In Iowa City, a quiet movement against massive school bond

For many in 'Vote No September 12' campaign, opposition to school bond a first

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IOWA CITY — As the mother and grandmother of children with special needs, Heather Young has never voted against a school bond issue.

But she’s actively campaigning against the $191.5 million bond being put to voters Sept. 12 in the Iowa City Community School District.

“Our lives are so tied to public school and what it’s done for our kids and what it’s doing for our granddaughter,” said Young, 50. “We are the most ardent supporters you’ll ever meet. I’m actually flabbergasted that I am in this role saying no.”

Other members of a small group of Iowa City residents behind a new movement against the bond, the Vote No September 12 campaign, said they, too, are in new territory opposing a tax increase to benefit schools.

The bond would fund the completion of the district’s 10-year master facilities plan, which includes facility updates for most of the district’s schools.

The bond would raise the district’s total tax rate to an estimated $14.96 from $13.98 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value. For the owner of a $100,000 property, that would mean a $51 increase per year, according to the school district. The ballot question needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.

“I’ve never voted against a school bond before, but I feel strongly about this one,” said Tom Carsner, 59, who works for the standardized test group ACT. “This is the largest bond in the history of the state of Iowa. I think that gets people’s attention.”

The Vote No September 12 campaign comes weeks after the start of the One Community One Bond effort, which formally launched its fundraising efforts with a news conference in May.

As of June 20, the pro-bond campaign had raised upward of $77,000, according to records provided by its campaign coordinator, Daniel Wasta, who has worked on campaigns for Iowa Democrats.

Of the 139 donations made, 17 have been for $1,000 or more, according to the records. Those larger donations account for about 80 percent of the campaign’s total funds raised.

In contrast, the Vote No campaign has raised just over $1,000, said Martha Hampel, a district parent who helped organize the campaign.

Members of the oppositional group said they are concerned with the dollar amount of the bond and the scope of its project list.

“This bond is expensive and unfocused,” Carsner said. “There is almost every potential project included. When everything is thrown in, it’s hard to look at what the priorities really are.”

There are worries, too, about recent complaints against the district, including a state finding this month that its use of student seclusion rooms violated federal law in some cases.

“No one’s going to jail for this,” Young said. “This isn’t criminal stuff. The only thing that can happen is we can say no to the bond.”

Support for the school bond, though, continues to build. The Iowa City Education Association, which represents about 700 teachers in the district, endorsed the bond last Monday.

Brady Shutt, the association’s co-president, said he sees passage of the bond as support for district students more so than a vote of confidence in an administration.

“The student who starts next fall as a kindergartner is probably going to be in our schools longer than any administrator,” said Shutt, a teacher at Liberty High. “I’m hoping we can move beyond that and see a bigger picture.”

But Hampel said she doesn’t believe voters should “always vote yes or always vote no on a school bond.” In an email, she said the bond should have clearer priorities and that, unlike others in the opposition, she doesn’t feel odd opposing “a bad bond.”

“The folks pushing for the $191 million school bond are literally banking on the idea that folks will do anything when they hear the phrase ‘it’s for the children,’” Hampel said. “The facts show that this bond will do more harm than good to our children, families and community. Luckily, I feel voters in our school district are smarter than to fall for it.”

More opponents, Young said, could be keeping quiet for fear of retaliation. While “Vote No” yard signs are popping up in the area, her yard will stay empty.

“We’re all liberals, we’re all the stereotypical liberals in Iowa City,” Young said. “We’re all saying, ‘Can you believe we’re saying no to a school bond?’”

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