After the Polk Elementary closure saga last year, I wrote that one bright spot might be more community interest in the Cedar Rapids School Board.
Unfortunately, that hope is dimming.
As of Thursday afternoon, when the school board secretaryís office closed for the weekend, only incumbent board members Gary Anhalt and Keith Westercamp had filed to run in Septemberís board election. Three seats are on the ballot, including Anhaltís at-large seat, the District 3 seat held by Westercamp, covering part of the cityís north side along with Hiawatha and Robins, and a District 2 seat held by Nancy Humbles, covering much of the northwest and west side of the school district, including Palo.
Itís not too late, The filing deadline is Thursday. The necessary forms can be downloaded quickly from the county auditorís website, and all you need are 50 signatures from school district voters to get on the ballot. Itís possible that some would-be candidates have downloaded the forms and are preparing to file this week. If so, good for them.
Iím not writing this because I think Anhalt, Westercamp and Humbles should be tossed. Anhalt showed guts as the lone vote against closing Polk. Nor is this about revenge for that decision.
But what that saga did show was a school board that gave considerably more weight to the arguments and prerogatives of the districtís administration than the concerns of the community. Thatís frustrating, but not all that surprising, considering that the community doesnít seem all that interested in the workings of the school board. Over the last 10 years, voter turnout in Cedar Rapids School Board elections has averaged a pathetic 3.5 percent. Iím not preaching. Iíve skipped school elections plenty.
But if you want a school board with any sense of independence, that serves as a conscientious counter weight to the power of the administration to shape issues and decisions, the community has got to get involved. Real, competitive elections not only test board members, they empower them with political capital.
And without contested elections, we get robbed of an important conversation on critical issues.
LEVY ON BALLOT
Also on the Sept. 10 ballot is a measure raising the districtís Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, or PPEL, from 67 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation to $1.34, providing $8.5 million annually to be spent on buildings, grounds, access roads, vehicles and buses. Clearly, how that money would be spent is a big issue. But so is who will be elected to do that spending.
And whether the PPEL measure passes or fails, the next school board could be faced with some big facilities issues, perhaps involving the closure of more neighborhood schools and the construction of new ones. As we saw with Polk, the implications of those decisions are huge, and resonate far beyond those neighborhoods and the families who live in them. Everyone has a stake.
School reforms are coming from the state. The pressure to transform our schools in fundamental ways is growing. List the biggest, most important issues facing us, and you can trace many back to education.
This is a school district that spent $250 million during the last school year, including more than $70 million in local property taxes and more than $90 million in state school aid. It collects revenue from a statewide sales tax for school infrastructure and an income surtax. The district employees roughly 2,900 people and educates nearly 16,000 kids. You could make a decent argument that itís the communityís most important institution.
You could also make a decent argument that the election to decide who will sit on its board of directors should be more than a no-contest afterthought.Did I mention thereís still time?