Bigger, newer - but fewer - elementaries pitched for Cedar Rapids

Facilities committee presents vision of 13, not 21, elementary schools

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At least eight of the Cedar Rapids school district’s 21 elementary schools could be scrapped in favor of newer, bigger schools, members of the district’s facilities planning committee said at a public meeting Tuesday.

The meeting marked the midpoint of the committee’s work to design the district’s new “Re-Imagine, Re-envision, Re-invest” facilities plan.

While plans still are tentative, the group laid out a vision that would have only 13 elementary schools, which would support populations of up to 600 students.

The presentation at the 101-year-old Arthur Elementary on the northeast side was the first of three public sessions this week. Meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Van Buren Elementary, 2525 29th St. SW, and Thursday at Nixon Elementary, 200 Nixon Drive.

Committee members were drawn to 600-student elementary schools because the larger schools would be able to support full-time art, physical education, music and other “special” course teachers, said Robert Schwarz, chief executive of the school planning company RSP, which was hired by the district. The district currently splits those teachers among schools.

Larger schools also could allow for similar or smaller class sizes and, with about four classes for each grade, more teacher collaboration, according to the committee’s presentation.

But some attendees — of which there were about 10 — seemed wary of the direction. Lycan Davis, whose daughter attends Wright Elementary, asked Schwarz about the possibility of low-income students being bused to faraway schools and the potential for abandoned schools.

“It looks real nice to say, ‘new school,’ new schools are great,” Davis said. “But again, we’ll end up having — how many Polks and Monroes and those buildings we closed down, how many of those will we have littering the community?”

The Cedar Rapids school board voted to close Polk Elementary and Monroe, an early education school, in 2012.

With ample time before the facilities plan is finalized in late October, Superintendent Brad Buck said plans could change based on input.

“If that conceptual idea doesn’t resonate with the community, and we have overwhelming feedback ... then we’ll use that to guide the conversation,” Buck said. “The struggle is, we know that we’re carrying about $2.5 million in additional costs right now because we’re not as efficient as we could be with economy of scale.”

Falling enrollment has put pressure on the district’s budget in recent years, as state dollars are tied to enrollment numbers. Smaller funding increases from the Statehouse — 1.11 percent was approved this year — in recent years have further stressed the district’s budget.

“The reality is the funding at the state level the way it is right now, the district can’t afford to run this many elementary schools,” RSP Associate Dave Wilkerson said.

While the group pitched new schools, RSP’s Schwarz said recent construction and updates at Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson elementary schools would likely keep those schools from being rebuilt.

The cost of a new, 600-student elementary is estimated from $16 to $20 million, Schwarz said. A 450-student school would cost $14 to $18 million.

Funding for new or renovated facilities, the district’s Executive Director of Business Services Steve Graham said, would come from the state penny sales tax if legislators choose to extend it until 2050.

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

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