Cedar Rapids school board gets formal look at vast school plan

Many - but not all - speakers implore board to reject proposal

The audience listens to public comment on the district’s  Facilities Master Plan during a Cedar Rapids Community School District Board of Education meeting at the Education Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, December 11, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The audience listens to public comment on the district’s Facilities Master Plan during a Cedar Rapids Community School District Board of Education meeting at the Education Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, December 11, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — With the Cedar Rapids school board poised to decide perhaps next month on the fate of elementary schools, more than a dozen people sought to sway votes Monday evening as the members were formally presented the plan for the first time.

The facilities plan, if approved as written, would shrink the number of elementaries in the district from 21 to 13 by shuttering eight, but also replacing 10 of the others with bigger and more modern schools.

Many who spoke during public comment period urged board members to oppose the plan.

“I come to you today to ask that, when the time is right, to make a difficult decision for the entire Cedar Rapids community and not support the master facilities plan to be presented to you later,” Keith Hammer said early in the meeting. “The decisions this plan implements affect not only the district’s students and staff, but also our entire community. … This plan will permanently reshape our city.”

But a handful of speakers supported the plan, including Shawna Carolan, who disputed some parents’ belief that they did not have ample opportunity to review it.

“I came to the September board meeting, which was much less attended than this one,” Carolan said, where an update on the plan was presented to the board. “ ... I was so thoroughly impressed. ... You will never make everyone happy, but there are many people who support this plan. But from what I have seen, those will not be the loudest. But I implore you to stay the course.”

The facilities plan that was put to the board later in the meeting would, if approved by a majority of members, close Madison and Truman elementaries in the northwest quadrant; Garfield and Kenwood in the northeast; Taylor and Van Buren in the southwest; Grant Wood in the southeast; and Nixon in Hiawatha.

Ten school buildings would be torn down to make way for new facilities at the sites of Cleveland, Harrison, Hoover and Jackson elementary schools in the northwest quadrant; Arthur, Pierce and Wright in the northeast; Coolidge in the southwest; and Erskine and Johnson in the southeast quadrant.

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Viola Gibson, Hiawatha and Grant elementaries would be remodeled. All of the district’s elementary schools would become 600-student capacity schools except Johnson STEAM Academy, which would be built for 450.

SEE ALSO: Cedar Rapids elementary schools by the numbers

In part, the facilities plan is meant to address the growing number of Cedar Rapids parents who choose to take their children out of the district through open enrollment. More than 1,280 students left the district in the 2016-2017 school year. Many leave for the Linn-Mar or College Community districts where schools are newer.

But some parents at the board meeting said vast closures and constructions would only exacerbate the problem.

“I just see problems with this plan not inviting people into Cedar Rapids and growing it, and rather pushing people out and wanting to move elsewhere,” said Danielle Wigg. “I can also tell you, my family would move out of Cedar Rapids if this plan goes through.”

Scrapping some schools was emotional for members of the facilities committee that devised the plan over months, said committee member Jim Craig during the presentation.

“Can we afford to be so wedded to our old buildings that it inhibits our ability to educate today’s students?” he said committee members asked themselves. “And our committee decided no.”

If approved, new schools would be built over the next 15 to 20 years and cost an estimated $224.2 million — about $1 million less than what the district expects it would spend maintaining all of its existing elementary buildings.

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In favor of new buildings were Jackson Elementary Principal Nick Duffy and Johnson STEAM Academy Principal Candace Lynch. Both said new schools would fix accessibility and maintenance issues that can hamper learning.

“I’ve seen some of the best custodial staff around repeatedly frustrated, as it’s difficult to keep up with the demands of some of these older buildings,” Lynch said.

Money for the plan would come from the state penny tax for school infrastructure, or SAVE. If that funding source is not extended by the Iowa Legislature, the school board could consider asking voters to approve a bond referendum, according to Monday’s presentation.

During public comment, Alma Happel questioned the implications of relying on SAVE.

A bond would need to be approved by at least 60 percent of district voters, while use of SAVE funds do not need to be approved by voters.

“I really wonder about the wisdom of doing this without any kind of public referendum,” Happel said.

Board members asked consultants to provide additional information at a Jan. 8 board work session, including more on traffic implications and maintenance costs of the larger schools. At the earliest, the board will vote on the plan at its Jan. 22 meeting.

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

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