An administrative law judge last week ruled that the Davenport Community School District board followed state guidelines in its controversial decision in April to close Grant and Johnson elementary schools. Parents, led by Alan Guard and Brenda Jordahl-Buckles, had appealed the district's January 28 and April 22 votes to close the schools. They now have until June 30 to appeal the administrative law judge's decision. The Iowa State Board of Education will consider the judge's recommendation at its August meeting and is expected to adopt it.

Guard said he would not file an appeal, and said he's trying to convince other parents to follow suit. The administrative law judge "made her decision," Guard said. "Let's move on." (Guard has announced that he is running this fall for a seat on the school board.)

Parents had objected to the closing of the neighborhood schools - the two smallest and oldest elementaries in the district - as a way of addressing a school-district deficit that's expected to reach $3.2 million by the end of this month. Closing the schools will save an estimated $1 million.

The local school board voted twice to close Grant and Johnson. Parents appealed the January 28 vote, and after a meeting on March 5 with the administrative law judge hearing the case, the school board agreed to re-consider its vote. It then "re-examined" its January 28 decision, which re-started the process. That concluded April 22, with the board voting by an identical 6-1 margin to close the schools.

In her June 10 decision, administrative law judge Susan Anderson ruled that the school board had violated the state's "Barker Guidelines" in deciding in January to close Grant and Johnson. The Barker Guidelines are seven rules - such as establishing a timeline in advance for a vote, informing the public, and undertaking an "open and frank public discussion of the facts and issues involved" - that are meant to force school districts to carefully consider school closures in a public forum.

But although she recommended overturning the January vote, she said the April closure vote should stand. "We believe the evidence shows that after March 11, 2002, the District Board fulfilled all seven steps of the Barker Guidelines," Anderson wrote in her opinion.

Anderson stressed in her decision that she was charged not with judging whether the Davenport Community School District board had made a wise decision, but simply whether it had followed state rules.

A key component of her ruling addressed a complaint of parents who felt that the end result of the process that began in March was a foregone conclusion: a vote to close Johnson and Grant. Parents argued that the school board didn't listen to alternatives - developed in March and April by a district-appointed task force that included parents and administration - that they felt would have alleviated the district's budget crunch without closing schools. They argued that the "open and frank public discussion" component of the Barker guidelines required school-board members to seriously consider alternatives presented to them.

The parents also argued that when school-board members met in small groups in private with the district administration, they violated the "public discussion" requirement.

"The real issue for the State Board of Education to consider is not whether both sides actually listened to each other's position," Anderson wrote. "The real issue is whether they were given the opportunity to do so. That's what the Barker Guidelines stand for. The guidelines do not mandate that the District Board acquiesce to the wishes of those who are most vocal at the public hearings." Anderson said the school board had an adequate opportunity to listen to alternatives, and whether they actually considered them was not an issue in her recommendation.

Parents also argued that the school district had not considered all the factors required by the Barker Guidelines, specifically the closures' impact on "student-enrollment statistics, transportation costs, financial gains and losses, program offerings, plant facilities, and staff assignment." The parents claim school-board members only considered the financial impact of the closings.

Anderson chose not to specifically address the parents' evidentiary claims in her opinion, instead going through the Barker Guidelines one-by-one and claiming the district had satisfied all the requirements of the rules, without offering a response to parents' claims to the contrary.

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