With tax future uncertain, growing school districts turn to voters
Linn-Mar, Clear Creek Amana, Iowa City districts seeking a collective $300 million
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This fall, voters in three Cedar Rapids-Iowa City metro area school districts will be asked to approve a total of $300 million in bond sales to rehabilitate, update and build new public schools.
The Iowa City, Linn-Mar and Clear Creek Amana school districts all will ask voters Sept. 12 to commit money — backed by their property taxes — to schools.
The requests are reflective of an increase in bond issue questions being put to Iowa voters as an existing sales tax for school construction faces an uncertain future and as some districts try to cope with booming student population growth.
A final count for this year is not yet available, but last school year 24 school bond questions were on ballots around the state, up from 14 during the 2008-2009 school year and up from nine in 2010-2011, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.
Of course, all those did not pass. Last year, voters rejected 11 of the 24.
“Growth is likely partly due to the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) expiration on the horizon,” said Tammy Votava, spokeswoman for Iowa Association of School Boards, a private nonprofit organization that represents all of Iowa’s school districts.
SAVE, a penny sales tax that funds school facility projects, was not extended past 2029 last legislative session.
But expensive infrastructure projects typically require a bonding capacity of 20 years, according to an Iowa Association of School Boards report, and a 2029 expiration is “causing stress” in districts that need facility updates or additions that “require a large source of revenue upfront to complete these projects.”
“You might say that’s out there quite a ways, but when you bond you typically bond to a 20-year bond referendum,” said Kim Huckstadt of the University of Northern Iowa’s College of Education, whose specialties include school financing. “What has happened is (school districts) have bonded against the sales tax money they’re expecting to receive, but now their bonding capacity is shrinking — and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Extending the sales tax to 2049 “would be a huge help,” said Clear Creek Amana Superintendent Tim Kuehl, whose district will ask voters in September to approve a $36 million bond issue, only three years since they passed a bond for $48 million.
But the main culprit behind the Clear Creek Amana district’s needs — as well as the Linn-Mar and Iowa City districts — is an exploding student population, Kuehl said.
While the student population of the Cedar Rapids district — the second largest in the state — continues to shrink, some of its neighbors are bracing for additions of hundreds of students in the coming years.
In Clear Creek Amana, which includes areas of North Liberty and Coralville as well as Tiffin and Oxford, a stable increase of students — from 65 to 120 added every year, Kuehl said — has created a space squeeze for the district’s existing six schools.
The $36 million bond would pay for a new upper elementary school for the fifth and sixth grade, an academic addition to the high school, an elementary gym and other various updates.
It comes on the heels of a $48 million bond in 2014, which paid for a new elementary school and additions to the middle and high schools.
“It’s truly a space issue, especially at our elementaries in North Bend and Tiffin,” he said. “As well as at the high school — which is crazy to say, when we’re just opening up a new addition in the fall, that we’re going to need one again in four or fives years. But we are. That’s just the reality of the situation.”
Approval of the bond, the superintendent said, would keep the property tax rate stable at about $16.95 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value.
Without it, he said the district would have to start busing students from North Bend and Tiffin elementaries, both near Interstate 380, to Clear Creek and Amana elementary schools, which are at least a dozen miles west.
The upper elementary school would address crowding at North Bend and Tiffin, he said, while the district’s other elementary schools would remain as kindergarten through fifth-grade buildings.
To the north of Cedar Rapids in Marion, the Linn-Mar school district is asking voters to approve an $80 million bond issue to cope with a predicted 8,000-student enrollment by 2021, up from its current count of about 7,300, spokesman Matthew May said.
The first bond put to Linn-Mar voters since 2006, the $80 million would fund two new schools for the fifth and sixth grade and a new elementary school, as well as renovations and additions to existing facilities.
The district’s tax rate would incrementally increase to about $19 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property by 2021.
“The important thing with this plan is this additional growth,” May said. “The district has seen tremendous growth — each grade has more than 500 students, and we’ve seen an increase of 2,000 students since 2006.”
Behind that growth, May said, are new residences in Marion. A special census last year in a select area of the city found it had grown by more than 2,800.
“We’ve experienced that same growth since the 2010 (census) survey,” May said, noting additional growth in the community of Robins, north of Marion. “ ... We are growing tremendously, and we’re out of room in our elementary and our middle schools.”
The schools that would hold the fifth and sixth grades would both be built on the north side of town, next to Echo Hill Elementary and near 35th Avenue and 35th Street.
The new elementary school also would be built near that intersection, which is about 2 miles northeast of Linn-Mar High School.
Meanwhile, in Iowa City, campaigns to either pass and to strike down a $191.5 million bond — the biggest ever in the state — are well underway.
If passed, the bond issue would increase the district’s total tax rate to $14.96 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value.
The bond, district officials have said, would fund 20 projects at schools across the district outlined in the district’s 10-year master facility plan, which allows for the district’s expected growth of nearly 3,000 students by 2024.
The first half of the plan was largely paid for with funds from the SAVE tax and the physical plant and equipment levy, or PPEL, and the district “would likely have continued with that process,” Superintendent Steve Murley said.
“Had SAVE been extended, the board would most certainly have taken a second look at moving forward with a general obligation bond to complete our facilities master plan,” Murley said in an email. “Depending on the timing of the extension (hindsight is always 20/20) the issue of a GO bond might never have surfaced!”
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