“Have you reached these families?” Residents question how decision to close Garfield Elementary was made in Cedar Rapids
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
Cedar Rapids School Board members heard from 10 people at a special meeting called after residents took up a petition to add the closure of Garfield Elementary to the board’s meeting agenda.
While the board thanked the speakers for their comments, there is no indication that members have any interest in changing the trajectory of the school district’s facilities master plan, which calls for closing Garfield and seven other elementary schools.
“I was able to get off work today without penalty, deliver my children to a babysitter and drive 20 minutes to this facility to attend this meeting,” said Maura Pilcher, referring to the $39 million Educational Leadership and Support Center, where the meeting was held, far from Garfield Elementary. “Do you know the demographic that I don’t represent? The diverse Garfield community.”
Pilcher, whose children attend Grant Wood Elementary — another school that is scheduled to be closed — noted that more than half of the Garfield student body identifies as Black/African American or multi-racial and more than 85 percent currently experience low socioeconomic status.
“So you reached me,” she said, “but have you reached these families?”
Pilcher noted the petition process in which nearly 600 people asked that the topic of Garfield’s closure be added to the board agenda, but the Cedar Rapids School District refused to allow signs about the May 16 special meeting to be posted inside Garfield Elementary or on the school grounds.
No parents of current Garfield students spoke at the meeting, which attracted more than 30 people.
Citing paint that peels in one spot in the school and other issues, Garfield Principal Joy Long said she supports the decision to close the school and move students to a new school that will be constructed at Arthur Elementary. Both Garfield and Arthur opened in 1915. No plans are in place for repurposing either building.
Two other school district employees also spoke in favor of closing Garfield.
Other speakers referenced the Iowa City School District, which has upgraded three older elementary schools and constructed new additions at half the cost of building new schools.
Susan Moulder, who attended Garfield as a student and later went on to work at the school, said she was able to walk or bike to school every day.
“I’m worried that students won’t have that same opportunity,” she said.
Moulder also worked in the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, which has been building similar “mega schools” that generally have twice as many students as neighborhood schools.
“You bring in 600 kids and there’s 600 problems,” she said.
Amanda Halvorson, a former Cedar Rapids School District teacher, asked the board how they would ensure that maintenance of the new buildings would not “slip away like before?” adding that “the use of materials for new construction has been proven to not last as long.”
Therese Smith, vice president of Save CR Heritage, echoed those concerns.
“With a board that includes architects and engineers, we are concerned that the new schools – all built within a short time frame and without the craftsmanship and long-lasting materials of our oldest schools – will create maintenance issues a short time down the road, all at one time,” Smith said. “Older buildings can be completely renovated inside to provide modern amenities. The Cedar Rapids School District touts its sustainability efforts, but ignores the fact that tons of materials are being sent to our landfills as each school is demolished. What does that teach our children?”
Lisa Kindred of Palo, whose children attended Cedar Rapids schools, asked how more students will be bused when there is already a bus driver shortage and questioned whether mega schools are the right fit for a mid-sized city like Cedar Rapids.
“Historically, we’ve had a great fluctuation in our school building needs,” she added.
TL Thousand of Cedar Rapids noted that demolition of the original Jackson School years ago required a wrecking ball because it was so well-constructed.
She also questioned the process of developing the facilities master plan.
“The thing that just jars me is the lack of consultation of the people most affected by the decisions being made about Garfield,” she said.
Tom Hart, the father of former Garfield students, said rumors that the Garfield property would revert to its former owners if it was no longer used as a school are not true, he found after researching documents.
Still, he said he was surprised that the School District would take on building new schools in the method it has, without a bond referendum.
“This could backfire… if you spend available funds on this new school and there’s no backfill for those funds, you’re going to be strapped for funding other projects that you need to do,” he said. “And when you come to the voters for a bond issue next time — it might be for a middle school or a high school — they’re going to remember that, that you built a whole school on what amounts to a piggy bank that you had discretion over.”
“The question is going to come back: why weren’t those funds used to maintain existing structures.”
School Board member Dexter Merschbrock suggested allowing the community to vote on each project moving forward.
“It doesn’t have to be a decision just for us as a board,” he said, noting that residents will eventually be asked to raise their own property taxes to fund the facilities master plan for middle and high schools. “If they’re going to vote on part of the plan, they should be allowed to vote on the whole plan.”
None of the other board members indicated they agreed that allowing the public to vote would be the direction they would take.