Some Cedar Rapids City Council members want bigger role for city in school plan

Cedar Rapids school board considering proposal to shutter eight elementaries

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 — The city needs to have a more active role in a proposal before the Cedar Rapids school board to close eight elementary schools and rebuild or renovate the 13 others, some City Council members say.

The council does not have decision-making authority over the proposal — the elected school board does — but some council members said the plan has major implications for neighborhood stability, crime, property values, out-migration and more.

“The question is how can we work closer together,” said City Council member Dale Todd, whose District 3 includes Taylor Elementary, one of those pegged for closure. “It’s not our role to tell the school district what to do, but we should certainly be at the table helping to develop the plan.”

The school board could vote on the $223 million proposal, which does not go to a public vote, yet this month. The proposal was developed by a committee of community members and school district employees over more than a year.

The district created the committee of up to 90 members, with 25 of those earmarked for school staff. But many community members did not attend, or stopped going after a while, for various reasons.

Cedar Rapids city staff took turns attending. Todd had been a member but resigned shortly after being elected to the council in November. He earlier told The Gazette the group was headed in a direction he didn’t fully endorse and he didn’t want his participation to be construed as supporting the closures.

The eight schools set for closure are Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood, Madison, Nixon, Taylor, Truman and Van Buren.

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The Gazette is hosting a forum about the facilities plan from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE in downtown.

School officials have taken criticism about the level of public input in the process of making the facilities plan, which is spurred by declining enrollment and aging and outdated schools.

City and school leaders met Tuesday at the city’s request for a broader group discussion on the facilities plan.

In attendance were Todd, District 5 City Council member Ashley Vanorny and city leaders Jeff Pomeranz, Jennifer Pratt and Angie Charipar. School representatives included Superintendent Brad Buck, board president John Laverty, board members Nancy Humbles and Mary Meisterling and chief financial officer Steve Graham.

Pomeranz, the city manager, said the city and district are in regular communication on a range of topics, including the facilities plan. He described the meeting as productive and collaborative. More meetings are expected, he said.

“I think we will continue to have discussion with the district and the city as their process moves forward,” he said. “It makes sense before decision is made to have involvement of the city.”

Akwi Nji, a school district spokeswoman, said while the city’s most recent comprehensive plan does not indicate schools are a vital feature to neighborhoods, the district sees an opportunity to fold city officials into the conversation of re-imagining the role of community schools.

“Just as one would not seek the expertise of a podiatrist for a root canal, though both are equally invested in that patient’s physical health, we must trust that our elected officials — and the staff which work with and for them — are experts in different areas of public service though equally invested in the vibrancy, sustainability, and health of our community,” she said.

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Council members including Todd, Ann Poe and Vanorny said they regularly hear from constituents wanting the city to be engaged.

“Every single day, constituents have contacted me to tell me their dissatisfaction with the plan,” Vanorny said. “If people want us to have a bigger role, we need to hear more from people — not just me, but all council members.”

Council member Scott Overland said he is not for or against the plan, which he views as a framework rather than a blueprint, but said the city should be aware of each aspect of the project as it moves forward. Kenwood Elementary is in his District 2.

“Before you start construction on where Kenwood students would go, there needs be a plan of what do with the Kenwood site,” Overland said, giving an example of how the process should move forward.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Molly Duffy of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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