As I reflect back on the past three months, commencing as the Cedar Rapids Community School District facilities master plan was exposed in earnest by the committee that created it, a quote this past week in The Gazette from school district Communications Director Akwi Nji strikes me as describing this project perfectly.
When discussing the interaction between the city of Cedar Rapids and the district regarding the facilities plan, she said: “Just as one would not seek the expertise of a podiatrist for a root canal, though both are equally invested in that patient’s physical health, we must trust that our elected officials — and the staff which work with and for them — are experts in different areas of public service though equally invested in the vibrancy, sustainability and health of our community.”
Therein lies the problem — this well thought out statement demonstrates the disconnect between the school district and its view of the relationship to the community it serves.
The district is not the dentist, nor is the city government the podiatrist. Instead, both are functions within our community and neighborhoods, similar to the circulatory and respiratory systems of the patient in the analogy used. They work best when working symbiotically.
If one changes how it works, the other is directly affected. One could assume you can pull a tooth and your big toe will keep working just fine, uninterrupted in its function. But if you pull a school from a neighborhood, we can see from firsthand accounts in the Polk Elementary neighborhood that the city and neighborhood is directly affected.
We need these two systems to work together to ensure the broader implications of this plan are addressed, planned for up front, and that it is as right for the community as it appears to be for the district.
Just as the school district engaged a consultant to help it focus on its issues, the city and district would be well served to engage with an organization such as the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California at Berkeley. It is an organization devoted to helping cities and schools develop structures for strong ongoing joint policymaking, ensuring these two systems work well together and remain healthy.
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As Steve Graham, the district’s CFO, has said multiple times, property values in Cedar Rapids are not increasing at the same pace as in the rest of the state. Money is not pouring into the city or its schools. The fact is, money actually is pouring out as the number of families choosing to leave the district while remaining in the city increases every year.
We can’t afford to work in silos anymore. We must take the same approach to 21st-century learning that we want our new buildings to foster, including collaboration, and apply that to this master plan.
Three city employees appointed to the facilities committee, with scattered attendance, is not collaboration — it is a check box next to the name “City involvement.”
We must do better as a community. The stakes are too high for our city and our children — not just our toes and teeth.
• Keith Hammer lives in southeast Cedar Rapids, where his children attended Grant Wood Elementary, McKinley Middle and Washington High School. He is a member of Save Our Cedar Rapids Neighborhoods.