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The student news source of Iowa City West High

West Side Story

The student news source of Iowa City West High

West Side Story

The student news source of Iowa City West High

West Side Story

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Defne Bayman 24
Defne Bayman
Communications Coordinator, Artist, Reporter and Photographer

(they/she) Defne Bayman is a senior this year, and has been on Print for two years and joined Web this year. They are the communications manager for all of WSS, along with an artist, designer, photographer,...

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School board votes to close Hills Elementary

On March 26, the school board voted to close long time elementary school and staple of the community, Hills Elementary.
Gianna Liu
Hills students wait for the school board meeting to begin on Mar. 26, 2024.

The atmosphere in the ICCSD administration building on Tuesday night was uneasy. A packed room filled with community members, district administration and school board members gathered for the board’s bi-monthly meeting. The biggest topic on the agenda was the board’s impending vote to close Hills Elementary due to budget cuts.

As board president Ruthina Malone called the March 26 meeting to order, the room was lined with Hills alumni, current students, residents and many other Iowa City community members.

The first event on the agenda was an education showcase and equity update. Laura Gray, the ICCSD Director of Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness, introduced the “Empathy Rockets,” a group of students from Van Allen Elementary that focuses on teaching other students in the community about empathy.

Van Allen students speak to the board about the “Empathy Rockets,” a club promoting empathy at Van Allen. (Gianna Liu)

After the short presentation, the board opened public comment, where community members who filled out a form prior to the start of the meeting could be called up to speak to the board for four minutes, five if they had a translator.

There were approximately 15 speakers, the majority of them in opposition to closing Hills.

The first speaker was a mother of Hills students, who spoke in Spanish and had a translator by her side. Her translator translated the speech, “Tonight the ICCSD has the opportunity to not only change the Latino community but the Hills community.”

A Hills Elementary parent speaks with a translator during the public comment portion of the meeting (Gianna Liu)

Many other speakers echoed that statement, stating that the Latino community would be hurt if the school closed because Hills has become a place where many Latino and non-Latino families have felt welcome and grown as a community.

A grandparent of Hills students explained that statement: “Those children are each other’s family. They take care of each other, they support each other, and they know each other.” Mary Kelly agreed.

Along with concerns about the loss of community, many other speakers voiced concerns about the ICCSD’s lack of community involvement before making this decision.

A Hills student holds up a sign during the school board meeting on Mar. 26, 2024. (Gianna Liu)

“I am here today because you guys refuse to come down to meet with us [Hills residents], so I had to come up here,” said community member Tim Kemp.

Hills alum, resident, city council member and West High Business teacher Emily Hudachek also got up to speak about her experience, sharing her experience of being brought by Taxi from Northwest Junior High.

“In middle school, I questioned if Hills students were valued differently than other students in the district; I asked myself these questions from the back of a yellow taxi cab that the district sent down to transport students to and from Northwest,” Hudachek said. “Never knowing who my driver was going to be, watching the empty beer bottles roll out from under seats and having to ask my friends to borrow perfume so I didn’t smell like cigarette smoke walking into school, I wonder now if this is why the cabs were instructed to pull around to the back of the building.”

West High teacher and Hills resident Emily Hudachek speaks to the board during the public comment session of the meeting on Mar. 26, 2024. (Gianna Liu)

For a little under two hours, community members participated in public comment, many sharing the same sentiment: to not close down the school.

The final speaker was John Marshall, the former principal of Hills Elementary. Marshall served as principal for 23 years and cited the work that the school and community do for each other as a reason Hills Elementary should stay open.

Former Hills principal John Marshall speaks to the board during the public comment session (Gianna Liu)

The community of Hills loves their school and they still do

— John Marshall

After the public comment session, Superintendent Matt Degner spoke and expressed his sympathies with the Hills community.

The board then started their discussion, with board member and Assistant United States Attorney Lisa Williams speaking first. Her main point, setting the tone for the rest of the board’s reasoning and discussion, was that although the board does not want to close Hills, this is the best option because of the budget cuts.

Williams cited the sentiment that the ICCSD mismanaged funds is not why budget cuts are necessary, but instead, the government’s lack of public school funding due to the new vouture programs is the reason for these cuts. She explained that cutting Hills would just be a portion of the cuts being made and the best option in the long run.

“Des Moines public schools must cut $4 million from their budget this year, Grinell-Newburg schools must cut $1 million from their budget this year, Linn-Mar is firing 50 teachers and staff because of budget cuts that they are forced to take, West Des Moines Schools must cut $3 million this year, Wapello school district must cut $275,000 from their budget this year, Fairfield schools must cut $1 million from their budget this year,” Williams explained to the crowd.

Board member Lisa Williams speaks to the crowd, backing up her decision to close Hills Elementary at the school board meeting on Mar. 26, 2024. (Gianna Liu)

She also explained how the Highland School District is moving to a four-day school week because it can’t afford to keep teachers for five days.

Williams spoke for around 13 minutes. Listen to part of her plea to the community:

Many community members started shouting and Malone called a short recess to reconvene.

When the session started again, more members of the school board spoke, all echoing Williams’s statement.

After almost three hours of debate and comment, the board unanimously voted to close Hills Elementary. More information on how this will affect students’ enrollment for next year has not been released.

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About the Contributors
Zoe Smith, Editor-in-Chief
(she/her) Zoe Smith is a senior and entering her third and final year on staff. She is so excited to be this year's Web Editor-in-Chief. Although you can usually find her in the newsroom; you may also find her on the soccer field either playing or coaching, working at Maggie's Farm Pizza, hanging out with friends and much more. If you can't find her she is probably petting a dog somewhere.
Gianna Liu, Print Sports and Photo Editor
(she/her) Gianna is a Junior and is starting her second year on staff! She is the Photo and Sports Editor this year for print, which is exactly what she loves to do: photography and volleyball! When she isn't doing those or writing, you will catch her binge-watching K-dramas, reading (fiction), biking or perfecting her skin-care routine.
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