Education

5 take-aways on Cedar Rapids schools facilities plan

Board vote on fate of elementary schools could come Monday

Panelists representing the Cedar Rapids school district present information Wednesday to an audience who came to hear details about a facilities plan that includes closing eight elementaries and rebuilding or renovating 13 others. The forum, sponsored by The Gazette, was held at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Panelists representing the Cedar Rapids school district present information Wednesday to an audience who came to hear details about a facilities plan that includes closing eight elementaries and rebuilding or renovating 13 others. The forum, sponsored by The Gazette, was held at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids school board could decide as soon as Monday whether to set in motion the closure of eight elementary schools and reconstruction of the remaining 13.

Under development for more than a year, the proposal before the board formally was presented Dec. 11. As it calls for big changes for students, parents, school district staff and the city itself, it has been met with a mix of criticism, cheers and questions.

A Wednesday forum, moderated by The Gazette’s Executive Editor Zack Kucharski and Opinion Page Editor Todd Dorman, sought answers to some of the queries. (A recording of the forum can be replayed at TheGazette.com)

The forum’s panel included Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck, school board President John Laverty, board Vice President Nancy Humbles, district Chief Financial Officer Steve Graham and Shellie Pike, a member of the committee that developed the plan.

Here are five key take-aways from the forum:

No work will start before January 2019, and specifics of the plan could change.

Work on the first project — likely Coolidge Elementary — wouldn’t begin for at least a year. Coolidge is one of the schools in the plan’s first tier, along with Arthur and Jackson, envisioned as being the first of 10 elementaries to be razed and then replaced.

The school board also plans to adopt a policy requiring it to “pause” and reassess the plan at least every five years.

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That also means the list of schools slated for closure — Madison, Truman, Garfield, Kenwood, Taylor, Van Buren, Grant Wood and Nixon — could change as the board revisits the plan.

“We’re not arrogant enough to think we are all knowing for 15 years out,” Laverty said.

The district needs fewer schools because it has fewer students. That is, in part, because of white flight.

Data shows the students who open enroll out of the district are disproportionately white and upper- or middle-class, Buck said.

He speculated those students leave Cedar Rapids for the Linn-Mar and College community districts, and the Marion Independent’s home school program, for one of three things: better academic records, fewer disciplinary issues and newer facilities.

“When you pulled up to a facility and everything was new, there was an assumption that everything happening in those schools was aligned with what was happening outside,” he said.

The cost of fulfilling the facilities plan is about the same as the cost of maintaining existing schools.

The facilities proposal comes with a price tag of about $224 million.

“We’re going to be spending pretty much the same amount of money whether we do something or we do nothing,” Graham said.

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But investing in newer, more efficient buildings rather than the maintenance of older schools could allow for operational cost savings. Those dollars could be reinvested in the classroom, he said.

The new schools also would be built “with every child in mind,” Buck said, quoting a teacher who works with students who have special needs.

That would mean more accessibility, he said, as well as services for students who receive English Language Learning Services or special education services in every school. Those services currently are offered in only select buildings.

Schools with 600 students would also have four teachers for each grade. That number would allow schools to stay closer to district goals for class sizes.

If the state’s penny sales tax for schools, SAVE, isn’t extended, there will likely be a bond referendum.

“There’s only one other funding stream, and it was definitely considered, and that’s raising property taxes and taking it to a bond vote,” Laverty said.

A bond would need to be approved by 60 percent of voters in the district, and Graham estimated it would add $1 or $2 to the district’s property tax levy rate.

Updates to middle and high schools likely would come later, in about 15 years, and those would probably need to be funded by a bond as well.

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The facilities plan is part of a larger district strategic plan.

Wide achievement gaps exist in Cedar Rapids schools, Buck said, especially for students who are racial or ethnic minorities, who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, who receive special education services or whose first language isn’t English.

“If a student finds him or herself in one or more of those categories, there are some realities in our current system,” he said.

The district’s five-pronged strategic plan will attempt to address those “uncomfortable” realities, Buck said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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