of Interest, Dillon's Rule, Iowa Schools, Open Meeting, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Barbara Bryd-Bennett’s Guilty Plea: A Case Study of a School Board’s Failed Management

School board members, taxpayers, and parents everywhere can learn important lessons from the events leading up to the recent federal indictment of and eventual guilty plea by Barbara Bryd-Bennett, the former head of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), in connection with her relationship with The Supes Academy, LLC (Supes) and CPS’ $20 million dollar plus no-bid contract with Supes. See the United States Department of Justice’s press release here, which includes within it a link to the indictment, and also see Ms. Bryd-Bennett’s guilty plea here.

The Bryd-Bennett indictment also charged The Supes Academy, LLC (Supes) and Synesi Associates, LLC (Synesi), along with Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, their owners and operators, with numerous criminal violations. This is relevant to the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) because 1) ICCSD’s current superintendent, Steve Murley, and Chief Human Resources Officer, Chace Ramey, were, as recently as early this spring, pictured on SUPE’s website as being Supes “team members,” and 2) because ICCSD reportedly has paid thousands of dollars to Synesi and Proact, companies that were related to Supes.

Murley Supes Our Team

While a mere affiliation with a company is not an indication of criminal improprieties, the Bryd-Bennett indictment highlights why school board members everywhere should exercise their fiduciary duties and strictly regulate or ban outside consulting activities by their employees with decision-making power over or oversight of contracts. With five new board members, ICCSD’s board should revisit Mr. Murley’s contract found here, which currently permits him to engage in outside consulting and provides, in part, as follows on page 6:

Discretionary Leave. The Superintendent shall be entitled to up to ten (10) paid personal leave days for personal business, consulting, professional activities, community events or other activities that will contribute to the betterment of the District each year with such Discretionary Leave to be mutually agreed upon by the Superintendent and the Board President. Discretionary leave is not to be used for vacation purposes.

As illustrated here and in the Chicago Sun Times article “BGA Public Eye: CPS’ SUPES probe leads to fallout across U.S.” by the Better Government Association  posted on October 31, 2015, consulting for Supes did not appear to “contribute to the betterment of the District.”

In addition to highlighting potential issues associated with no-bid contracts and outside employment of a top official, the Bryd-Bennett indictment highlights the problem of “freebies” alleging that

***defendants GARY SOLOMON, THOMAS VRANAS, and the SUPES Entities gave defendant BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT numerous items of value, such as basketball tickets, baseball tickets, meals, and other personal items in exchange for BYRD-BENNETT using her position with CPS to ensure that the SUPES Entities kept and expanded their contracts with CPS and obtained additional contracts with CPS in the future.

The provision of sports tickets and meals can appear to be bribes or kickbacks by vendors in exchange for favored treatment in the awarding of contracts. Assuming no such policy currently exists or is publicized, ICCSD’s board should follow the practice of many other employers by publicly and proactively setting limits on what employees who 1) are engaged in contracting or 2) have oversight of contracts can receive and strictly regulate or eliminate gifts. Adoption of a conflicts of interest, gift, and outside employment policy should be followed by training of employees and auditing compliance with the policy. Vendors should also be put on notice. One result of a failure of a school district to regulate conflicts of interests, gifts, and outside employment of officials having a role in recommending or awarding contracts is that reputable contractors may be discouraged from bidding due to the perception that other contractors may be overly favored.

At a minimum, a school board should prohibit its employees from providing services to companies or their related companies that provide goods or services to ICCSD. Finally, the appearance of a conflict of interest may be yet another reason why many voters might vote “no” in the upcoming bond election.

And while ICCSD does not have the power of the Department of Justice to fully investigate and obtain emails, phone records, and other documentation from Supes and its owners, the entire ICCSD board should review and investigate past outside employment of ICCSD’s top officials, address all existing and potential conflicts of interest, and take immediate measures to avoid the appearance that ICCSD engages in a “pay to play” system. As ICCSD spends millions of dollars on construction and other vendors, there is no time to waste–school governance only works when a school board sets an ethical tone at the top, adopts proper policies and procedures, and audits compliance with the same.

Posted in Board, Bond, Conflict of Interest, Fiduciary Responsibility, ICCSD, Iowa City Schools, ProAct Search, Synesi, The Supes Academy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment