Near the end of a public forum Tuesday night on the Cedar Rapids school district’s big facilities plan, a man in the audience rose to ask whether residents would get a chance to vote on closing eight elementary schools, remodeling three and building 10 new ones.
Nope. The district hopes to use bucks from an extended statewide sales tax for school buildings, sidestepping the need for local balloting. When the man argued for a vote, another voice came from the audience.
“You voted for school board members,” the voice insisted.
That would be a nice retort, if, in fact, the seven-member elected school board was driving this process. Instead, the plan was crafted by a community committee that’s met 44 times in 18 months. Roughly 80 percent of its meetings were closed, and as the process progressed, the number of members involved dwindled.
The school board has been watching from the sidelines, as clearly illustrated at Tuesday’s forum, sponsored by Save CR Heritage and other groups.
Board member Gary Anhalt did attend the forum, sitting next to Superintendent Brad Buck in the audience. Meanwhile, community committee members Jim Craig, Maureen Oviatt and Julie Cain were on the panel, being peppered with questions from the public about one of the most far-reaching policy decisions the district will ever make. What’s wrong with this picture?
Sure, the community committee is a fine group, at one point numbering upward of 80 people. But during the last two school board elections, seven board members received a total of 12,752 votes from folks expecting them to act as what the district website calls a “policy-making and planning entity.” Instead, this remarkably important policy-making and planning largely was outsourced to a nonelected committee.
The school board received the final committee plan on Dec. 11 and is scheduled to vote on it as early as Jan. 22. There’s a board work session on Jan. 8 where the public can provide more input. But as of now, that five-week period straddling the holidays will be the full, formal extent of the board’s involvement in the 18-month process. The board is a caboose instead of a locomotive.
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Kudos to the committee for its hard work. But any process leading to a decision of this magnitude should have been led by elected officials directly accountable to thousands of people who will be affected. Board members are elected to chart a course, not simply grade someone else’s work.
I know, government entities need committees and outside input. But elected public officials should drive public policy. And yes, that means debate and deliberation in public. It can be messy. Democracy, what are you gonna do?
But, in the end, you get more public investment, participation and ownership in the outcome. There’s more information and understanding, and less distrust. And you don’t have to spend more time defending a process than selling a plan.
And that’s what’s happening now, a blueprint with considerable merit is overshadowed by the process that drafted it. And a public vote is not part of the plan. Still, remember this, the next time you vote for a school board.
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