Iowa City school district seeks renewal of property tax levy

Current levy has been in place since 2004; the district is asking for the same amount again on Sept. 10

IOWA CITY – Spending on school buildings has received a lot of attention in the Iowa City school district the past year, and it will again in the Sept. 10 election.

The district is asking voters to renew the physical plant and equipment levy. More commonly called PPEL, the district primarily uses the $8 million it gets annually on building maintenance for its $300 million worth of facilities.

“We really think that this is a great investment from the taxpayers’ standpoint because, clearly, to maintain your buildings and keep them up to speed is much less expensive” than major renovations or building new, school district Superintendent Stephen Murley said.

He and Craig Hansel, the district’s chief financial officer, met with The Gazette’s editorial board Wednesday to make the case for renewal of the levy.

This would not be a new tax or an increase for district property owners. The current form of the PPEL has been in place in the district since 2004, when 79 percent of voters supported it, and the district is asking for the same amount as is paid now.

This year’s vote comes after the district in February received voter approval to borrow ahead on up to $100 million in sales tax money to go toward building projects. The school board in July approved a 10-year facilities plan with $260 million worth of projects that will guide those spending decisions.

Both of those items drew opposition, but Murley said he has not heard many people say their dissatisfaction will carry over to the PPEL vote.

Deborah Thornton, an active Iowa City parent and chairwoman of the Johnson County Republican Party, questioned whether property tax increases or other measures will have to make up the $160 million difference between the sales tax revenue and the facilities plan.

Thornton, who said she was not speaking as a party official, also criticized the district for not spending the current PPEL funds to get air conditioning to all schools, a common complaint among parents.

With early dismissals this week because of the hot weather, she wrote in an email, “and significant disruption to both the learning process and the families, one of the first priorities of the ICCSD – and other districts – should be getting air conditioning installed in the current buildings.”

Murley said people should be reassured by the transparency with which the funds are used; a summary of how the money is spent is on the district’s website.

He and Hansel also said that since they joined the district in the past few years, they have changed the approach to using PPEL funds. Instead of reacting to maintenance emergencies, there is now a plan in place on how to deliberately spend the money.

Parking lot repairs, carpet, furniture, buses and even musical instruments get paid for out of PPEL because, officials said, there’s not the flexibility to do so in the general fund, which primarily goes toward personnel expenses.

“If we don’t have PPEL, we don’t buy musical instruments,” Hansel said.

Murley said the district, which is projected to grow by 3,000 students over the next decade, will need to ask for more money from voters through bond issues in a few years.

It’s a good problem to have, he said, but “that type of growth brings a lot of pain with it.”

Murley and Hansel also stressed that the district is not seeking a tax increase. The levy is already at the maximum of $1.34 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That costs the owner of a $100,000 home $70.77 this fiscal year.

With approval, the PPEL would be in effect for 10 years, starting July 1, 2015. A simple majority is needed for it to pass. If it fails Sept. 10, the district has a few more chances before summer 2015.

The district is seeking renewal of the levy now because there is not a regular school election next year.

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