Cedar Rapids schools still sticking with plan to close at least 8 elementary schools

Public input survey results discussed at Monday school board meeting

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CEDAR RAPIDS — About 76 percent of people who responded to a Cedar Rapids Community School District survey agree the district should close some of its elementary schools.

Ten months into an 18-month planning process, the school district’s facilities planning committee has proposed multiple scenarios for the future of Cedar Rapids schools — but all of them include the district shedding at least eight of its 21 elementary schools.

A public survey, sent to 17,000 district parents and staff and taken by 1,980, seems to confirm the committee is on the right track, said Robert Schwarz, CEO of the educational planning firm RSP, at a school board meeting Monday.

But Cedar Rapids school board members worried those statistics aren’t representative of the 16,000-student district and that, this early in the process, the numbers could be overly optimistic.

“It’s hypothetical now, and people tend to be more neutral,” board Vice President Gary Anhalt said. “When it starts getting down to more specifics, and it’s ‘I didn’t know you were talking about my area, I didn’t know you were talking about my school,’ there seems to be a different reflective process.”

Of the 1,980 survey takers, 48 percent identified themselves as district residents, 59 percent were parents of students and 44 percent were district employees.

“The picture of the total population of the community, I’m not sure this is such a good representation,” board member Keith Westercamp said. “It’s a great beginning I guess, but I’d like to hear more from other groups.”

The question of closing a number of Cedar Rapids elementary schools was put twice to participants — once at the beginning of the survey and again at the end. The percentage of people in support of the closures grew by 5 percent over the course of the survey, Schwarz said.

Throughout the survey, participants were informed of the key factors driving the school district’s facilities plan:

• An enrollment drop from a peak 24,000 students in the 1970s to the current 16,000

• Under-enrollment in the district’s 21 elementary schools, which have space for 8,960 students but have only 7,200

• Fifteen of the district’s elementary schools are more than 50 years old and two of older than 100

• For 20 of the district’s 21 elementary schools, the cost of desired improvements is more than 50 percent of the cost to replace the school, and for 13 of those schools the costs of improvements are more than 100 percent of replacement costs

• Shifts in education style, away from a teacher-instructed model and toward collaborative project-based learning, since the buildings’ designs

Schwarz, who the school district hired to help redesign its facilities, said the district is at a turning point.

“If we could go back in time, if the captain (of the Titanic) had known well back that he was going to hit that iceberg, would he have turned a little bit? I think we would say yes,” he said. “… Right now, we have an opportunity to steer that ship a little bit.”

For the district’s middle school buildings, the committee is considering repurposing one school and using it as space for Metro alternative high. About 56 percent of survey participants said no improvements are needed at the district’s middle schools, and 63 percent said the same for the district’s three comprehensive high schools.

Funding for the facilities plan, which is set to be finalized in October, is contingent on the Legislature extending the state penny tax for school infrastructure, or SAVE.

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

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