Iowa City school board wants February special election on funding

Proposal would give district authority to borrow up to $100 million for building projects

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Voters in the Iowa City school district will probably go to the polls in February to decide whether to give the district the ability to borrow up to $100 million for building projects.

The five school board members at Tuesday night’s meeting were unanimous in their informal support of a Feb. 5 special election date. Official action will occur at a future meeting.

The election would be held to ask voters to approve a new revenue purpose statement to replace the one enacted as part of the school infrastructure local-option sales tax passed by voters in 2007.

That would allow the district to access sales tax money until 2029, beyond the 2017 end date of the current revenue purpose statement.

District leaders want to use what are called tax anticipation revenue bonds to borrow against future sales tax revenue.

Administrators say the district’s standard approach of paying for construction projects with tax money already collected does not bring in enough money soon enough to deal with its growing enrollment.

The district’s certified enrollment for this school year is expected to be more than 300 students above last year’s 12,453 students, Superintendent Stephen Murley said. Enrollment was 11,718 in 2007.

A new high school, three elementary schools and building additions are among the projects that have been discussed, although the board has not committed to anything.

“We have an opportunity in front of us now to meet more needs in the community,” Murley said.

School board and community members have been advocating for various projects to be paid for out of limited sales tax dollars, which has caused conflict in recent months.

A majority of the school board was prepared earlier this month to change a policy that sets aside $32 million for a new high school and instead spend that money on elementary school projects.

North Liberty parent Joe Strathman cited the uncertainty over the new high school, which some people felt was promised in the 2007 SILO campaign, in arguing that the district will need to name specific projects in the revenue purpose statement.

He called for the community to back the funding proposal, but said, “You need to earn my trust and the trust of all of us in here tonight.”

The revenue purpose statement will say what the sales tax money would be used for, but typically the language is broad so as to not tie the hands of future school boards.

About $100 million would be accessible with a new statement. Administrators would still need to go to the school board with specific plans to bond for projects, however.

“It’s not a one lump sum with no discretionary authority by the board,” Murley said.

Also, having that kind of money available does not automatically mean the district can afford to build at will. It would take ongoing funding to staff and otherwise operate new schools and building additions.

Because the bonds would borrow against sales tax revenue, they would not increase the property tax rate. That is something school officials have already started stressing as they take the proposal to the public.

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