Iowa City school bond proposal mixes urgent with unknowns

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Iowa City schools are asking voters this September to borrow $192 million to fund school construction.

The bond would help fund a wide range of facilities projects across the district, including a new North Liberty elementary school, a replacement for Hoover Elementary, capacity expansions at eight schools, and remodeling or upgrades at several others.

District administrators and a majority of school board members say those projects are necessary and urgent in order to ease overcrowding and promote equitable learning environments. However, some critics are concerned that the district’s expansion may be too aggressive or too pricey.

“The only reason I’m a ‘no’ vote is because they have added in a whole bunch of capacity expansions — not renovations or air conditioning or new schools where we already have the kids to justify them — I’m talking about capacity expansions that we don’t have any projections showing we have kids to sit in those seats,” school board member Chris Liebig told me.

Addressing overcrowding is a matter of balancing two factors — population size and capacity.

Projecting student population size into the future is an understandably difficult and imprecise task, but it turns out that school building capacity is also a tricky metric. Earlier this year, the district revised its capacity calculations for existing schools.

Accounting for the new building capacity numbers, projected elementary school capacity exceeds projected enrollment by over 1,600 students, according to Liebig’s tally at his blog, “Another Blog About School.”

The bond referendum is a $190 million taxpayer gamble: Maybe the district’s projections will come to fruition and maybe their newest capacity calculations will prove reliable. Maybe they won’t.

Under the bonding plan, the school district’s construction debt would be paid for by a property tax increase. In real terms, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay an estimated $163 in additional property tax payments in 2019.

It’s unfortunate that the immediately necessary upgrades and expansions in the facilities plan are tied to the superfluous projects. If the bond referendum fails to reach the 60 percent approval required, the district has to wait at least a full year to issue another bond referendum and important projects will be put on hold.

A more reasonable approach would have been limited to necessary renovations and classroom expansions at buildings where an immediate need clearly exists. Instead, school officials threw in a long list projects that may or may not be needed years from now.

The ballot language before voters in September will call for upgrades and renovations to specific schools. If voters approve it, it’s unclear how much future boards could stray from that language.

School election voters are fickle and the Iowa City school board is not exactly a model for political stability. Every member is serving her or his first term and four of seven were elected in 2015 or 2016. It seems unlikely that a majority of today’s board will remain in place for the life of this facilities plan.

“It’s a democracy. Long-term planning has to be subject to change. If (the board does) something people don’t like, they are going to vote other people in and change it,” Liebig said.

• Adam Sullivan’s column appears on Fridays. Comments: Sullivan.AB@gmail.com; adam4liberty.com

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