When the school bond issue was first proposed, my first instinct was to support it. After looking into it further, however, I have a number of reservations that have not been addressed.
Why is the school board not united behind this bond issue?
At least two members are active advocates of voting no. They have good reasons for their positions, largely related to lack of trust in enrollment growth projections, concern about how the funds will be administered, and worry over the future of Hoover and Hills elementary schools. Their concerns have not been addressed in the glossy brochures and mailings of the pro-bond campaign, which ignore the divisive nature of the bond issue.
What happens when the inevitable budget crunch comes?
There are two ticking financial time bombs facing K-12 education in Johnson County. One is the cumulative effect of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, schemes. When a developer receives a TIF, the property tax on the growth in value of the property does not go to the schools, but back into the development itself. That means that our schools cannot benefit from the full value of the growth in property tax assessments. The city councils of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty have been handing out TIFs like candy for years, undermining our K-12 school budget.
The second time bomb is even more serious. Former Gov. Terry Branstad, with full cooperation from Democratic leaders in the Iowa Senate, put in place sweeping cuts in commercial property taxes and shifted the burden to homeowners. In the next few years, those cuts will shred our school budgets, leaving us with facilities and staff we cannot afford.
What are the staffing implications of spending such a large amount of money on facilities?
To take only the most expensive example from the long list of new facilities, what will be the staffing costs of spending more than $12 million to build outdoor sports facilities in North Liberty, including a football stadium, tennis courts and an artificial turf practice field? Property taxes will pay for the facilities, but later will require significant spending on staff — coaches, athletic administrators, grounds keepers and custodians. When tough financial decisions have to be made in the near future, won’t the need to fund these positions, and those for other new facilities, limit the board’s ability to hire teaching staff to meet emerging needs, and maintain reasonable classroom size? If history is any guide, classroom teachers will bear the brunt of layoffs and pay freezes, and students will see reductions in art, music, foreign languages and special education.
Why can’t the school board come back in six months with a bond issue that targets our greatest needs? Those are the refurbishment and air-conditioning of older elementary schools, a new elementary school in North Liberty, an addition to North Central Junior High, and new classroom space where need can be demonstrated.
Such a bond issue, focusing on classroom teaching, will probably have the unanimous support of the school board, not to mention the entire community.
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• Jeff Cox of Iowa City is a Democratic activist and co-editor of the Prairie Progressive.