The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa City school board votes to close Hills Elementary to save $1.6 million

In a unanimous vote, the board of directors decided to close Hills because of necessary budget cuts.
Carly Schrum
Spectators converse during an Iowa City Community School District school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

The Iowa City Community School District board of directors unanimously voted Tuesday night to shutter the doors of Hills Elementary School in the fall to save over a million in budget cuts.

Over 50 residents, students, and teachers packed the chambers during the Iowa City Community School District board meeting to voice their concerns on the proposed closure of Hills Elementary School. 

Megan Moorehead, mother of three, shared that she chose to send her oldest daughter to Hills for preschool despite sending her other two children to daycare in Tiffin. She explained the great lengths to which she’s bent her work schedule for the sole purpose of sending her children to Hills.

Moorehead shared that because of the attention and education her daughter receives at Hills, her daughter can count to 20 in both English and Spanish and is learning Spanish from her Hispanic classmates and teaching them English in return. 

“They’re obviously doing something right,” Moorehead said. 

Hills has a considerable immigrant and Spanish-speaking population and parents have emphasized in earlier meetings that these students thrive in the small classroom settings the school has to offer. 

The decision will cut $1.6 million from the $3.75 million budget reduction needed for the 2025 fiscal year, which will be the largest contribution to the reduction. Iowa City schools administration recommended Hills’ closure because it has the lowest enrollment at about 150 students in the district and is the least cost-effective. 

Hills students will be relocated to surrounding district schools, which now have room to house the new students after sixth-graders will be moved to middle schools in the fall. Superintendent Matt Degner said in a Feb. 27 meeting that teachers will be involved in the relocation as well. 

Tensions were high Tuesday as Hills community members spilled out of the filled room, eager to voice their concerns and hear the board’s vote. Around 15 speakers took the podium during community comment and urged the board to keep the school open. 

Board member Charlie Eastham proposed a motion to postpone the vote until the next meeting and the motion failed with no members voting to second it. 

Former school board member Phil Hemingway called out current board member J.P. Claussen for not sticking to his word in earlier discussions regarding the value of small elementary schools while Hemingway was still on the board. 

“You guys [the board] have the community,” Hemingway said. “You’ve got to live up to your promises. You made a commitment.”

Hills Mayor Tim Kemp also spoke during community comment and, like many other speakers, expressed his frustration, saying the district refused to visit Hills to discuss the closure.

“You didn’t want to meet with the students and families of Hills,” Kemp said. “I invited a few board members to come down, and you said no. You said, ‘Come up here and talk to us.’”

Kemp was also frustrated by the speed with which the district has made the decision to close Hills. He believes if the school closes, the land should be returned to the town of Hills from which it was bought.

“You spent less than a week discussing this and thinking about it — not very much time for a monumental decision,” he said. “Let’s do the decent thing and return the school and the property to Hills. It was given to you so the elementary school would be part of the district.”

The board gave members of the Hills community notice about the possibility of closure in a statement released by Hills principal Reagan Boeset on Feb. 26. 

Former ICCSD board member Chris Liebig also criticized the board’s decision to close the school. He explained that during his time on the board, issues the district has been ruminating on for a while were presented to new board members as urgent actions, and he regrets voting on an action he felt was rushed. 

“It seems to me the central administration seized the opportunity to convince these board members that it is suddenly an emergency to do something they wanted to do for years,” Liebig said. 

Before the vote, Degner thanked everyone who spoke and voiced their concerns and defended the board and the decision they’ve had to make.

“This board does their homework,” Degner said. “They asked the hard questions. Nobody’s trying to slip anything by them. The alternatives the board has to consider are also very emotional and very challenging, so there’s no easy decision that’s in front of them this evening.”

Board member Lisa Williams said she believes students from Hills Elementary will see no change in the quality of their education. She also said she will continue to pursue cuts that save operational dollars before she thinks about cutting student programming.

“I hear you, and your concerns are valid,” Williams said. “But I cannot let those concerns influence my decision. The law requires me to use our funds for the purpose of improving student outcomes. I have to follow the law.”

Williams addressed many comments from the community regarding the mismanagement of money as the reason for Hills’ closure. She explained that the reason for the continued lack of funding is issues in the Iowa Legislature, and ICCSD is a victim of chronic underfunding from the state. 

“If it’s easier for you to tell yourself that we have mismanaged money, then you go ahead and do that,” Williams said. “But if you actually care about public education in this state, I would implore you to wake up.”

The Iowa Senate sent a bill to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for signing on Tuesday that would reform area education agencies, raise teacher pay, and increase school funding by 2.5 percent. 

While Williams was delivering her comment, she was interrupted several times by audience members blurting out their opposition to her sentiments. Board President Ruthina Malone called a recess to settle the crowd and regain control of the meeting. 

Williams urged all the Hills community members in the audience to fight for public education rights for all Iowans.

“I hope that you all start advocating for public education the way that you have advocated to keep your school open because it is impressive,” she said. “You are a force.”

After recess, board member Mitch Lingo explained why closing Hills is a superior budget reduction action than laying off teachers. He said he asked administrators how many teachers would be needed from the district to keep Hills open, and he was told 23.

“The cost of 23 [teachers] for six classrooms at Hills Elementary is far beyond anything I’m comfortable with,” Lingo said.

He also explained that student growth at Hills is unlikely, which was part of his reasoning for voting to close the school.

“We cannot count on enrollment growth to create new lines of spending as we have as a district in the past,” Lingo said. “This is the reality of what we are facing.”

Board member Jayne Finch also addressed voucher programs at the state level as the district’s greatest attack on funding for public education and urged the audience to move their focus to the state’s decisions.

“This changing landscape must be able to pivot in ways that allow them to respond to the conditions created by our state government,” Finch said. “What I know for sure is the students of Hills will have access to the same high-quality educational opportunities that our district has to offer regardless of which elementary they attend.”

Malone finished discussions before the vote by saying she takes full responsibility for any distress the decision will cause Hills community members.

“On behalf of this board, I am truly sorry to students, families, and community members for tough decisions that have ramifications for everyone in ICCSD,” she said.

Other budget reduction recommendations were voted on after the vote to close Hills, including non-retirement staff retirement attrition, which would save $450,000, and adjusting costs for the district’s Weighted Resource Allocation Model (WRAM), which would save $630,000. 

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About the Contributors
Grace Olson
Grace Olson, News Reporter
Grace Olson is a first-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications. She's a news reporter for The DI, reporting primarily on local government. She is from Denver, Colorado and worked on the pirnt publication from her high school prior to her work in college.
Carly Schrum
Carly Schrum, Photojournalist
Carly is a freshman majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and potentially majoring in sustainability. She works at the Daily Iowan as a photojournalist.