Over the years, The Gazette’s editorial board generally has been supportive of local school districts’ efforts to provide new and improved facilities. We’ve seen these projects as links in a generational chain of commitment to public education.
Aging buildings now in need of replacement or updates were built by past generations willing to invest in a better future. Now, we’re stepping up.
So we appreciate the intentions driving the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s facilities master plan. The district would close eight aging elementary schools and replace 10 others with new buildings, most housing 600 students. Three other elementary schools would be renovated.
The 15-20-year plan carries a $224 million price tag. That’s slightly cheaper, the district insists, than the cost of updating its existing buildings. The plan would be funded by an extended statewide sales tax for school buildings, if the Legislature approves such an extension.
We like the plan’s objective for providing 21st century, collaborative learning environments for the district’s youngest students. Frankly, it’s an objective that should have been addressed by the district years ago.
Unlike the regrettable decision to close Polk Elementary in 2012, a call we opposed, the district’s new construction list underscores a commitment to education in core neighborhoods. The district also appears committed to making new schools into “community hubs” accessible to residents for non-school functions. Officials have sought to directly tie this facilities plan to district’s overall strategic plan and education goals.
We understand the budgetary pressure faced by the district as it works to stretch stagnant state funding, and how larger, 600-student elementary schools envisioned in the plan would create money saving efficiencies.
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The district lost 961 students this year who open enrolled in neighboring districts, with a $6.5 million budget impact. Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck contends newer facilities in those districts are a factor in that outflow.
So the plan has considerable merits. But the process that yielded it curbed our enthusiasm.
The school board could vote on the plan, which members call a “framework,” as early as Monday. That’s just five weeks after the final draft was delivered to the board. During that short window, opportunities for public discussion, questions and answers have been scarce. The Gazette hosted a facilities plan forum last Wednesday night.
We’ve argued the community has not been given enough time to fully absorb the implications of such a far-reaching plan. We still urge the district to apply the brakes and gather more input.
To craft its plan, the district formed a community committee 18 months ago and hired a consultant. Most of the committee’s meetings were closed. Its public sessions were held before a plan was finalized. During the process, officials fielding community concerns insisted no plans were final.
Just this past week, district officials met with city leaders to discuss a plan that could have major implications for neighborhoods, economic development, public safety and other issues beyond education. It’s a conversation we believe should have occurred much sooner.
It’s a process that left too many residents on the outside looking in. As much as we appreciate the work of committee members, we would have preferred an open, public discussion led by school board members elected to chart the district’s course.
But district leaders insist a vote will not end the discussion. The district plans to move forward with the plan’s initial phase in 2019, replacing at least one elementary with a new facility, and then pause for re-evaluation and public input. Lists of closed schools and new schools could be altered by changing circumstances and future board decisions. It’s a prudent strategy, considering the plan’s scope and lengthy time frame.
Despite our procedural misgivings, we’ve found enough potential positives in the plan to support the district’s vision. From an educational standpoint, new facilities are the right call for students, even as we lament the way that call was crafted by district leaders.
But our support is conditional, and hinges on how the district handles what’s next.
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Because even with the adoption of a framework, big decisions remain on the horizon. District leaders have pledged to work with residents and stakeholders in neighborhoods where schools could be closed or constructed. The district is drafting a memorandum of understanding with the city of Cedar Rapids pledging to collaborate with city leaders on its plans.
The process going forward must, in our view, look very different from the largely closed process that created the facilities plan.
Any process aimed at determining how to repurpose closed schools or design new facilities should be open, public and transparent. And it should take place in the neighborhoods affected, not at the school district’s headquarters. There should be ample opportunities public input, held at times and in venues that make it easier for busy families to attend. Meeting schedules should be widely disseminated.
At Wednesday’s forum, Buck and other leaders pledged to create an open, accessible process. We’ll be watching to see if they live up to that promise.
Doing so is in the district’s best interest. It could go a long way toward healing some of the harm left by past facilities decisions.
Restoring trust is critical, especially if lawmakers decline to extend the statewide sales tax. That could force the district to fund its plans through bond issuances requiring a public vote. And even if the tax is extended, future middle school and high school projects could require bond votes.
So the district must keep engaging, explaining and convincing. It’s no easy task, but it’s what school leaders here have done for generations.
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