Education

Why Public Measure E for schools is controversial in Cedar Rapids

'Revenue Purpose Statement' that voters will see affects SAVE tax spending for schools

The entrance to Calvin Coolidge Elementary School, at 6225 First Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids, is pictured Jan. 23, 2018. Coolidge is the first school slated to be rebuilt in the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s new facilities plan. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The entrance to Calvin Coolidge Elementary School, at 6225 First Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids, is pictured Jan. 23, 2018. Coolidge is the first school slated to be rebuilt in the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s new facilities plan. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Lengthy public measures will be on the back of ballots in several Iowa school districts Tuesday that if approved would give schools access to billions in state sales tax revenue.

The Revenue Purpose Statements — versions of which are on ballots in the Cedar Rapids, Mount Vernon, College Community, Clear Creek Amana, Marion Independent and Linn-Mar school districts — would authorize schools to use revenue from SAVE, an existing penny sales tax that was extended earlier this year by the Iowa Legislature.

The Secure an Advanced Vision for Education tax can be used for schools facilities projects, technology purchases and other expenses.

But in Cedar Rapids, where the school board has agreed to use SAVE to enact a facilities plan that would close eight elementary schools, remodel three and raze and rebuild 10, some see the vote as a chance to register dissent they feel the board has ignored.

On the ballot as Public Measure E, the Revenue Purpose Statement’s most outspoken opponent is Janelle Lund, a candidate for an at-large seat on the Cedar Rapids school board.

“You could use it as a revolt against the school board,” Lund said Wednesday after a candidate forum. “Use it to force them to listen to the community.”

A simply majority is required to pass Public Measure E. If it fails, its impact on the school district would not be immediate but eventually could complicate Cedar Rapids schools’ facilities master plan, said Business Services Director David Nicholson. The district likely would bring back a version of the measure for a new vote in as soon as six months.

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Without an approved Revenue Purpose Statement, the district would eventually have to use SAVE funds to provide property tax relief.

“To a certain extent, we could be limited to how much of the plan we could do until a Revenue Purpose Statement is passed,” he said. The facilities master plan has a 20-year timeline.

The last Revenue Purpose Statement for the Cedar Rapids district was easily approved by more than 80 percent of voters in 2009, according to records from the Linn County Auditor’s Office. Ballot language for this election is similar to the 2009 statement, and Nicholson said most school districts use standardized language.

“In the majority of the school districts, the Revenue Purpose Statement is going to be very similar to what we have in place here,” he said. “This is tailored to what the law allows.”

Tuesday is the first regular school election since the Legislature extended SAVE to 2051.

Lund is the only candidate who publicly has called for a no vote on Public Measure E. She is one of five running for two at-large seats on the seven-member board.

At the Wednesday forum at Christ Episcopal Church, other candidates said many people remain confused about what the Revenue Purpose Statement would mean for their schools.

“It’s hard to understand,” candidate Maurice Davis said. “If I’m reading something and saying I need to wait a second and pause and think, … how are (other residents) digesting that information?”

While Davis and Dexter Merschbrock declined to state their opinion on the issue, Jen Neumann, David Tominsky, Cindy Garlock, incumbent Rafael Jacobo and Joseph Miller said they would vote for Public Measure E.

“We have to be careful not to sacrifice the good for the perfect,” Miller said.

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Without an approved Revenue Purpose Statement, any school district would still be authorized to access SAVE funds under previous authorizations, and a no vote would do little to stop the start of the facilities plan, Nicholson said. The district already has the money needed to build a new school on the site of Coolidge Elementary.

A stipulation in the SAVE extension would allow the public to petition for a public vote on any debt issued for the next school in the plan, Jackson Elementary, he said. An opportunity to petition was not required to borrow funds to pay for a new Coolidge under the previous version.

If the district didn’t have access to SAVE funds altogether, it would impact the district’s one-to-one technology initiative to issue all secondary students a tablet computer as well as athletic ground maintenance and other facilities work, Nicholson said.

Putting the facilities master plan aside, board member Gary Anhalt — whose term expires in 2021 — said he hopes the community will support giving schools access to the additional funds.

“To me, it only makes sense economically and monetarily to do it,” Anhalt said.

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

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