As Cedar Rapids school plan jelled, public voices ebbed

Over lengthy process, many bowed out for different reasons

Todd Sweet, a carpenter with Cedar Rapids Community School District, pulls down a damaged ceiling tile for replacement in the lower level at Grant Wood Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Grant Wood is on the district's list for possible closure under the new Master Facilities Plan. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Todd Sweet, a carpenter with Cedar Rapids Community School District, pulls down a damaged ceiling tile for replacement in the lower level at Grant Wood Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Grant Wood is on the district's list for possible closure under the new Master Facilities Plan. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For more than a year, members of a Cedar Rapids school system committee met to develop a sweeping facilities plan that would affect schools throughout the district.

In several of the meetings, about half of the people in the room were employees of the district itself, records show.

The plan the group developed would close eight elementary schools, tear down another 10 and build larger schools on some of the sites. It is scheduled to be presented Monday evening to the school board.

Who was in the room during facilities committee meetings?

Molly Duffy / The Gazette

The committee was meant to give district employees as well as other community members a voice as the board decides future plans for its schools, Superintendent Brad Buck said. In what was intended to be a group of as many as 90 people, Buck said 25 spots were earmarked for district staff.

At the committee’s first meeting, 25 staff members attended. But only 34 people not employed by the district also showed up, attendance records show.

And as overall attendance fell over the course of 13 months of meetings, non-employees’ attendances rates fell faster. By spring of this year, nearly half the people in many meetings were district employees.

Committee records, which show who attended 23 meetings held between September 2016 and October 2017, were provided by the district in response to The Gazette’s open records request. Employee status was determined using payroll records from fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30.

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Some committee members in interviews disputed their attendance record. Because records were compiled from sign-in sheets at the meetings, it’s possible more members attended meetings or partial meetings than the records show.

But meeting attendance did fall over time, said Buck, who was a committee member and attended 18 meetings.

“Just in the length of time the process took, from beginning to end, people’s lives change,” Buck said. “And the priorities for their time might change from when the process began.”

And while there often were many school district employees in the room, Buck said he was “proud of staff that felt comfortable saying what they needed to say” with administrators there.

Many committee members who were not employed by the district and attended less than half of the meetings said they were absent because of scheduling conflicts, career changes or family obligations.

But others left as the committee’s facilities plan came to focus on the closures of schools, said Dale Todd, who resigned from the facilities committee shortly after being elected to the Cedar Rapids City Council.

“It became apparent last summer that the process was headed in a direction that I did not fully embrace,” Todd said. “I made it a point to at least express a minority opinion, but I didn’t want my membership on this committee to be construed as supporting the closing of eight schools.”

Early on, some members wondered if the planning process was genuine or “just rubber-stamping,” said committee member Daryl Spivey, who said he attended all but two meetings.

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“In the early days, there was a fair amount of, are we being steered? As it went on, people were pretty confident we weren’t being steered, we’re just well-informed,” Spivey, 71, said. “If we pushed in any direction contrary to the conclusion we came to, we felt we would have been able to make an impact.”

School closures weren’t seriously discussed until spring, committee member Jim Craig said, and he felt they were an obvious conclusion.

“The information was really pretty clear as you went along,” Craig said.

The consultant RSP and Associates presented data about the district’s falling enrollment at meetings, committee member John Tursi said.

“They had the consultation group come in, and they took us through the stuff,” Tursi said. “They didn’t try to guide us down a certain path, they said look, you’ve got to self-discover.”

Other committee members who attended only a few meetings said they stopped attending because they felt they had little to contribute.

Ryan Schlader said he was on a school district redistricting committee a few years ago and, after attending one facilities committee meeting in October 2016, decided not to participate again.

“I’m not angry or bitter or pointing the finger,” Schlader said. “I just figured there’s a lot of (the same) information that we had on the redistricting committee. ... For me, I didn’t know what all I could contribute this time around.”

David Janssen went to four committee meetings before deciding to focus instead on his job as executive director of Brucemore, a historic estate in Cedar Rapids.

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“They had a huge representation, had plenty of people, scores and scores of people,” Janssen said. “I felt like I wouldn’t necessarily be missed.”

Janssen declined to say whether he supports the committee’s proposal, which would demolish 10 elementaries, some of which are more than 100 years old.

“I think that every community is judged by what we neglect and what we take care of, and what we build and remove, and I don’t think any of those decisions are inherently bad,” Janssen said. “Every decision has to be made very carefully. I just hope that’s always part of the discussion. I’m grateful to see that it was part of this discussion.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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