Public deserves more time to weigh C.R. schools' facilities plan

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This week, the Cedar Rapids Community School District will be hosting three, two-hour public input sessions intended to gather feedback on its Facilities Master Plan, a sprawling blueprint deciding the fate of the district’s 21 elementary schools over the next 15 years or more. Its price tag is large and its potential effects on the district and the city’s future are immense.

It’s not a final plan, insists Superintendent Brad Buck. Input sessions, he insists, can still have an effect. We implore district residents to show up and be heard.

But, soon, there will be a final plan. Just a month after these meetings, on Dec. 11, a committee of community members that’s been crafting the facilities plan behind the scenes for the better part of a year will present its final draft to the Cedar Rapids school board. On Jan. 8, the public will get its one chance to tell the school board what it thinks about the plan, in a public setting. On Jan. 22, the board is set to vote the plan up or down.

So between the moment a final plan is handed to the school board and the school board approves or rejects it, there will be just a little over a month for district parents and taxpayers to learn about the plan and relay their concerns to elected decision-makers. There will be only one opportunity for making public comments on the plan in public.

In our view, given the plan’s scope, it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.

Consider the implications of the plan as it stands.

The district is mulling the closure of eight elementary schools — Truman, Madison, Taylor, Van Buren, Grant Wood, Garfield, Kenwood and Nixon. The district says nine elementary school sites would be in line for new 600-student buildings — Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover, Harrison, Jackson, Erskine, Arthur, Wright and Pierce. The Johnson STEAM Academy could be the site of a new 450-student building while Viola Gibson, Hiawatha and Grant would be slated for updates.

The district estimates the plan’s price tag at $216 million. Officials have no plans to issue bonds for planned projects, which would require a public vote. Instead, Buck said the district is pinning its hopes to a legislative extension of a statewide penny sales tax for school buildings set to expire in 2028. Such an extension is likely to be an issue during the Iowa Legislature’s 2018 session.

We believe, regardless of how the plan is financed, backers should campaign for it as if it’s on the ballot.

Like a bond campaign, master plan supporters must start with a full-court public education campaign. Although those with ties to the district may be informed about the planning process, taxpayers without those ties may be left in the dark. School closures, in particular, will have lasting effects on neighborhoods, property values and other factors. All residents of the district deserve to be fully informed about those implications.

A month straddling the holiday season provides too little time to explain details and explore effects, both intended and unintended. At a minimum, district taxpayers should have 120 days or more to consider the final facilities plan. Given the plan’s 15-year time-frame, we see no reason to hurry and every reason to make sure an informed public has had its full say.

More time also provides an opportunity for the elected school board to show leadership and put its own stamp on the plan, with the help of its constituents. The work of committees and administrators is vital, but only the school board is accountable to voters.

Critics, led by members of the Save CR Schools Coalition, have raised legitimate issues about the plan’s possible effects on neighborhoods, the fate of architecturally significant and historic school buildings and the future uses of buildings slated for closure. More time gives the district an opportunity to better address those concerns, and others.

We do think the district’s preliminary facilities plan has considerable merits. It envisions the creation of new learning environments for students designed to embrace 21st-century learning, teaching and technology. New schools, under the plan, would be “community hubs,” with gymnasiums, libraries and other facilities open to public use after school hours.

The district also makes a compelling argument that new schools could help the district better allocate staffing and other resources at a time of small state school funding increases and political uncertainty for public schools.

We understand, for those close to this process, more deliberation may not seem necessary. But many families and taxpayers are just now tuning in to the process and learning of the plan. They deserve more time to consider a decision that promises to reshape the district and the city for generations.

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

Facilities Master Plan public forums:

• Monday: 6 to 8 p.m., Jefferson High School band room, 1243 20th St. SW

• Wednesday: 6 to 8 p.m., Kennedy High School band room, 4545 Wenig Rd. NE

• Thursday: 6 to 8 p.m., Washington High School cafeteria, 2205 Forest Dr. SE

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