It seems clear the Cedar Rapids Community School District and its leaders should have a little more conversation before they take action on a far-reaching school facilities plan.
So The Gazette has organized a public forum on the plan set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown. Superintendent Brad Buck and other representatives from district staff, the school board and facilities planning committee are expected to explain the plan to close eight elementary schools, renovate three schools and build 10 new elementary buildings. They’ll also field questions we’re collecting from concerned folks.
You can sign up to attend at The Gazette’s website (thegazette.com/crschoolforum) and submit questions ahead of time. You can also send me questions by email, if you’d like. My address is at the end of this column.
The school board is scheduled to vote on the plan Jan. 22, although it’s possible the vote will be delayed. At last week’s school board meeting, members debated whether the vote should be pushed back to allow more time for public input. I had to leave the meeting before the discussion started, but I reviewed video of the meeting later.
School board member Gary Anhalt argued for tapping the brakes.
“We need to have, somehow, more community conversations,” Anhalt said. He’s concerned minority communities, low-income families and others have been underrepresented in the input process. And he worries affected residents still know too little about how these facility plans fit into the district’s educational objectives.
“I’ve been in Cedar Rapids education for 47 years. The last, biggest impact we had on the educational system is when we moved from a K-6 to a middle school concept,” Anhalt told his board colleagues. “What we’re talking about is probably going to have a greater impact than that decision.”
Anhalt’s call for more conversation met with some skepticism.
“Are you discounting the fact that many of us have spent dozens of hours with many of these people?” said board President John Laverty, questioning Anhalt’s call for more input.
“How much more?” Laverty asked.
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It’s true, as the facilities committee spent 18 months and 44 meetings crafting a plan to close eight elementary schools, remodel three and build 10 new, larger schools, nine public briefings were held to update district residents. The rest of its sessions were closed.
Anhalt contends, during much of that planning process, officials facing questions about closures insisted no final plan had been adopted.
“But the buck now stops with us,” Anhalt said.
The final plan was presented to the school board on Dec. 11 and was discussed at last week’s meeting. During both meetings, members of the public were given time to make comments. But, due to the board’s interpretation of open meetings law, they could not ask questions and receive answers in public session. At a forum on the plan earlier this month, Anhalt and Superintendent Brad Buck attended but did not take questions in public.
Anhalt wants more conversation and more time. Laverty put the onus on the community.
“I really leave this up to the community to tell us what it is you feel you need beyond those who have already talked to us,” Laverty said as the meeting ended.
“We’ll put the word out to get ahold of us,” Laverty said.
So The Gazette got ahold of them. And to their credit, district leaders are willing to take questions in public.
One big question is what the board’s vote will mean.
The facility committee’s plan calls for closing Madison and Truman elementaries 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. The sites of Cleveland, Harrison, Hoover and Jackson elementary schools in the northwest quadrant, Arthur, Pierce and Wright in the northeast, Coolidge in the southwest, and Erskine and Johnson in the southeast quadrant would be torn down and rebuilt.
Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson would be renovated.
But does the board’s vote mean that’s exactly what will happen over the next 15 years or more, or could the plan be altered over time? Will future board actions reshape it? Will the list change?
“This is not in granite,” Laverty said. “This isn’t etching something in the stones and putting up on the mount for eternity. Things, even in the next five years, likely could change.”
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Laverty insisted the plan includes “tiers and phases” that can be evaluated along the way. And the board is on the verge of approving a resolution requiring five-year facility policy evaluations.
“But for me, this is the plan to get us started,” Laverty said. “That first phase says let’s get a couple of these buildings underway so the public can see what we’re talking about.”
Facilities committee member Phil Wasta urged the board to see the plan as a “framework” with details filled in later through “programming.” That programming would involve more public engagement over the design of new schools and the future of buildings picked for closure.
“You have to get a yes to that before you start programming,” Wasta said.
Anhalt argued it’s important for the district get more community buy-in on its plans and address what he sees as fear and distrust. Although officials expect plans for elementary schools to be paid for through an extended state sales tax, future work on middle and high schools could need local voter support.
“The more that we can culture that public support, the more that we can build the trust … the better off that we will be,” Anhalt said.
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