Facilities, bargaining stand out in Cedar Rapids

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With the Cedar Rapids Community School District on the verge of making some potentially big and contentious decisions on the future of its facilities, two school board seats are on the ballot.

In District 3, incumbent Keith Westercamp, who owns a real estate appraisal firm, is being challenged by Jennifer Borcherding, an active volunteer in the district and substitute teacher. Although the seat represents a district, it’s elected at-large.

Incumbent Gary Anhalt, a retired teacher, is running for re-election to an at-large seat. He’s being challenged by Kirkwood student Theodore Collins and systems engineer Christopher Gehrke.

Later this fall, the next school board will receive a series of final recommendations from the district’s facilities planning committee. It seems likely the 18-month process will yield a recommendation that, at its core, will call for closing at least eight of the district’s 21 elementary schools. New, larger elementary schools would be built to replace them. The board’s decisions will shape the district for decades.

During interviews with our editorial board, none of the candidates were willing to fully embrace such a proposal. Most insisted the study committee’s final report has yet to be released, so they’re withholding judgment until they see more detail. To their credit, all of the hopefuls expressed a desire for a thorough, inclusive public input process giving district residents the opportunity to sound off before any board votes on facilities plans.

But voters, and our editorial board, can’t withhold judgment on the Sept. 12 election. We have to choose now, from a field of quality candidates.

AT-LARGE

Among the hopefuls, Anhalt seemed to be the most interested in replacing aging buildings with new schools that “meet 21st century expectations for students.” But he also insisted the facilities plan should be treated as a set of objectives, not a single vote set “in granite.”

That’s especially true if the district fails to identify a long — term funding stream, which he contends depends largely on the Legislature’s willingness to extend a sales tax for school infrastructure.

“We can come forth with a plan. I wouldn’t OK anything without a funding piece in place,” Anhalt said.

We also appreciated Anhalt’s assertion that any new buildings should be planned with other community uses in mind and in partnership with the city and other groups.

“These are community buildings. They’re not district buildings. They’re paid for by the citizens and they belong to the whole community,” Anhalt said.

But what pushed us to endorse the incumbent is another big issue looming for the board, namely massive changes in collective bargaining rights for teachers. Anhalt’s experience leading the local teachers’ bargaining unit will prove invaluable as the board navigates its new, more powerful role in setting working conditions for teachers and staff.

Anhalt says the district should several options, potentially including work agreements or labor-management committees to makes sure teachers remain heard on workplace issues. “Let’s work together. Just because the state changed the rules doesn’t mean our attitude has changed,” Anhalt said.

It was a close call. Gehrke displayed an impressive command of districts issues and, as the father of five children attending district schools, knowledge of needs down to the building level. Collins, a recent graduate of Kennedy High School, brought a passion for the student’s perspective on school issues.

DISTRICT 3

In District 3, Westercamp’s experience earned him the nod.

With major facilities decisions on the horizon, including determining the future of older school facilities, we see Westercamp’s experience with real estate and appraisals as valuable to the board.

“I can go through a lot of these details and I know I can have some important input when it comes to how we obtain land and so on,” Westercamp told our board.

Westercamp also seems to grasp some of the district’s other challenges, including a graduation rate in need of significant improvment, lagging adoption of new technologies and the need for more relevant curricula, including math, to bridge the gap between classroom instruction and real-world applications.

Again, it was a tough call. We liked Borcherding’s enthusiasm and commitment to the district reflected in her long list of volunteer efforts and work as a substitute. But Westercamp’s experience seems to fit the moment for Cedar Rapids schools.

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

The Gazette editorial board invited the candidates to submit a guest essay addressing their background and desire to serve. One at-large candidate, Theodore Collins, declined.

Follow the links below to read what the candidates wrote:

Gary Anhalt

Jennifer Borcherding

Chris Gehrke

Keith Westercamp

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