Cedar Rapids Community School District's plan to close schools, raze others and build goes to board next

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Big changes to the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s facilities are necessary if the system wants to remain viable, people involved with the development of a master facilities plan told the public in meetings last week.

“The reality is, and nobody wants to hear this, but … you cannot afford to continue to operate 21 elementary buildings,” said Dave Wilkerson of the district’s consultant group, RSP Associates. “There’s a day of reckoning coming, folks.”

A proposal to raze 10 and close eight of the district’s elementary schools — and build new, larger schools at many of the sites — is scheduled to be presented to the school board Dec. 11, after more than a year of facilities planning committee meetings.

The proposal was presented to groups of about 100 each last week at the district’s three comprehensive high schools.

The plan is predicated on a need to reduce the district’s expenditures. Decreasing the district’s elementary inventory from 21 to 13 schools would save $2.4 million annually in maintenance costs, Executive Director of Business Services Steve Graham said.

In part, the district’s financial situation is due to a growing number of parents choosing to take their children out of the Cedar Rapids district and enroll them in neighboring schools. Iowa allows parents to choose any public district through open enrollment.

During the 2016-2017 school year, 1,280 students left the district through open enrollment, according to the Iowa Department of Education. Fewer than 370 students living outside of the Cedar Rapids district enrolled into it, causing a net loss of about 910.

State funding for schools depends largely on enrollment, and losing those students was an almost $6 million cut for Cedar Rapids.

Most parents who move their children out, Superintendent Brad Buck said, opt to enroll them in the Linn-Mar Community School District, College Community School District or Marion Independent School District’s home school program.

While members of the planning committee said they hope new schools will address enrollment issues, some who attended public input meetings last week raised questions about whether new schools would address “the real reasons” those parents are leaving.

“I think the question we need to ask is, ‘What are the attributes of Linn-Mar and College Community?’ ... and start to think (about) what’s different about College and Linn-Mar compared to us,” Buck said to attendees Thursday. “That might be where some of those answers are. I’m going let you reflect on some of the differences between College and Linn-Mar and why they’re different from Cedar Rapids.”

Many of both districts’ schools are newer than Cedar Rapids schools, but many community members pointed to other possible causes.

Janelle Lund, who attended a meeting Thursday at Washington High School, said the district should be focusing more on test scores.

“That’s why people are leaving — it has nothing to do with how (the schools) look bad on the outside,” said Lund, who has two young children, one at Coolidge Elementary. “It’s because the proficiency levels are too low.”

Proficiency rates in math, reading and science vary greatly among Cedar Rapids elementaries — 86 percent of third-graders at Erskine read proficiently, for example, compared with only 39 percent at Johnson STEAM Academy.

In a meeting with The Gazette, a group opposed to the facilities plan, the Save CR Schools Coalition, pointed to racial and socioeconomic differences as a possible cause as well.

“some of the things I’ve heard are ugly,” coalition member Ben Kaplan said. “The Cedar Rapids Community School District is more diverse economically and racially than the other area school districts. If that’s impacting where people are sending their kids, we should know that, but bigger schools won’t fix that.”

At meetings, committee members maintained newer schools would help the problem.

“People have said to me they chose not to move to Cedar Rapids because they drove up and looked at our schools,” Buck said.

Buck addressed the large proficiency variations as well. Some parents like Staci Allen, who has a child at one of the schools up for closure, worried students in closing schools would be pushed into lower-performing ones.

The timeline for facilities work goes until 2033, after most current elementary students will have moved on to middle or high school. Decisions about new school boundaries won’t be made until after the plan is voted on by the school board.

But for new parents, like Corey and Deirdre Chesnut who have a 2-year-old daughter and another child due in January, the closures would come in the midst of their children’s elementary school experiences.

“Our daughter will make new friends in whatever grade they decide to do that,” said Corey Chesnut, who lives near Grant Wood Elementary. “People don’t move to relocate for their job because they don’t want to pull their kids out of school, and the district is doing that to all kids.”

Chesnut and many others also had questions about the neighborhood impacts of the proposal.

“The demographic of our neighborhood will change over the next 10 years, age-wise,” Chesnut said. “Boomers are going to be moving out of those houses. If there’s not a school in their neighborhood, why are (younger people) going to move to a place where they’re a mile-and-a-half to the school?”

Sue Poyneer, a member of the Kenwood Neighborhood Association, worried the loss of Kenwood Elementary, which is set closure, would drastically change her neighborhood.

“I’m concerned if the school closes our property values will go down,” Poyneer said at a meeting at Jefferson High. “I have the concern that if the school’s not there, that all will fall apart.”

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

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