Expensive Iowa City schools plan built on student needs

  • Photo

Residents in the Iowa City Community School District are being asked to approve a massive bond referendum on Sept. 12. With caveats, we believe they should.

The district has made it fairly easy for voters looking for a reason to reject the $191.5 million bond measure intended to complete the facilities master plan. The condition of buildings can be traced to deferred maintenance and ignored problems. Administrative policies have favored less transparency and, at times, have purposefully sought to stifle dissent and criticism.

Voters too have chosen a nearly constant revolving-door school board, creating a leadership gap that the administration hasn’t filled.

So, yes, it is understandably tempting to withhold further taxpayer money until the district demonstrates a level of transparency and leadership that residents deserve. Doing so, however, will not alleviate ongoing distrust or bickering. Withholding these funds will not protect taxpayers’ investment in existing facilities and, most important, will not benefit the children who attend Iowa City schools.

This bond, which has been labeled as the largest in Iowa K-12 history, should be approved because of stark needs, because projects completed in the first portion of the facilities plan have merited tacit trust, and because voters have an opportunity to seat a school board majority on the same ballot that is willing to make good on bond-related promises.

BUILDING NEEDS

Hundreds of district residents helped develop the Facilities Master Plan. While not everyone who participated supports the 10-year plan, it does represent a consensus of the diverse communities that Iowa City schools serve.

The district is the fifth-largest in the state and has seen a 17 percent enrollment increase since 2009. Iowa City schools are spread across 133 square miles and include 20 elementary buildings, three junior highs, two high schools and one alternative high school. Construction adds two more elementary buildings and one new high school.

Construction of a new elementary school in North Liberty is one of the first projects an approved bond would fund. It also would complete the second phase of construction at Liberty High School and significantly upgrade Mann and Lincoln elementary schools. North Central and South East junior high improvements would come in the following year, as would further renovations at City and West high schools.

A full list of updates by building are available on the district’s website.

At the 1926 Lincoln Elementary building, for instance, renovations will be completed to improve accessibility for those with disabilities. The roof and windows will be replaced and new heating and cooling systems installed. New preschool, art and music rooms will be added as well as a gymnasium.

The much newer Horn Elementary building, constructed in 1969, will receive improved accessibility, lighting upgrades, door replacements and exterior work.

Athletic facility construction and improvements are included in the facilities plan, but the bulk of what taxpayers are being asked to fund with this bond are classroom additions, window replacements, roof repairs, lighting upgrades, heating and cooling system installations and accessibility improvements.

TACIT TRUST

Funding for the first portion of the facilities plan was taken from the Iowa Secure and Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, sales tax and Physical Plant and Equipment Levy property tax. To date, more than $150 million has been spent on renovations, updates and construction at 14 sites.

With the SAVE tax set to expire unless the Legislature acts, and PPEL dollars unable to fund the facilities plan in a timely manner, school officials chose to approach the public with the $191.5 million general obligation bond on the September ballot. (The full estimated price tag of the facilities plan is $347 million.)

Construction, updates and renovations funded by the bond will affect 20 district sites, across multiple municipal jurisdictions.

Use of these funds has been prudent, with the district closely following the community-generated facilities plan.

There is no reason to believe that the remainder of the plan will be substantially changed or altered, since only minor changes in specific circumstances have occurred thus far. The vast majority of those changes have been to increase the functionality or workability of individual buildings.

In short, district officials have done what they set out to do.

BOARD MAJORITY

Distrust has been an ongoing issue for many residents in the Iowa City school district. Exploring the hows and whys would take an exorbitant amount of space, and would prove to be an exercise in futility.

District residents cannot change the past, but they have a unique opportunity to guide the future and set a new, perhaps more stable path forward.

Four of the districts’ seven school board seats will be on the September ballot alongside the bond issue. Apprehensive voters can select four people — a board majority — to serve as point people on the facilities plan and oversee use of bond funds.

This group could have a key role in making sure promises related to rollback of discretionary cash reserve levy funds, intended to lower property owner cost of the new bond issue, are indeed implemented.

If the Iowa Legislature does act to extend the SAVE sales tax, this majority would be able to decide how much, if any, would be used to reduce debt.

Given that no member of school administration or the elected board chose to meet with us to discuss this bond or the promises being made by the otherwise powerless committee working to pass it, we especially encourage voters to choose their next representatives carefully and thoughtfully.

Trust is built by people of goodwill who choose to be present, opt to listen and then use their voice. It’s built faster by repetition; showing up in good times and in bad.

Obviously, Iowa City district residents and officials haven’t yet met that goal. But the inability of adults to trust one another does not negate their responsibility to principals, teachers and students in the district.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

MORE LOCAL COMMENTARY ON THE UPCOMING ICCSD BOND ISSUE:

Smaller, neighborhood bonds don’t work (Josh Schamberger)

Trust is central issue in Iowa City bond vote (Martha Hampel)

Bond pays it forward for our community (Chris Lynch)

I.C. bond spawns unanswered questions (Jeff Cox)

A vote for bond and future workforce (Kim Casko & Shari DeMaris)

This bond plan isn’t the solution (Carol deProsse & Caroline Dieterle)

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.