As the Cedar Rapids school board was briefed Monday night on a $224 million facilities plan shuttering eight elementary schools, renovating three and building 10 new ones, members also heard all about “the journey.”
That’s how Rob Schwarz repeatedly described the master facility committee’s deliberations, starting in September 2016 and leading to its final recommendations this week. Schwarz is CEO of educational planning for RSP and Associates, the firm hired to guide the process.
It was quite a journey. There were 44 meetings, we were told, 80 hours or more of deliberations, presentations and discussions. The large committee of community members, originally topping 80 people, pored over reams of data, including “heat maps” showing where students are concentrated in relation to elementary schools.
Much time Monday was devoted to defending that journey. Committee member Maureen Oviatt insisted the panel was no “rubber stamp” for a preconceived plan. “I never felt pushed,” she said.
But just nine of those 44 meetings were open to the public, so community access to what member Jim Craig described as “vigorous discussions about neighborhoods,” was limited. And, as The Gazette’s education writer Molly Duffy deftly reported last week, community member attendance at meetings dwindled considerably as the journey progressed. By the end, fewer than 20 community members were taking part.
In the end, the journey led to a bold, far-reaching plan. It now should spark a community journey, allowing people to absorb its details and fully understand its implications for reshaping the district, city and neighborhoods.
The committee journeyed 16 months. But the community gets just five weeks. The school board is tentatively set to vote on the plan Jan. 22. That’s not enough time.
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Board President John Laverty insisted the board may delay its vote if members feel more community conversation is needed. That would be a smart play. Several district parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting urged the board to “dig deeper” and “hit the pause button.”
Because as much as there is to like about the plan — new schools with modern learning environments, community hubs open to neighborhood use — the district still has a massive sales job on its hands. Wreckage from past, questionable facility decisions must be cleaned up. A lot of folks who will be affected are just now tuning in. The holidays fall smack in the middle of this swift journey.
I know the district is counting on a legislative extension of the SAVE sales tax to fund its plan and skip bond referendums. But what if the Legislature, gasp, disappoints? There may be bond votes needed, and the district may wish it had taken time to build support.
The plan is astonishingly ambitious. Closing schools is a big deal, even stretched out over many years. The board needs more time to dig in, listen to its constituents and make any necessary changes.
“There needs to be more discussion. I believe that will happen,” said committee member Daryl Spivey.
And as Journey once implored, “Don’t stop believin’.”
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