116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — After months of debate that delayed the construction of a new elementary school in Hills by a year, the Iowa City school board has agreed to move forward with the plan.
The school board approved a facility master plan earlier this year that included construction of a new elementary school in Hills to replace the 50-year-old building. While the school originally was supposed to be completed by summer 2025, debate among board members as to whether the district should maintain a school in the community delayed construction for a year.
Maka Pilcher-Hayek, who was elected to the Iowa City school board in November, questioned the board’s earlier decision to build a new school in Hills, noting that the number of students bused to Hills Elementary outweighs the number of students in residence.
“Our job is not to represent a town, it is to represent the best interest of all students,” Pilcher-Hayek said at a board meeting.
The board approved a timeline for its second round of facility master plan projects on April 14, which was described as a “living document that could be modified and amended as needed,” according to board documents.
Last Tuesday, the board approved in a 6-1 vote a modified completion date for Hills Elementary in the timeline. Pilcher-Hayek voting no, saying she wanted more information on what growth in the community south of Iowa City might look like.
The board approved a design contract earlier this year for an elementary school in Hills for $20.1 million, but is unsure where the school would be built. Options include the 7 acres of property where Hill’s Elementary currently sits or somewhere else in the city.
For the 2021-22 school year, 70 percent of Hill’s Elementary students were bused to the school from areas north of Hills, the southern portion of Iowa City and unincorporated parts of Johnson County. Hills Elementary has 139 students and 44 employees, the smallest enrollment of the district’s elementary schools. The student body is 30 percent English Language Learners whose first language is not English.
Hills Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon School for 2021 in the state school year — one of five in the state. The program recognizes public and private schools based on their overall academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps among students.
School board members discussed the possibility of making Hills Elementary a destination school by adding programs such as dual-language, magnet or even year-around programming,
Students outside Hills Elementary School boundaries would be allowed to attend the school through a lottery system, opening it up to “kids who voluntarily want to make the journey because their parents want to take advantage of unique programming,” school board member Lisa Williams said.
In a letter to the school board, Deputy Superintendent Chase Ramey wrote that while closing Hills Elementary could potentially result in short term financial gain, it is not overall fiscally responsible to close it. Ramey said officials anticipate anticipated housing growth in the southern part of Iowa City and Hills over the next 15 years.
“Hills is one of only three district schools south of Highway 6, and the only school outside the southern limits of Iowa City,” Ramey said. “Failing to maintain a presence in Hills will require redistricting that pushes students further north and reduces the number of schools available in the southern part of the school district.”
Hills Mayor Tim Kemp said the elementary school, which has been in the community since the 1960s, is vital.
Residents were asked to approve two measures last November that will extend the Iowa City school district’s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy to 2035 and a 1 percent local-option sales tax to 2051. "I think voters felt like a new school in Hills was going to be part of it,“ Kemp said.
Renewing the levies provides funding for the facilities master plan that includes dozens of projects, such as additions to schools, technology upgrades and possible purchase of property.
A new elementary school in Hills was recommended to be built and the initiative published in documents distributed to the community before the public votes in November 2021.
“This is what the community thought they were voting for,” school board member J.P. Claussen said. “I would anticipate if you have a very nice school in Hills, there will be growth down there.”
Hills has grown 30 percent in the last decade with a population of 870, according to the 2020 census data.
Shifting to a middle school model
The district’s shift to a middle school model by fall 2024 would further reduce the student population at Hills Elementary.
The school board voted earlier this year to move sixth-graders out of elementary schools and put them in the same building with seventh and eighth-graders.
To make this happen, the district is investing $34 million in its three junior high schools to fit an additional 400 sixth-graders in each building. This also creates additional room for growth in the district’s elementary schools.
School districts like Cedar Rapids have grade levels similarly organized, with elementary schools housing K-fifth, middle schools sixth through eighth and high schools ninth through 12th.
Still others like Linn-Mar organize students in to intermediate schools of fifth and sixth-graders. College Community, for example, will eventually move ninth-graders into their own building.
Facility master plan
Hills Elementary is one of more than 15 projects the Iowa City Community School District has on the horizon.
A former elementary school called “Old Hoover” was demolished over the summer to create more parking and new tennis courts at Iowa City High School, 1900 Morningside Dr. The project budget is $2.35 million, according to board document.
Designing a new student commons, media center, music room, secure entrance and adding a new heating, ventilation and an air conditioning system to West High School, 2901 Melrose Ave., will begin this year with a budget of $7.25 million, according to board documents.
Coralville Central Elementary School, 501 Sixth St., is in a project design phase, with construction scheduled to begin this winter, for a new secure entrance and elevator.
Weber Elementary School, 3850 Rohret Rd. in Iowa City, is scheduled to begin construction on a new secure entrance by the end of the year.
Garner Elementary School, 80 Birch St. in North Liberty, is in a project design phase to expand administrative offices and the school’s cafeteria with construction slated to begin in fall 2023.
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