Outreach, stability made difference in bond votes

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Voters in one part of the Corridor approved the largest K-12 school bond in state history. In another region, voters declined a more modest request for a laundry list of facility improvements. What happened? And, perhaps more important, what happens next?

Voters in the Iowa City and Linn-Mar school districts turned out in nearly identical proportions. About 23 percent of Iowa City voters approved a $191.5 million bond proposal, while roughly 21 percent of Linn-Mar voters showed up to defeat an $80 million bond. Both bonds were built on facilities master plans aimed at restructuring growing school districts. Both were based on student need and hotly debated in their respective communities due to necessary shuttering or repurposing of existing facilities.

To be sure, the Linn-Mar vote faced added stress. Voters were asked to approve what would become the area’s highest property tax levy at a time when the future of the area’s largest employer is uncertain. While Iowa City advocates could point to a steady history of valuation growth, which would further spread the burden of the bond, Linn-Mar voters were digesting news alerts and reading the tea leaves.

The Rockwell merger is among external economic factors over which the district had no control. But we also believe Linn-Mar voters were overall less informed about district needs.

Iowa City bond advocates mounted a massive coordinated campaign effort. If anything, voters in Johnson County were handed an overkill of detailed information about what the bond would mean for individual facilities and student populations. But need was apparent, and outreach from all sectors of the community was persuasive — so much so that, in the end, facility needs overcame long-standing apprehensions surrounding district leadership and ongoing operational shortcomings in special education and disproportionate contact.

There was no significant thrust of information or persuasion in Linn-Mar. District officials, some new to the community, were the bond’s primary messengers. Outstanding questions about possible future school closures/repurposing remained unanswered. Linn-Mar voters weren’t given an opportunity to view broad community support for bond-funded projects.

In the next legislative session, we hope lawmakers will extend the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education sales tax, which directly benefits school facilities. Linn-Mar officials must make clear, as Iowa City officials did, that at least a portion of these funds will be used to reduce debt.

Linn-Mar could bring a new proposal to voters in as few as six months. And since future regular school and municipal elections will be combined, a special election might be the best bet for success. But whether the next proposal comes on a special or general election ballot, the community needs to be better informed through coordinated and broad support efforts.

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

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