116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids school board unanimously approved a facilities plan Monday night that calls for eight elementary schools over the next two decades to be closed.
Each of the seven members voted 'yes' after about 90 minutes of public comment, during which the majority of speakers asked the board to delay the vote.
At one point, dozens of people in the audience held up sheets of paper covered in signatures — those of more than 600 people who signed a petition urging the board to wait another 90 days.
A group of parents fanned out across the city — to libraries, laundromats, malls and grocery stores — to collect the signatures, they said. They found almost no vocal support for the plan.
'All told, our group heard from no more than 10 people who knew of and supported the plan,' said Dexter Merschbrock, a parent from Grant Wood Elementary. 'And two of those were immediate family members of the superintendent.'
Mollie Schule was one parent who collected signatures, and she told board members she did not meet a single person who knew about and supported the plan.
The only people who declined to sign the petition, she said, identified themselves as district employees who feared retaliation.
Board members previously had said they would consider delaying Monday's vote, and they and the facilities committee behind the proposal have been criticized for not involving a representative number of low-income residents and people of color.
But after each member made brief comments, all voted for the plan, which was prompted by declining enrollment and aging facilities.
'Although it is not perfect, and I know it is not what some of you in the audience tonight wish would happen, these are very difficult decisions,' President John Laverty said. ' ... It is my belief that we have no choice but to move forward with the framework in front of us.'
The plan includes:
l 10 newly constructed elementary schools. Nine would be 600-student schools: Arthur, Cleveland, Coolidge, Erskine, Harrison, Hoover, Jackson, Pierce and Wright, with 'renovation considerations' for Harrison instead of a new building. One would be a 450-student school: Johnson.
l Three renovated, four-section elementaries: Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson.
l Eight elementary schools closed and 'repurposed:' Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood, Madison, Nixon, Taylor, Truman and Van Buren.
The board also approved a policy requiring it to conduct a 'review of sites of facilities' at least once every five years. Those reviews could lead to changes to the specifics of the facilities plan.
Laverty said the policy is evidence that the board has listened to community concerns about the plan.
The flexibility built into the facilities plan eased board member Gary Anhalt's concerns, he said, as well as providing future opportunities for community input.
At the board's Jan. 8 meeting, he asked whether the vote could be delayed.
'All of this, in this day and age, is trust,' Anhalt said, asking the public to stay involved with the plan as it unfolds. 'We can put it down on paper and so on, but trust is developed not through words and talking, but through action.'
Most board members, including Vice President Nancy Humbles, thanked the facilities committee and Superintendent Brad Buck for their work.
'I'm supportive of Dr. Buck, the facility master planning committee, the district staff and community members that were involved in this community process, as well as their recommendation to the board,' Humbles said. 'The time is now to do something.'
'We listened to everyone. We've talked to many people; we've had countless emails, countless conversations,' board member Mary Meisterling added. 'There is strong support in the community to move this plan forward.'
The plan has an estimated cost of $224.2 million, according to the resolution, and would be funded by an extension of the SAVE tax, an existing statewide penny sales tax whose extension could be approved by state legislators this session.
Money from the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, or PPEL, might also be an additional funding source.
Funds related to an extension of the SAVE tax would be available in July 2020 at the earliest.
The resolution calls for meetings with stakeholders of three schools to discuss the future of those facilities.
The district plans to meet with stakeholders at Coolidge Elementary in January 2019, to discuss how a new school at that site would be designed and built. A similar meeting will take place at Jackson Elementary in January 2020.
In January 2021, the district would meet with the Truman neighborhood to discuss closing the school and 'repurposing' the building.