Input sessions offer last chance to weigh in on future of Cedar Rapids school facilities

Current plan calls for closing 8 elementary schools, rebuilding most others

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CEDAR RAPIDS — As the Cedar Rapids Community School District nears the end of a yearlong planning process that could drastically shrink its number of schools, the district is hosting its last scheduled public input sessions on the plan.

As it stands, the plan would shutter eight of Cedar Rapids’ 21 elementary schools. Many of the remaining schools would be torn down and rebuilt on the same sites, Superintendent Brad Buck said.

Public input meetings take place at 6 p.m. on the following dates:

— Monday — Jefferson High School, 1243 20th St. SW, Cedar Rapids.

— Wednesday — Kennedy High School, 4545 Wenig Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids.

— Thursday — Washington High School, 2205 Forest Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids.

Since as early as April, members of the district’s facilities planning committee have signaled closures of eight elementary schools.

The enrollment capacity of the remaining schools has been in flux, but Buck said 12 of the remaining elementary schools would have a 600-student capacity while Johnson STEAM Academy, a magnet school, would be rebuilt to serve up to 450 students.

“Our core neighborhoods have been a priority throughout this whole conversation, so where you see we’re advocating that schools get rebuilt or redesigned — it kind of depends on the school — you’ll see they’re in neighborhoods on existing sites,” Buck said in a meeting with The Gazette.

On most of those sites, new school facilities would be built while classes continue uninterrupted in the existing schools. Groups of schools would be replaced at a time, Buck said. District spokeswoman Akwi Nji declined to provide specifics about which schools would be prioritized.

Open and closed

The school district’s Master Facilities Plan would keep schools at the current sites of Cleveland, Harrison, Hoover and Jackson elementary schools in the northwest quadrant of Cedar Rapids; Arthur, Pierce, Viola Gibson and Wright in the northeast; Coolidge and Grant in the southwest; Erskine and Johnson in the southeast; and Hiawatha Elementary in Hiawatha.

Schools identified for closure are Madison and Truman 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.

“We are very cognizant of our role in the community and not leaving old boarded-up schools behind,” Buck said.

The facilities proposal has a timeline of 15 to 20 years, and he said district officials plan to meet with city officials and developers later to discuss the best uses of those buildings.

“If you look around the city, we have closed schools before and we have repurposed schools before,” Buck said. “We have not left schools uninhabited.”

Buck said factors that influenced whether a school was targeted for closure or a new building included:

— Where children live across the district.

— The location of remaining sites relative to each other.

— The dispersal of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds among schools.

— Downtown or “core” neighborhoods.

— The size, location and accessibility of the school’s property.

The complete plan will be presented to the school board at its Dec. 11 meeting at the Educational Leadership and Support Center, 2500 Edgewood Rd. NW, Cedar Rapids. The board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Jan. 22 meeting.

‘A RUBBER STAMP?’

Dec. 11 will be the first time a finalized plan is made public, and members of the new Save CR Schools Coalition say the seven weeks between then and the board’s vote won’t be enough time for public reaction to the plan.

Additionally, they say the district planning process amounts to little more than “a rubber stamp” from the community on a plan developed primarily by the district and its hired education consultant group RSP Associates, of Overland Park, Kan.

“Brad Buck seems like a very good man and a nice person and he’s very well-spoken,” coalition member Mike Wyrick said, “but when he talks about this, he talks about it like a person who has decided he’s going to buy a new car but hasn’t gotten the new car yet. He can only see all the positives and only remember the good and great things about it. ... He’s in that starry-eyed, ‘I want, I want, I want’ phase, and it just doesn’t feel like he’s got a balanced way of looking at it.”

The school district’s planning process has been carried out by a committee of about 80 people, though Buck said only about 40 attend meetings regularly. The district has hosted two other sets of public input sessions since the process started in September 2016.

“I can tell you, when this process started over a year ago, if you would have told me we would talking about elementary only and fewer, larger elementary schools — I don’t know what I would have predicted, but that’s not what I would have predicted,” Buck said.

In a meeting with The Gazette, coalition members said they worry the district is depending too much on “shiny new buildings” to lure more students to the district. The number of students leaving the Cedar Rapids district through open enrollment has nearly quadrupled over the last decade, according to Iowa Department of Education data.

The group also said the facilities plan doesn’t give enough weight to the historic value of some of the district’s schools, and that its intended funding source — the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, sales tax, if it’s extended to 2049 by the state legislature — would circumvent a public vote on the plan.

“They’re talking about a huge amount of public spending, something that will impact property values across the city, something that will impact people’s day-to-day lives, especially if they have children,” coalition member Ben Kaplan said. “And they’re going to do it without a vote? That doesn’t seem right.”

To see a list of all Cedar Rapids elementary schools and their bios click here.

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

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