When the Cedar Rapids School Board voted two years ago to close eight neighborhood elementary schools, I had a lot of questions. Will kids get the same personal attention if they are sent farther away from home to a bigger school with more students? Will more buses and cars on the streets around the bigger schools lead to worse traffic and unsafe conditions for kids and other pedestrians? Is closing schools the best way to use Cedar Rapids’ tax money? And what will happen to my neighborhood near Grant Wood Elementary, and the seven other neighborhoods where schools are slated to be closed?
The board decided to move forward with their plan anyway. They must have hoped community members who brought up these questions would forget, so the board would never have to come up with the answers. But this type of process — on a plan that will affect every neighborhood in the city, no less — is unacceptable. Only recently has the district even began to look at the traffic safety issues surrounding the first proposed school expansion. The district still has no plans to fill an abandoned Truman Elementary if it were to be closed.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is a big operation. The yearly budget surpasses $250 million, with hundreds of millions more in school construction money coming in the next decades. The district serves 17,000-plus students from different backgrounds and with different needs. Even a well conceived plan would meet resistance trying to close a neighborhood school. An unfinished plan, which is already projected to be $85 million over budget before the first steps have been taken, risks undermining the public’s trust in the district. We cannot afford to lose that trust.
Instead, we should invest in neighborhood schools, and count on our neighborhoods to repay that investment with a renewed trust in the School Board’s leadership. Where our buildings are safe, there is more than enough money to create up-to-date facilities. With newly renovated and expanded facilities in every neighborhood, we can create school communities that provide for all students and their families with a more complete approach. We can then use that trust to focus on what matters most for our schools — what happens inside the building.
Dexter Merschbrock is a candidate for Cedar Rapids School Board district 4.
Merschbrock: Community won’t forget tough questions