116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
HILLS - In the town of Hills, there is a short stretch of a downtown with a bank, barbershop and gift shop - all on Main Street, of course.
Sidewalks are largely absent in the residential areas of Hills, which has about 800 people and is less than 10 miles south of Iowa City. Several streets dead-end at a cornfield.
And one of the first things a person sees upon entering the town from Highway 218 is Hills Elementary School. In fact, the single-story brick school building comes before the “Welcome to Hills” sign.
“Certainly it's a big focal point of the community,” Mayor Tim Kemp said.
Whether it will remain one is uncertain. The Iowa City school board is working on a facilities plan, and one of two recommendations given to it by a committee calls for Hills Elementary to close. The other says a new building should go up at the same site.
Two other elementary schools, Hoover and Lincoln, also were marked for possible closure. But both are in the heart of Iowa City, so Hills Elementary is seen as different by many people because it's the only school in town.
‘Lifeblood of community'
In making the case for why the school should be saved, the people of Hills are stressing its importance to the community.
“I don't think it's too strong a word to say it's the lifeblood of the community,” said Tara Sterba, who will have two children at Hills Elementary this fall. “It would have serious consequences if it would close.”
The facilities plan is intended to guide building decisions for the next decade, a period in which the district is expected to add another 3,000 students on top of the nearly 12,500 students it had last school year.
The school board could decide not to close any schools. A decision will be made in the coming weeks following a July 16 work session.
But for now, the district finds itself in an unusual position in Iowa, where school closures typically occur when a district's enrollment is declining and money is a problem, said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education.
Even when school districts consolidate, it's not uncommon for each town in the new district to have a school as school boards try to get mergers done with the least amount of angst, he said.
“When you lose your school attendance center, something goes out of the town,” Berger said. “It's just not quite the same.”
Twila Gerard said that has happened in Millersburg in Iowa County after its elementary school, the only school in town, was shuttered following a 2009 consolidation that created the English Valleys school district.
Elementary school events are now elsewhere, church attendance seems to be down, the town's population of 158 is 30 people less than in 2000 and there's less reason for families with children to live there, said Gerard, 72, a town historian.
“We don't have a lot of children in town anymore,” she said. “It's just sad.”
Many communities in rural Iowa, including those with schools, are losing residents, however, and Gerard said she could not definitively link what has occurred in Millersburg to the school closure.
Hills residents worry the loss of their school could reverse the good things it has going.
With increasing population - Hills added more than 100 residents between 2010 and 2012, hitting 806 - and getting voter approval for a municipal water system to resolve contamination concerns, the mayor believes the town has the potential for more growth.
“A lot of people pick where they live based on the school situation,” Kemp said.
Across the street from Hills Elementary are several 12-plex apartment buildings, duplexes and single-family homes - all built since 2008. Dozens of more lots are available.
Greg Downes owns the 12-plexes. He said each of the six buildings has a few families with school-age children and the school's proximity was a factor in some of their decisions to live there.
Downes, an Iowa City-based appraiser, said it's difficult to quantify, but he believes being near a school boosts a home's property value and its marketability by offering convenience to young families and green space to a neighborhood.
Some parents have questioned why a growing district that wants to build at least three elementary schools and a high school in the next few years would consider closing existing buildings.
Hills Elementary is the smallest school in the district with 108 students last school year, and Lincoln was the third smallest with 246 students. The building additions recommended by the facilities committee could accommodate those students and would be cheaper than operating separate schools with small enrollments, Superintendent Stephen Murley said.
Also, the new elementary schools being contemplated would hold 500 students each.
Hills Elementary supporters note boundary changes made by district officials in recent years have cost the school students. Between that and a debate two years ago on whether to close Hills Elementary, some in Hills feel the school has been targeted.
Murley said despite the population increase and boundary changes, there are only 40-some school-age children living within two miles of the school. To fill the school to capacity, its boundary would need to extend to a nearly six-mile radius, he said.
But Murley said the school being the only one in Hills should be part of the discussion.
School board President Marla Swesey, a former Hills Elementary teacher, agreed.
“They've worked very hard as a community to make it a good place for families to come and live, and they have ambitions of a growing community in the very near future, and people are waiting, I think, to know whether the school is closing to decide whether to move there,” she said.