The Elephant in the Room

ELS Center under construction in August. (Brian Ray/SourceMedia Group)
ELS Center under construction in August. (Brian Ray/SourceMedia Group)

I was asleep at the switch when the Educational Leadership and Support Center was approved. It’s among my biggest regrets as a local scribbler.

I’m talking about the $44 million headquarters for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. While its plans were being forged after the flood, my attention was elsewhere. I fixated on the city’s recovery plans while the district replaced its flooded administration facilities with a massive new edifice.

I should have objected, strenuously. No excuses. I failed.

Now, as the district mulls elementary school closings, the “ELS Center” is the elephant in the room.

It is a big fella. At 169,000 square feet, nearly three football fields, it’s much larger than the 112,000-square-foot Grimes State Office Building, home of the Iowa Department of Education.

It’s also almost finished, and there’s likely no going back. But I think the ELS Center remains a relevant issue, if only as a giant, naturally lit symbol of cognitive dissonance.

It’s remarkable that a school district now pointing to its steadily declining enrollment and related budget woes is the same one that’s also building itself a grand new capitol. District leaders say elementary closures have been looming for years, and yet it didn’t seem fiscally smarter to plan to put administrative functions into a soon-to-be empty building?

A list of frequently asked questions about the project on the district’s website offers this: “Will any student-based programs be located at the ELS Center?”

The answer is a blunt, and telling, “No.”

The $30 million in bonds issued by the district to help pay for the ELS Center could have nearly sliced in half a long list of needed elementary school repairs, problems now being used as pretext for closures. Nearly a third of district elementary schools are in “borderline” condition, according to a facilities assessment.

That should have been the top priority. Instead the district will be moving into its new administrative headquarters not long after the school board's fateful vote on closing elementary schools.

The district points out that it has $111 million in infrastructure needs but has only $101 million in School Infrastructure Local Option, or SILO, dollars unspent through 2029. So a district that chose to use $30 million to provide nice digs for administrators instead of students is now lamenting a $10 million gap. Priceless.

This was a local call, to be sure. But state leaders were a big help. They decided to take the local option tax for schools out of the hands of local voters, clearing the way for a project that never would have passed at the polls.We can’t go back in time. True enough. But there is still time to stop the ELS Center from becoming a massive, bitter memorial to shuttered neighborhood schools. And there’s still time to pay attention.