Kirkwood community college pitching bond renewal to enhance student experience

If voters renew an existing tax for five years, it'll raise $60 million

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Community college students often see themselves as commuters.

“I go to class. I go back home. I work. That’s sort of the ethos,” said Jon Buse, vice president of student services for Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

But maybe it shouldn’t be, he suggested.

“We’re really trying to attack that as something that’s not really productive from a learning perspective,” Buse said.

Kirkwood’s effort, in part, comes in the form of proposed building renovation and construction projects the institution hopes to finance using money from a bond issue it says voters across 13 counties are being asked to approve.

“The centerpiece of this whole bond issue is a student center and student services,” Kirkwood President Mick Starcevich told The Gazette.

A “modern, welcoming student center focused on accessibility, service, convenience, inclusiveness and collaboration” would pool scattered college resources, update student amenities and enhance the feeling of community.

“We sort of see the student center as really the thing that pulls all of this together — from a student engagement, student success perspective,” Buse said. “It has the potential to affect every student who attends Kirkwood.”

In addition to paying for a new student center, revenue from Kirkwood’s bond sale proposal would support upgrades to its existing Washington Hall, Animal Health Technology Building, Automotive Technology Program and Iowa City campus.

The bond issue won’t create an additional tax but instead renew for five more years a tax of 25 cents tax per $1,000 of assessed taxable property value that voters passed in 2005 and renewed again in 2012.

The issue, which goes before voters Sept. 12 and requires 60 percent approval to pass, would generate $60 million, according to Starcevich.

“This is all part of a facility study we do, and this is really our last major effort that’s needed on campus,” he said. “The key is, there’s no increase in tax rate, it just adds five more years to the debt. Which isn’t bad for $60 million, and the impact of that $60 million will be huge.”

‘Creating a real student body’

Kirkwood identified its most pressing capital concerns through a three-year study facilitated by the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. The study aimed to improve student learning, along with retention and graduation rates, by “engaging them in the life of the college.”

“One of the key recommendations of that was essentially to improve some really important service things that are really floundering right now,” Buse said.

Most notably, he said, is Kirkwood’s student center. Right now, according to Buse, it’s essentially a cafeteria. With bond revenue, the school would gut that building and revamp it.

“We can do much more to engage our students,” Buse said. “They need to see it and feel like they’re a part of a place and we welcome them.”

Kirkwood already bucks many community college norms in its campus collaboration and academic offerings, according to Buse.

“We are more like a university experience than we are like a traditional community college experience, and so the student center really sort of captures that and tries to capitalize on our unique place in higher education in Iowa as a community college,” he said. “I think it will have a huge impact for everyone who attends Kirkwood down the road.”

The bond comes at a critical time, with the state facing budget shortfalls — translating to deep cuts across higher education. Community colleges took a hit in the 2017 budget year that just ended, and Kirkwood officials said they’re bracing for more cuts.

Meanwhile, the state has set an ambitious goal of getting 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce some degree of higher education by 2025 to keep up with anticipated job demands. Community colleges are viewed as playing an imperative role in achieving that.

But Buse said Kirkwood’s bond is not about recruitment or enrollment or strengthening its competitive grip on prospective students.

“We’re not trying to wrap up a brand-new building as a present to attract people,” he said. “This comes really after a very methodical effort to improve things — like how students are oriented to the college,” he said. “We are intentionally walking down a path of creating a real student body here.”

‘It’s really crowded’

Other projects supported by the bond would include converting Washington Hall, current home to Kirkwood’s Agricultural Sciences, into a modern learning space, and upgrading its Animal Health Technology Building.

“We really need to improve that, if you think about the quality of care of our animals,” Starcevich said.

Upgrades to Kirkwood’s automotive technology program would involve the creation of a state-of-the-art auto lab capable of training students to work with today’s technology. And work on the Iowa City campus would add 24,000 square feet to meet demands of a growing and increasingly diverse population.

“It’s really crowded in all the hallways all the time,” said Shelby Kempf, 20, a new Kirkwood-Iowa City student. “And it’s almost impossible to find a parking spot if you get here right away in the morning.”

Kirkwood student Jason Lorigan, 22, said he’d like to see more library — or at least study — space.

“Coming from two larger universities, this is way too small,” he said. “It takes away from the learning environment, the academic environment, because everyone’s right there in your face. There’s no quiet place.”

‘enthusiastically support both’

Kirkwood’s bond issue joins several others on area ballots this fall — with the Iowa City, Linn-Mar and Clear Creek Amana K-12 school districts all asking voters Sept. 12 to commit more of their money, via property tax, to education.

Dan Wasta, campaign coordinator for a group backing the Iowa City bond, said he isn’t concerned about bond fatigue for voters across Eastern Iowa. He’s knocked on more than 10,000 doors, and he hasn’t heard residents voice those concerns.

“The Kirkwood bond doesn’t impact voters the same way our bond does,” he said.

And his group is equally supportive of the Kirkwood bond.

“We enthusiastically support both bonds,” he said. “We think education is a big deal, and we think Kirkwood has done a ton for this area.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Source: Linn County IT Department

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