Cedar Rapids School Board votes to close eight neighborhood schools
Ignoring numerous concerns about the Cedar Rapids School District’s facilities master plan, School Board members unanimously voted tonight to close eight kindergarten-through-fifth grade schools; more than one third of the current 21 elementary schools in Cedar Rapids.
With most stating that they had “listened to the community,” board members Gary Anhalt, Jennifer Borcherding, Nancy Humbles, Rafael Jacobo, Kristin Janssen, John Laverty and Mary Meisterling decided the fate of neighborhoods and the city of Cedar Rapids for generations to come.
The $224 million plan will close eight neighborhood elementary schools and demolish up to 10 others, with larger schools being rebuilt on those sites. The plan will require additional busing, but the cost of busing students was not included in the $224 million estimate.
“We have no choice but to move forward with the framework in front of us,” Board President John Laverty said, after listening to nearly 20 people at the Jan. 22 School Board meeting who raised concerns about the plan.
Three people who spoke in favor of the plan were all members of the facilities master planning committee.
Advocates of neighborhood schools noted that students who are bussed do not have the same opportunities for after-school enrichment activities, such as running clubs, and that Cedar Rapids risked losing its identity as a vibrant urban community with smaller, walkable schools in favor of “big box” schools.
Don Karr, a former Cedar Rapids City Council member and a building contractor, questioned the School District’s fiscal responsibility in coming up with the plan.
“Those old schools have good bones, let’s remodel them,” he said. “Why are we wasting all this money on new schools? New construction is cheaper than old construction. It’s all about the cost. It’s all about the profit.”
Karr also questioned the survey that consultants used to garner community input, which directed residents to arrive at the same conclusion.
“It was really rigged,” he said, adding that he also had concerns about removing green space around schools where the new buildings will be constructed, resulting in no outdoor space for children to play.
Dedric Doolin, president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP, said School Board members and other district representatives who met with the local chapter last week indicated that the facilities committee that developed the closure plan had minority representation.
He received phone calls and emails after that meeting, however, to let him know that there was no minority representation on the committee.
“No one, to my knowledge, asked the NAACP,” Doolin said, adding that school district officials should not only reach out to minority professionals, but to “the people who are dedicated to this community; who live there.”
Michelle Merschbrock said she understood the need to update the schools, but was concerned that funds had been mismanaged that allowed the schools to deteriorate.
“We should also consider just who is benefiting from this plan,” she said.
Kindergarten student Brooklyn McMurrin advocated for keeping her school, Kenwood Leadership Academy, open.
The 5-year-old said she enjoys biking to school with her friends.
Neighborhood advocates collected about 1,000 signatures in just weeks that asked the board to delay its decision in order to gather more information about the ramifications of the far-reaching plan. Many of the people who signed the petition were unaware of the details of the plan, they said.
Board member Gary Anhalt said he would not vote for a plan that didn’t include funding, yet extension of the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) funds – a 1 percent statewide sales tax – has not passed the Iowa Legislature. The facilities master plan relies on the extension of those funds in order to pay for the new schools.
Under the plan, these schools will be closed:
• Garfield, 1201 Maplewood Drive NE
• Grant Wood, 645 26th St. SE
• Kenwood Leadership Academy, 3700 E Ave. NE
• Madison, 1341 Woodside Drive NW
• Nixon, 200 Nixon Drive, Hiawatha
• Taylor, 720 Seventh Ave. SW
• Truman, 441 West Post Road. NW
• Van Buren, 2525 29th St. SW
These schools will be demolished, and replaced by larger 600-student schools, except for Johnson, which would have a smaller student capacity. A possible exception also may be made for Harrison, but that was unclear in the language of the resolution.