Staff Columnist

Sorry, folks. The Cedar Rapids school facilities framework can't wait

XXXX during the Cedar Rapids Community School District board of education meeting at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The board voted to approve the district's master facilities plan. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
XXXX during the Cedar Rapids Community School District board of education meeting at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The board voted to approve the district's master facilities plan. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Maybe you weren’t crazy about the “framework.” No worries, “programing” will be better.

The framework approved by the Cedar Rapids school board this week calls for closing eight aging elementary schools over the next 15-plus years and building 10 new, larger elementary buildings. Three newer existing schools would be remodeled.

Programming is what’s next — a process filling the framework with important details, such as what will new elementary schools look like, what happens to closed schools and how will all this affect neighborhoods and the city. School district leaders have pledged an open, inclusive process with community conversations in affected neighborhoods and city cooperation.

Look forward to the programing, leaders say. Don’t lament how the framework was shaped by a committee meeting mostly behind closed doors. Don’t let it bug you that its final proposal received just five weeks of school board scrutiny, with scant chances for public give and take.

Critics of the framework gathered 600 signatures in just over a week on petitions urging the board to delay its vote 90 days, allowing more time for learning and input.

Request denied. By Monday night, the school board had heard enough.

“We have listened,” said board President John Laverty before a 7-0 vote.

I’m hopeful programming will bring inclusion and transparency, as promised. But I’m also skeptical, because I’ve seen how facility decisions get made in this district.

Nearly six years ago, a closed community committee weighing facilities “supposals” kicked off a tumultuous process leading to the misguided closure of Polk Elementary in 2012. It was a master’s class in how not to close a school.

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Later that year, a facilities planning process with not one, but three, committees used “group ideation” to consider future building needs. Among top recommended options was “close existing schools as needed and consolidate into one new school/schools.”

Sounds eerily familiar.

“I think consolidation and new construction are the direction leaders want to go,” I wrote in April 2013.

Three-plus years later, in 2016-17, the latest committee goes on a “journey” with the help of consultants and arrives at roughly the same destination, this time producing a detailed framework.

And after all those years and committees, 90 days more was just too much for the board. Multiple members insisted they could “no longer kick the can down the road.” Never mind that funding for the plan remains deep in legislative limbo.

“It is my belief that we have no choice but to move forward with the framework in front of us,” said Laverty, an 11-year board veteran, sitting in a district headquarters that remains a symbol of questionable school facilities choices.

The good news is much of this sketchy history happened under a former regime. Superintendent Brad Buck has been a vast improvement. And the framework, handled with care and flexibility, could positively transform the district.

But district leaders also must positively transform a preference for processes that leave constituents feeling perplexed, and unheard. Don’t just say you listened. Prove it.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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